Circumcising conversion candidates – ‘the most unkindest cut of all’

Jewish boys and the choice not to circumcise

Even though circumcision is not a halachic criterion for establishing Jewish status for a boy, there is a strong and widespread religious and social expectation within the UK Orthodox community (religious and non-religious) and Masorti community that a boy must get circumcised. Anecdotally, from my own conversations with people, this is also the case amongst UK Progressives (ie the Reform and Liberal movements), again, even when those people are atheist or not religiously oriented; this is particularly interesting, considering the Progressives have officially let go of using halachah as a binding frame of reference or even necessarily a guide. There are rabbis within the Progressive world who fiercely defend brit milah, and others who – privately – strongly feel either that it should be personal choice, or actively done away with. I wonder how many UK Progressive rabbis there are who openly declare brit milah as either optional or unacceptable?

So, when a boy is born, there may well be official, social and familial expectation, and pressure for the boy to have a brit milah, and many parents, religious or non-religious will accept that (although some will be privately very distressed, of course). If, for whatever reason, a male is not circumcised, his uncircumcised status may, of course, give rise to comment in the changing room, or with a Jewish sexual partner later in life. But my sense is that it is extremely unlikely to lead any Jewish person to consider that male as not actually Jewish. It is, I think, generally understood that Jewish status for a male is established by factors other than circumcision. (Having said that, it would be interesting to see what a controlled survey would reveal on that point.)

My experience is that the conversations around brit milah focus on baby boys and their parents. I have written elsewhere [1] about the possibility of using Jewish sacred, Talmudic and rabbinic text to construct arguments against the practice of brit milah, as well as to challenge it on the grounds of being non-egalitarian within denominations that claim to be egalitarian. Fundamentally, there seems to be cognitive dissonance if one insists on circumcision within a Judaism that otherwise claims to be modern and evolved. Circumcision of male candidates for conversion seems to receive almost no coverage in the brit milah debates. In considering this issue, we can learn more about current nuances, tensions, and potential new pathways in Anglo-Judaism.

Gender (in)equality for conversion candidates

For male conversion candidates Orthodox, Masorti and Reform movements all officially require either a full ritual circumcision, or at least a hatafat dam brit (small pin prick to draw blood, instead of full circumcision) – officially this is non-negotiable. For an adult male, conscious of his genitals and sexual self, the surrender he has to make to another adult who will draw blood from an intimate part of his anatomy presents a significant hurdle, a hurdle that a female candidate does not have to consider. If we ourselves have not been forced to consider that choice, it is questionable whether we are qualified to assess the level of emotional and psychological pain and distress the candidate might be enduring, the level to which their trust in our Jewish community to be compassionate and just is being undermined, or whether a candidate lacks what is needed to become Jewish. “Do not judge your fellow until you have stood in his place,” said the Rabbis of the Talmud (Pirkei Avot 2:4).

The United Synagogue in the UK does not claim or aspire to be egalitarian in terms of rituals or religious practice, so this asymmetry for conversion candidates is not (officially) an issue within the Orthodox community – even though it may present a huge emotional and psychological challenge for a male candidate. However, given that both the Masorti and Reform movements declare themselves egalitarian, it could be argued that this gender asymmetry on conversion is out of step with their professed ideals (more on this later).

Membership versus genital autonomy

A conversion ratified by a beit din – any three Jews of standing within the community (all male if an Orthodox conversion, or either gender for other denominations) – confers on the candidate official, certificated Jewish status. It would be interesting to see what would happen if a male candidate took legal action against any of these denominations for denying him membership (please excuse the irony in that word …) on the basis of his refusal to undergo brit milah or hatafat dam brit. Would a UK court say it is reasonable to refuse membership to someone who won’t modify or cut his genitals? Would a court deem it reasonable to require a man to do what a woman does not have to do to attain membership status?

Moreover, given that the official admission to Jewish status through any of these movements also gives the convert the right to make aliyah to Israel, and gain citizenship there, the question arises whether a human rights court would allow a man to be denied citizenship because he wanted to keep his genitals private and intact, especially when no such barrier exists for women? Would it be seen as unwarranted exploitation of a male candidate’s yearning and therefore vulnerability in wanting to convert? There is a power difference between the community who can grant or withhold official membership that the male candidate can do nothing about. He must accept a physical cut, or be denied membership of the Jewish people. This is not so for an infant (female or male) born Jewish, or for a female conversion candidate. It is only male candidates who are denied Jewish status without a genital cut.

Making progress

So, where might modern Judaism go from here? The USA Conservatives and Reconstructionists, the Masorti movement, and even the Modern Orthodox have now all established the egalitarian practice, indeed obligation, to ordain female rabbis. This certainly helps prepare the way for challenging and rebalancing other gender asymmetries that have long been considered sacrosanct within Jewish tradition. Anecdotally, there seems to be a significant number of UK Reform rabbis who would like to do away with the requirement of brit milah or hatafat dam brit for male candidates for conversion. However, the UK Movement for Reform Judaism (MRJ) has not made this official policy. A key question is how a policy change would affect the standing and membership of MRJ within the World Union for Progressive Judaism – hence, perhaps the hesitation from MRJ to make a public change of position.

What this means is that there could be many UK Reform rabbis who would want to welcome and support a male conversion candidate who did not want to be circumcised or have blood drawn. So then the question is, ‘how to do a male conversion without milah in the current Anglo-Jewish climate?’. A Reform rabbi would basically need a medical note from a registered GP or doctor that said, in their professional opinion, their patient should not be required to undergo circumcision or drawing blood from their penis. The patient and doctor could think through what might be a reasonable medical argument – perhaps that the prospect of either procedure was already causing significant mental distress, and that going through with either procedure risked emotional trauma that could be long lasting, and potentially damaging to the mental wellbeing of the patient. Perhaps such a letter from a registered psychotherapist could serve the same purpose. Basically, it seems that a sponsoring Reform rabbi has discretion in this kind of situation, and just needs an excuse to let the male candidate through without requiring brit milah or hatafat dam brit. And the candidate would have the benefit of a rabbi advocating this to the beit din.

The likelihood is that the candidate’s own GP would be happy to provide him with such a letter. Sometimes GPs charge a nominal fee for writing letters for patients (e.g. for testimonials, or official letters required by statutory agencies, patients’ employers etc.). If, for some reason, the candidate did not have a GP, or did not want to ask his own GP, it would probably be possible to find other doctors, friendly to the cause, who would be happy to consult with the candidate and write such a letter.

UK Liberal Judaism (LJ) officially does not require brit milah of a male conversion candidate. However, at the time of writing this article (Feb 2019), LJ asks the candidate’s sponsoring rabbi to answer the question on the application form: “If male, is he circumcised?”. If the candidate, refuses to provide this information, or objects to brit milah or hatafat dam brit, my understanding is that the beit din will still ask a male candidate to make a case for why he does not want

  1. to be circumcised (brit milah)
  2. have a hatafat dam brit, or
  3. even declare whether or not he has been medically circumcised earlier in his life.

So, even though LJ will waive brit milah and hatafat dam brit, a male candidate is still likely to have to answer to the beit din and explain his choices in relation to 1, 2, and 3.

So, it seems that the collective body (more verbal irony …) of Jews, that teaches that no cuts or marks should be made on the body (Lev 19:28), requires, or puts considerable pressure on, a non-Jew to do so if he wants to become Jewish. At the same time, if a male candidate is prepared to be flexible about which denomination he converts through, and if he is fortunate enough to find a sympathetic rabbi and beit din (quite a few ‘ifs’), then he has reason to hope that he can convert without having to surrender genital autonomy or privacy as a sexually mature adult, and to do so on an equal basis with female candidates.

Just as the option of brit shalom is, at the time of writing, little known in the UK, so too, conversion without brit milah or hatafat dam brit is barely mentioned. These options need to be openly offered and endorsed by leaders across the Jewish community in the spirit of committed Judaism and Jewish renewal.

Can brit shalom play a role in conversion?

brit shalom ceremony is a loving welcoming ceremony into Jewish life, family, community, identity, affirmation and commitment. It originated as an alternative to Jewish infant boys being circumcised. As a welcoming ceremony, it could also work for someone converting to Judaism. However, it is likely that the male convert’s sponsoring rabbi and the community that the candidate spends his pre-conversion year with would offer their own way to officially welcome him and celebrate his Jewish status. Some converts prefer not to draw attention to the moment. It’s a personal choice either way.

brit shalom (conceived for infants, after all) is therefore not a true alternative to brit milah or hatafat dam brit in the case of conversion. The alternative to brit milah and hatafat dam brit is, surely, simply to drop the requirement altogether, and leave it is as a matter of private and personal choice on the part of the candidate on whether they would find it a meaningful part of their affirmation of Jewish identity and allegiance.

A brit milah should not have to be the price of admission for a convert. It lacks fairness or kindness. We effectively ask converts to open their hearts to becoming Jewish. At the very least, we should circumcise the foreskin of our own hearts (Deut. 10:16), offer shalom – peace – in return, and receive converts in shleimut, in their wholeness.

Notes

[1] “If male, is he circumcised?” Covenant, community, compassion and conscience – Massey, Alexander (2011) – http://alexandermassey.com/if-male-is-he-circumcised/

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