Is a circumcision performed by a gentile valid Jewishly?

Question: A friend of mine is pregnant, is expecting a son and is very nervous about circumcision. She is thinking of having it done in hospital by a surgeon who may well be non-Jewish. Would that still be valid Jewishly?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.

If circumcision in the Jewish tradition was only about the surgical removal of the foreskin, it would not matter who performed the procedure. However it is much more than that. Circumcision is a ritual act binding the infant to his God, his people and his history. As such it must be performed by a mohel, who himself is part of the Jewish people and sensitive to the spiritual significance of the act he is performing.

Circumcision at eight days old is counter-intuitive. One might have thought the initiation ceremony into one’s faith ought to take place when one is mature enough to understand its meaning or, at the very least, to make an informed choice. The fact that this is not the case demonstrates the transcendent nature of a Jew’s relationship with God. By circumcising your eight-day-old child, you are marking him out as a Jew before he even understands the meaning of the word. It is an identity he will carry for the rest of his life. In the eyes of God and the Jewish people he will always be a Jew, regardless of how ultimately he chooses to live.

It is perfectly understandable that a new parent would be apprehensive about this procedure and would prefer to have it performed by a trained physician. Fortunately, one does not have to make a choice between using a physician or a mohel as a number of mohalim are themselves trained doctors. All certified mohalim in this country are registered with the Initiation Society, through which one can easily ascertain each mohel’s credentials. It is, however, important to point out that some of the most skilled and experienced mohalim are not qualified doctors; due to the sheer volume of circumcisions they perform they have more expertise in this particular procedure than many professional doctors.

You might want to meet a prospective mohel in person several weeks before you are due to give birth so that you are comfortable with him and confident in his ability. Try to prepare yourself for what will undoubtedly be a profoundly spiritual and emotional experience. There are very few moments in a Jew’s life that can compare to bringing one’s child into the covenant of our forefather Abraham. By choosing to have your son circumcised in a religious ceremony, he becomes a link in the chain of history stretching back to the beginning of our people. More importantly, through him this glorious chain will extend far into the future.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

Your friend is not alone. People frequently tell me they are expecting a child and then add for that same reason, “I hope it’s a girl”.

It is not because they feel any less Jewish, but they are influenced by negative attitudes towards circumcision in society at large, where it is often described as “barbaric” or as “mutilation” by those who campaign vociferously against it. That nervousness has been boosted by incidents of circumcision that have gone wrong in other traditions, when done without using highly skilled personnel or in unhygienic environments.

Frankly, few parents enjoy a circumcision — you have just given birth to a miraculous bundle of life and the last thing you want to do is cause it any discomfort. It often happens that the mother is in tears and the father wants to murder the mohel!

Yet it is equally true that circumcision is a powerful tradition, so powerful that even the most lapsed Jews still keep it, seeing that it is as an act of identity that has been passed down the generations; and a medical procedure that has stood the test of time, without any long-term emotional or physical damage to the child (in fact, I suspect the parents suffer more than the baby does).

Jews are (rightly) neurotic about their children’s health and if there was the slightest doubt it was being put at risk, the practice would have ceased long ago.

A circumcision performed by a non-Jew would be acceptable — it is the act and the intention behind it as deputed by the parents that counts, and there is no need for any subsequent “spilling of blood”, as demanded in some Jewish circles.

However, my strong advice would be: always go for a mohel. He is a highly trained specialist who performs circumcision regularly and is far better experienced than a non-Jewish surgeon who does it occasionally. Incidentally, there is no reason why an anaesthetic cream cannot be used to minimise any pain.

It will also be done at home, where you will feel more comfortable and relaxed. Still, all the mohalim used by Reform and Liberal synagogues are also practising doctors and so, if preferred, it could be held in their surgery.

Mohalim are used to parents being nervous and the good ones will be happy to talk through beforehand what happens and why, and put parents at ease.

    Last updated: 12:42pm, May 6 2010