Question: Must our adopted son be circumcized to convert to Judaism?
I am a Jewish (Reform) woman married to a Gentile. We adopted a boy from Russia when he was 11 months old and my husband and I agreed that I will raise him to be Jewish. Our son is now 5 years old. He was not circumcised when we adopted him, as I did not want his first memories of his new parents to be that of a circumcision. Must he be circumcised? I assume that at this point in his life it would be done by a surgeon, but must a Moyle and/or be present?
Answer: Thank you for your question. You ask about doing a conversion ceremony for your adopted son who is now five years old. He is not circumcised, so you are concerned about the necessity of subjecting him to that surgery.
I certainly understand the hesitations you had about circumcising your son when you adopted him at age 11 months. The truth is that circumcision becomes more difficult and complicated as children become older. I generally advise Jewish adoptive parents to circumcise boys as early as possible.
Ritual circumcision must be done through a trained mohel or mohelet (female of mohel). B'rit milah is not just surgery; it is the most fundamental ritual of the Jewish covenant with God and should be done in a religious context.
You ask if conversion must take place at age 13. It does not. Conversion can occur at any age. I would recommend that you discuss conversion with a local rabbi now. The earlier the conversion, the greater is the likelihood that he will identify with Judaism as an adult.
Many Reform rabbis will say that a child in such a case does not require formal conversion, since he already is regarded as the child of a Jewish parent. This is not the position of traditional Judaism, in which Jewish identity requires the ritual conversion of anyone who does not have a Jewish biological mother. Even without a conversion ceremony, however, some Reform rabbis still would require circumcision.
From the perspective of traditional Judaism, circumcision is absolutely required for conversion of all males. The standards of Reform Judaism have been less stringent than that in the past, but are becoming more uniform in requiring circumcision. Some Reform rabbis will convert boys and men without circumcision, especially if there is a strong medical reason to forego it. You should discuss all of these issues with a rabbi and come to a decision together about how to proceed.
You mentioned that you would like to find a Reform congregation in your area to give your son more exposure to Jewish community. I strongly recommend that you do so. You can find a complete directory of Reform congregations on the website of the Union for Reform Judaism.
I wish you and your family the best in pursuing a strong sense of Jewish identity for your son.
Rabbi Jeffrey W. Goldwasser