New York - New Trend Has Non-Jewish Parents Choosing Mohelim For Children’s Circumcisions
New York - The sacred ritual of circumcision no longer belongs just to the Jews, according to a report in The Atlantic (http://theatln.tc/1FBFt5X ). Increasingly, more non-Jews are requesting circumcisions be performed by mohelim eight days after their sons are born, a trend which raises legal and halachic questions for mohelim who conduct the practice for non-Jews.
Although circumcisions have decreased nationwide over the last couple of decades, more non-Jews are skipping the hospital or doctor’s office route, and having Jewish mohels carry out the procedure in their homes for both religious and practical reasons.
One mother of five, 36-year-old Allison Finch from Houston, had her first son circumcised in the hospital before she brought him home, but the result was botched, leaving the young mother filled with regret. “We weren’t overly impressed, but we didn’t know that there was another way,” she said. But when her second son was born four years later, she and her husband, both practicing Christians, decided to have him circumcised by a mohel on their baby’s eighth day of life.
Typically, non-Jewish families opting for circumcision have it done in hospitals, usually within 24 to 48 hours after the child’s birth. Parents cannot be present during the procedure, unlike a traditional Jewish bris which is performed at the family’s home or synagogue, in a much warmer environment.
Mohel and Cantor Philip Sherman of Congregation Shearith Israel in Manhattan says he has performed some 21,000 brissim in his 40-year career. He now counts non-Jewish families among his clients, conducting one or two circumcisions a month on non-Jews. Sherman says he does not recite the requisite Jewish blessings at these circumcisions, but usually opens the ceremony with “a humanistic prayer.”
“Families who are seeking traditional mohels like myself want someone who is not only a super-specialist, but someone who is religiously observant,” Sherman says. “They are seeking the spiritual component and are often seeking to do this in the context of their own religion or spirituality.” Sherman is clear that this is not a medical procedure. Rather, “all brisses and circumcisions that I perform are religious in nature. If it is a bris, it is a religious ceremony. If it is for a non-Jewish family, there may be scriptural readings, psalms, blessings, and prayers that are recited.”
Legal experts warn that performing a bris on a non-Jew is a slippery slope because the right to perform bris milah is protected by the First Amendment, but not so for a non-Jewish circumcision, where a mohel could be charged for practicing medicine without a license. “The mohel is not acting as a religious participant, and therefore his acts are not protected as free exercise,” said Church-State scholar Marci Hamilton, a professor at Cardozo School of Law. “This is really a medical business transaction, not a religious transaction.”
Some rabbis see other reasons why this practice is fraught with danger. “I think it is problematic on every single level for mohels who are not doctors to do procedures on non-Jews,” said Michael Barclay, chief rabbi at Temple Ner Simcha in California. “I am dreading the day when one of these guys makes a mistake and all of Judaism pays for it. Circumcision is a primary commandment of our faith, and when a mohel who is not a doctor messes up on a non-Jewish kid, that is just going to give a lot of fuel to the fire of making the practice illegal,” he added.
Yeshiva University Rabbi and medical ethicist Moshe Tendler is less concerned with legal liability issues than he is with the fact that halacha forbids mohels from circumcising non-Jews. Rabbi Tendler worries that as more and more mohels perform the procedure on non-Jews, the rite of passage will become denigrated. “Jewish circumcision is not a surgical procedure, it’s a religious one,” he said. Mohels like Sherman dismiss Tendler’s criticism, saying he and others like him are not performing religious ceremonies on non-Jews, and that the practice of circumcising non-Jews dates back generations, including to members of the British royal family. “The goal is simple,” he says. “To let people know there is an alternative that is better, more compassionate, gentler than what doctors or hospitals will do.”
Retired Los Angeles physician and mohel Fred Kogen echoes Sherman’s sentiments. “It’s not for me to say they can’t do this,” he said, adding his only goal is to offer non-Jewish families “the opportunity to have a safe, humane, respectful circumcision experience.”
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