About Judaism Reader Question
My husband and are adopting a toddler boy who has not been circumcised. We understand the importance of circumcision as a Jewish ritual and have always thought we would raise our child in the Jewish faith. But we had never considered that we might adopt a child as a toddler or that he might be uncircumcised.
With all of the life changes that our son will be experiencing when we bring him home, we are reluctant to add circumcision to the list of things he must deal with. We are worried about it being a traumatic experience and about him remembering it without understanding the reason. So here is our question: Can our son still be Jewish if he is not circumcised?
The Question, Respectfully Reshaped
Simply being raised in a Jewish home (1), or adopted by Jewish parents, does not automatically make a boy Jewish. Jewishness is conferred upon children in one of two ways: lineage or conversion, a religious ceremony in which ritual circumcision - Brit Milah (2) - is a critical although not the only centerpiece. Asked through a Jewish lens then, your question becomes: Assuming that his birthparents are of another faith, or assuming that even if his birthparents were Jewish and did not have a Brit Milah for him, what is religiously required for our adopted boy to become Jewish? And if, because of concerns of our own, we, his adoptive parents, opt out of Brit Milah for him, is there a way that he could be considered Jewish?
Circumcision: A Complicated IssueFor many who do not hold to a religious tradition in which ritual circumcision is a religious duty, whether or not to circumcise one’s infant son is a complicated issue at best. Circumcision either appears to be an elective surgical procedure with little or any discernible benefit carried out on a child too small to make choices for himself. Or, alternatively, like a vaccine, circumcision is a sound public health choice, which offers prophylactic protection against an array of potential future maladies (3).
Decisions are much easier to make when, through faith, one knows that The Source of Creation is urging one in a particular direction through God-given Commandments. But for those who live by a more secular or acculturated playbook, criteria for making the decision can be very muddy indeed. Respectable literature is replete with papers and studies that assert an array of evidence against the practice. Yet the pro-circumcision arguments are just as scholarly and just as scientific. Parents inclined in one direction or the other will find it easy to discover credible back-up and justification for their leaning.
Unfortunately, some compare circumcision to clitoridectomy, also known as female genital mutilation (FGM). Even the best of us are judgmental when people who live on another reality plane altogether make choices for their families with which one might strongly disagree. Clearly, sometimes these practices are simply wrong and bad. As Karen Armstrong teaches, there is such a thing as “bad religion.” Additionally I do not dispute that there is a time and place for civilized culture to intercede on behalf of vulnerable girls and young women when, in the name of tradition, they are exposed to an unclean blade and unsanitary conditions to remove all or part of their clitoris.
But let us take caution here. In their arguments against the practice of male circumcision, critics unfairly conflate their thinking about professionally conducted foreskin removal in sanitary conditions with female genital mutilation (FGM), a practice roundly condemned by the World Health Organization in 2010. By necessity, my current response offers a narrower focus on a very specific question: Is a boy Jewish without having had a Brit Milah? A discussion demonstrating why Brit Milah could not be further from FGM is beyond the pale of this conversation.
For more information about the origins of Brit Milah, see: What Is the Origin of Brit Milah?
Must an adopted boy have a Brit Milah in order to be considered Jewish?
Religious decisions are made in realms and planes beyond every “-ology” I know. The choice for Brit Milah in your family is ultimately spiritual, soulful and profoundly personal. Making your newly adopted child into a Jewish child is neither a rational nor a psychological choice. It is a deeply spiritual, soulful and religious decision. But because the decision involves the surgical-ritual removal of your new son’s foreskin by a highly trained religious professional (4), in a medical- procedure-ceremony which will leave him Jewishly identified for life, it is unlike any other spiritual decision you will ever again make for your son.
It is only natural that you never considered that your adopted toddler-son would arrive home uncircumcised. You’re a new parent, everyday presents something unexpected. Welcome to but one of the endless string of decisions all parents invariably make for our children.
To be considered Jewish, adopted children (5) must undergo a conversion process (6). The first step in this process is Brit Milah, which includes the ceremonial removal of the foreskin under sterile conditions. Because anesthesia is involved when the Brit Milah takes place for males beyond infancy, the ritual circumcision usually occurs in a medical facility suitable for the procedure. The ancient religious practice of Brit Milah for adopted boys finds unambiguous support from Reform Judaism on the left to Orthodoxy on the right.
It is through the conversion process, which begins with Brit Milah, the Mitzvah-and-Tradition-of-Ritual- Circumcision-and-Its-Blessings, that an adopted male child assumes his new birthright and becomes a full-fledged Child of Israel, a brand-new-member-in-good-standing-for-life of his covenanted people. In short, it is conversion, of which Brit Milah is a part, that confers Jewishness on an adopted boy.
A few months after the Brit Milah, you and your son visit the Mikveh, a ritual bath where, after his immersion, he will take on his lifelong Hebrew name. His Hebrew name will be signed, written and called at his life’s most important junctures: when he has his Bar Mitzvah, whenever he is beckoned to the Torah, when he signs his wedding contract (Ketubah) and when he dies (7).
Even though he conducts the Brit Milah under sterile conditions, and actually carries out the surgical procedure called circumcision, the Mohel does not see his function as in the least bit medical. He ((or she, the Reform Movement has accredited women Mohels) is there to act as a young boy’s parent’s agent, helping them to enter their son into the Covenant of Abraham. His is a Sacred purpose. He is far more than a medical functionary. Cantor Phillip Sherman (www.emoil.com) is among the best in the New York metropolitan area. He writes that, for an adopted child, having a Bris is a "sine qua non" to being Jewish. Even though I lean left and he leans right we’ve taken part in many ceremonies together. Here is part of what he wrote when I ran your question by him:
A Bris is a profoundly significant and beautiful Jewish life cycle event. It is a simcha - a joyous occasion. It is not a medical procedure. So, when he comes home from the hospital later that day after his Bris, you should have a festive meal and party with friends and family to celebrate his entrance into the Covenant of Abraham. Take pictures or video and when he gets older, he will understand what you did for him and why.
But you never considered that your adopted toddler-son would arrive uncircumcised. Surprise! Welcome to but one of the endless string of decisions all parents must make for their children.
Granted, a Brit Milah represents a major life-choice that your toddler-son is incapable of making for himself. At the same time, the usual tools you use to make choices may not apply because this is a decision based in faith and your sense of the Sacred. Raising your Jewish child is a profound and intense reflection of your spiritual and religious identity.
So here is your answer in a nutshell: Since Brit Milah is a required first step for an adopted male’s conversion to Judaism, and because living your lives as Jewish parents in a Jewish family with a Jewish identity is important to you - arrange a bris for your adopted son (8/9).
- In Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, lineage may come from either or both parents, in Orthodoxy and Conservatism, just the mother.
- Literally, the Covenant of Circumcision
- “There is compelling evidence that male circumcision reduces the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV infection in men by approximately 60%.” World Health Organization: http://www.who.int/hiv/topics/ malecircumcision/en/
- Mohel, pronounced MOY-uhl by some and MO-hell by others, is the title of the endlessly trained Jewish offical empowered to conduct the Brit Milah.
- Where the lineage is either unclear or clearly of another faith.
- Conversion standards for children may vary from rabbi to rabbi and movement to movement. Ritual circumcision as well as immersion in the Mikveh remain the norm along with other elements your rabbi will explain to you. Your rabbi will also discuss which denominations recognize conversions from other denominations.
- Hebrew names are engraved on the gravestones of most Jews.
- Do your homework when searching for a Mohel. Cantor Sherman’s credentials and training (see emoil.com), as an example, are excellent.
- Of course, you could wait until he’s old enough to decide for himself. But circumcision at the age of 18 or older comes with its own complications. You’ll find me in “the sooner the better” camp.