Thursday, December 27, 2007

Mohelim for the Goyim

The Forward reports that there are a growing number of gentiles who are hiring mohelim (Jewish ritual circumcisors) to circumcize their sons.

"When [a circumcision] is done by a mohel, you appreciate the gravity, the
beauty of the religious connotations," Reverend Louis DeCaro Jr. said in an
interview with the Forward.

My feeling has always been that I am a rabbi who performs Jewish rituals for Jewish people. For instance, I am entitled to officiate at wedding ceremonies according to civil law because I am an ordained religious leader. This means that technically I can officiate at the wedding of two gentiles, however, I wouldn't do this because I believe that my purpose is to serve as an officiant for members of my own religious tradition. The same could be said about the role of the mohel. Any physician can perform a circumcision procedure, but it is the task of the mohel to perform the religious ritual of circumcision (bris) -- and that should be reserved for Jewish baby boys (but that's just my opinion).

According to [two mohelim in Manhattan], non-Jews make up between 2%
and 5% of their clientele. Some are motivated initially by practical
circumstances, but others seem drawn to the mohels for spiritual
reasons, if not explicitly religious ones.

View the entire Forward article here.


Arik Laskin said...

"Any physician can perform a circumcision procedure, but it is the task of the mohel to perform the religious ritual of circumcision (bris) -- and that should be reserved for Jewish baby boys (but that's just my opinion)".

Part of the reason why some non-Jews seem to prefer a mohel is because while it's true that any doctor can do a circumcision, the techniques used by doctors are not as good and the hospital atmosphere is more invasive.

I think that overall it is probably more of a positive than a negative when mohels do circumcisions for non-Jewish boys. It allows the Jewish community to provide a service to non-Jews which they benefit from, and it allows the non-Jewish community to develop a respect for the practice. I certainly think it is better than the alternative.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

You make some good points. I just find it odd that people are hiring non-physicians to come to their home to perform what is 100% a surgical procedure (if the baby is not Jewish and therefore not required religiously to have the procedure).

On the face of it, brit milah is odd. Even though I'm a rabbi, have circumcised one of my sons and had a mohel circumcize my other son, and have attended over 100 brises, I still think it's odd to have a non-physician perform a surgical procedure. When it is for a religious function, it makes more sense.

If a religious sect somewhere trains their religious leaders to perform a tonsilectomy as a religious rite, I would still opt to have my kids' tonsils taken out by a trained ENT at a surgery center or hospital rather than having a religious leader come to my living room and remove my kids' tonsils.

That being said, I don't think it's wrong if non-Jews have mohelim circumsize their sons; it's just a bit odd to my thinking. It is certainly a smart business move for these mohelim (it increases their potential client base). From here, it might not be a big jump for people to have mohelim come to their home or office to remove other pieces of unnecessary skin rather than going to a dermatologist's office and having to endure the waiting room, filling out forms, health insurance, etc. I mean they already have the scalpel and the steady hand, right?

Another issue that I didn't address in my original blog post is that in the Reform Movement, a mohel must be a licensed M.D. to be listed in the Union of Reform Judaism's mohel directory. The Conservative Movement has revived its Brit Kodesh program to train MD's in the religious aspects of brit milah.

Is it better for a mohel to be a doc?

Arik Laskin said...

Thank-you for your response.

Again, the two main reasons why non-jews appear to use a mohel are two of the reasons why many Jews do: they have a faster and less painful technique, and they do it in a more private environment.

Therefore, while it is true that it is primarily a surgical procedure as you say, since many doctors and hospitals don't exactly do the best job, it makes sense to go to those who do a better one. The British Royal Family has used a mohel for its boys over the years for presumably the same reason, and I've read articles that a number of non-Jewish celebrities do as well. Fred Kogen in L.A. is famous for being the "mohel to the stars".

It also appears to not be a 100% surgical for those non-Jews who are religious and who want to follow the Old Testament provision.

Eldee said...

Dear Rabbi Miller,

I know this is an old blog entry, but when I saw it, I thought I might make a comment, since my son's circumcision is the illustration of your entry. I don't know if the newspaper article at the time reported the circumstances: the hospital failed to circumcise our son and then gave us only the alternative to re-admit him 6 weeks later for a "surgical procedure." Our pediatrician at the time recommended his mohel. I never would have considered it, but were so grateful that the mohel offered this service to us, and did so generously and pastorally. I haven't read the article about it in the Forward for years now, but the quote might be misleading. I want to be clear that, for me, the experience made me appreciate the religious connotations for Jewish people. Nevertheless, the manner in which it was carried out necessarily carried a more personal, traditional, and caring experience. I would not as a Christian say it was a "spiritual" experience. Indeed, I found no religious meaning in it all, as I believe "circumcision of the heart" is what is required of true worship. There are some evangelicals, for instance, who have taken to emulating certain "Jewish" practices (from blowing a shofar to covering their heads when they read the Bible), which they take as a means of authenticating their worship--the notion of which is theologically untenable to me, as it probably is odd and inappropriate to you. I am a clergyman and seminary instructor, and would never advocate that Christians seek circumcision for any religious or so-called "spiritual" reasons, although we respect its significance to Jewish people. From your perspective, I would further sympathize with your feelings about it. I am licensed to perform weddings but would not wish to marry people from another religion or no religious background. So I realize that perhaps our choice has created offense for you. Please understand, however, that it was in our case at least, an act of kindness and mercy on the part of the mohel. He spared us and our son a great degree of inconvenience and difficulty, and prevented the hospital from exploiting our situation. We were then without full time employment and had no healthcare, and the mohel accepted in good faith whatever we could give him. He was presenting the best face of his faith and we were blessed as a result. Please do not think harshly of the mohel in this regard; he did a good thing to help us. I cannot speak to other Gentiles who might see having a mohel's visit as a trendy or "spiritual" thing. After the fact, a pediatrician friend of mine also told me we were better off, since our baby could have fallen into the hands of some careless intern. Regards--Lou DeCaro Jr.