Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Milah for non-Jews

An article in the Forward about Cantor Phil Sherman's milah services to non-Jews caught my eye. Bear in mind I've known Phil since high school, when he was Youth/Outreach Director at Lincoln Square Synagogue and later Hazzan at the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. He's one of maybe two mohalim living in Manhattan, so his milah business keeps him quite busy.

He also does milah for intermarrieds, where the child is not Jewish. I was a witness at such a milah (you'll notice I'm not using the English word - there are anti-milah crusaders out there who will pounce on any site that talks about it), the son of friends. He's Jewish, she's not, they consider themselves neo-pagans. But his parents pushed for a milah. And a milah, like a wedding, requires two valid witnesses to establish the nature of the life-changing event (entry into the Jewish people, marriage, entry into mitzvah observance for a Jewish baby boy).

When they asked me, I was hesitant, and asked who the mohel would be. They told me it was Phil. Big sigh of relief - Phil wouldn't do anything halachically wrong/questionable. When we went to their home, Phil did the procedure as usual, but said it was "lesheim giyur", for the sake of conversion, and use the brachot one uses for milah at a conversion. The excuse was: if at some point in his life the boy decides to convert, that's one painful [for an adult] step he won't need to do.

My big question, and I never really got a good answer aside from repeated assertion, was that the first chapter in Hilchot Milah (Yoreh Deah 260) in the Shulchan Aruch consists of one sentence: "It is a mitzvah for the father to mal his son, and this is a greater mitzvah than any other positive mitzvah". That's it. The Shach says that the second clause is because if the boy grows up without milah, he has a threat of kareit, spiritual excision, hanging over his head if he dies before having it done. Fine, but what about the first half - it seems absolute, so that even the father of a non-Jewish son should do milah. The Gemara on Kiddushin 29a doesn't seem to be any more dispositive, even quoting the verse commanding milah as "you shall mal all males". And yet, when I've asked before, everyone takes for granted that this is only for Jewish sons. Why was the father, in the case where I was witness, not doing a mitzvah of malling his son?


Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

could it be because halakhically, a Jewish man's son with a Non-Jewish woman isn't considered his son?

Michael Kopinsky said...

Does milah really need eidim? Kiddushin needs eidim b/c of the gezeirah shava davar davar mi-mamon. But meiheichi teisi for milah?

It may be that the requirement for minyan at a milah has eclipsed the requirement for eidim. But still, in normal circumstances, you don't formally appoint eidim for a milah like you do with kiddushin.


thanbo said...

Steg: I've heard that, but it doesn't make much sense to me.

Michael: Maybe they needed eidim because of the giyur aspect? You're right, I don't recall there being eidim at other brissen.

Michael Kopinsky said...

That would make sense. Giyur does require eidim. Usually the eidim are there for the tevilah, but I guess in a case of a baby, the eidim would be there for the milah.

Andrew said...

I'm not Jewish so these religious words like milah are quite new to me, but I'm wondering having come across the idea of Kareit- one's disconnection from God- as punishment for being uncircumscribed, does this extend to all non-Jews. That is, by defnition they are disconnected from the diviene source. I'm interested purely as a matter of clarification, rather than waiting to throw a fit!

Michael Kopinsky said...

Andrew: No, the punishment of kares/spiritual excision does not apply to non-Jews. Bris Milah means the covenant of circumcision, and is a covenant between Jews and God. For a Jew to deny that covenant necessarily means spiritual disconnection from God. Since a non-Jew is not included in the covenant, he does not have the same potential for connection to God through circumcision, (though he does have potential for connection to God through other means), nor the same potential for disconnection from God by ignoring the covenant.

Andrew said...

Thanks, Michael. Though perhaps to be pedantic when you say for a Jew to deny that covenant, are you referring to a parent of the to be circumscribed child as opposed to the child? If the child then goes uncircumscribed is he then not a Jew? Or does the circumcision the action that makes one Jewish?

Andrew said...

I really should read what I write before posting. To put that last question again, is circumcision the act that seals the bond with God of being Jewish?

Michael Kopinsky said...

Lack of circumcision does not make one non-Jewish, but rather a spiritually excised Jew.

In a formal legal (halachic) sense as well as in the informal sense of responsibility, it is initially the father's responsibility to circumcise his son. If he fails to circumcise his son, he fails this responsibility, but is not spiritually excised. Once the son becomes an adult (turns 13), it is his responsibility, and every day that he fails this responsibility is a failed opportunity. Spiritual excision only applies if he dies uncircumcised. (Maimonides, Laws of Circumcision, 1:1)

So I guess I could that yes, circumcision is the act that seals God's covenant with the Jews, and that failing to ever perform that act is a violation of that covenant.

Thanbo: I hope you don't mind that we're using the English terms. It's too cumbersome otherwise.

thanbo said...

As long as the goyish anti-circ kannoim don't show up and make a tzimmes, efsher it's OK.