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A Non-Orthodox Physician-Mohel: Some Differences in Approach

Frequently, a phone call begins with, "I'm Jewish, but my wife isn't. We plan to raise our son as a Jew. Can we have a brit milah (ritual circumcision)?"

Another call: "My wife had a non-Orthodox conversion. An Orthodox mohel (person who performs ritual circumcision) said she and my son are not Jewish. He cannot perform the brit (ceremony) unless he brings three rabbis to act as witnesses for the first step towards his conversion."

These are among the everyday situations facing me as a non-Orthodox mohel and a physician. Such issues are the reason that the Reform and Conservative movements have trained over 300 physicians and nurses to serve as mohelim/ot (plurals of mohel) since 1983--so that people wanting to give their children a ritual circumcision would not be limited by restrictions and rules imposed by the Orthodox movement that are not accepted by other movements..

One big difference between the Orthodox movement and the Reform and Reconstructionist movements is the question of which children are considered Jewish. In 1979 the Reconstructionist movement adopted the doctrine of patrilineal descent--It states that a child with one Jewish parent, undergoing the significant acts of Jewish identity, will be presumed to be Jewish. Soon afterwards, the Reform movement followed suit. You may ask, "Isn't the child of a Jewish mother automatically Jewish?" The doctrine of Jewish descent emphasizes that being Jewish is not only determined by birth, but through living a Jewish life. For the Conservative and Orthodox movements, however, a child is Jewish if it has a Jewish mother, whether or not it is brought up to be Jewish.

The first Jewish act for a boy is brit milah. Circumcision does not make the child Jewish. It is merely an enabling first step, within the context of any denomination, towards becoming a Jew. Other acts include Jewish education, Bar or Bat Mitzvah, Jewish observance and a Jewish wedding.

Determining who is a Jew and who may have a brit is primary for a mohel. However, many other issues emerge when one does not follow the Orthodox model. Consider what occurs when the eighth day (the obligatory day to perform the circumcision) is on the Sabbath or any holy day. An Orthodox mohel will not perform a circumcision on these days unless he can either walk to the brit or be put up at the parent's, or a near-by, home. These homes must also meet his standards for Kosher dietary laws. Otherwise, the brit is delayed until Sunday, the ninth day. If Sunday and Monday are holy days, like Passover or Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), an Orthodox mohel will not perform the brit until Tuesday, the eleventh day. While the Orthodox mohel chooses the commandment not to drive on the Sabbath over the commandment to circumcise on the eighth day, most non-Orthodox mohels choose to the commandment to circumcise.

Other differences between non-Orthodox physician mohelim and Orthodox ones involve anesthesia. Anesthesia is rapidly becoming the norm in hospitals and many physician mohelim, including me, use it. A variety of local blocks administered by injection are safe, and more effective than EMLA, a topical anesthetic cream, used by some mohelim  that is not approved by the FDA for infants under thirty days of age. Mohelim, who are not doctors, are not licensed to administer injections. It is difficult to know if this influences their objection to anesthesia. The Conservative movement allows anesthesia for circumcision and a few Orthodox rabbis have publicly stated that there is no contraindication to anesthesia.

However, some Orthodox mohelim argue that Abraham did not use anesthesia when he circumcised himself or Isaac, his son, and that it therefore should not be used for circumcisions today. Others even suggest that the child should experience pain, although there are no biblical precedents for such a hypothesis.

Further conflicts occur over instrumentation and anesthesia. Clamps have existed since 1934, setting new standards for safety and cosmetic results. The Gomco or 'doctor's clamp' has a protective bell and creates a circular cut. In response to the Gomco clamp, a rabbi developed the Mogen or 'mohel's clamp.' Many doctors use the Mogen clamp, but a rare mohel uses the Gomco clamp. Like many of my fellow urologists, I prefer the Gomco clamp.

Obviously, the day in the life of a non-Orthodox mohel is challenging. We reach out to large parts of the Jewish community longing to preserve an ancient, highly significant rite within a contemporary context. We deal with an informed public, a changing medical scene, and issues of Jewish identity, as well as with gay and lesbian, and single parent families. In doing so, we offer a new confidence to those who waiver as to whether they should have a ritual circumcision.

Five Points to Consider

The inability of Orthodox mohelim to respond to the needs of non-Orthodox Jews necessitated the Reform and Conservative movements to train over 300 physicians and nurses to serve as mohelim/ot.

Circumcision does not make the child Jewish. It is merely an enabling first step, within the context of any denomination, towards becoming a Jew.

Anesthesia is rapidly becoming the norm in hospitals and many physician mohelim use it.

Non-Orthodox mohelim reach out to large parts of the Jewish community longing to preserve an ancient, highly significant rite within a contemporary context

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Hebrew for "covenant of circumcision," a ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old. It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit." The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "circumciser" (Yiddish term is "moyel"), the person who performs a ritual circumcision. The feminine form is "mohelet."
Dr. Samuel A. Kunin

Dr. Samuel A. Kunin, a Board Certified Urologic Surgeon, was trained to be a non-Orthodox mohel at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. He is author of Circumcision: Its Place in Judaism, Past and Present (Isaac Nathan Publishing Co., Los Angeles, 1998, 1-800-6-JEWISH).

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