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Behind the Headlines: Conservative Movement is Training Its Own to Perform the Brit Milah

November 13, 1989
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If a boy is born at twilight on Friday and one is not sure which is the eighth day, when should the brit milah, or ritual circumcision, be performed? And if a baby is born jaundiced, under what conditions do you postpone the ceremony?

With a copy of the Shulchan Aruch, or Jewish Code of Law, spread before him, Rabbi Joel Roth posed these questions recently to a group of 27 people, mainly physicians, who had chosen to become mohalim — those who perform the brit milah.

They were taking part in an intensive six-day training program for mohalim conducted at the beginning of this month at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where Roth is professor of Talmud. The candidates received certification as mohalim at the end of the conference.

The program, said rabbis at JTS, was part of an all-out effort by the Conservative movement to become independent of other branches of Judaism, namely the Orthodox, who have often provided the services of mohalim to entire Jewish communities.

The Reform movement made a similar move in 1984, when it began training its own mohalim, at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Whereas the Orthodox generally train mohalim by individual “precepts,” or teachers, the Conservative movement decided to mount an organized drive to train mohalim, who were enlisted with the help of congregational rabbis in individual communities.

JTS focused on attracting physicians, in part to avoid malpractice problems, said Roth. A training program at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York ran into problems when it could not get malpractice insurance for trainees who were not physicians.

TWO WOMEN PARTICIPATED

“Brit Kodesh: A Sacred Covenant” was sponsored by JTS and the Rabbinical Assembly, the organization of Conservative rabbis. Participants in the program came from across the United States, including two from Puerto Rico.

Many of the new mohalim will serve areas of the country where there are none at all, said Rabbi William Lebeau, a vice chancellor at JTS.

Lebeau was instrumental in planning the conference, along with Rabbi Elliot Salo Schoenberg of Needham, Mass., who represented the Rabbinical Assembly.

One problem the new infusion of Conservative mohalim may begin to address is the difficulty Jews living in remote areas have in finding someone to perform a brit milah when an Orthodox mohel will not travel on Shabbat.

That has sometimes been a problem for the greater Pittsburgh area, where, until now, there has been only mohel, said Dr. Mark Diamond, who has just become the second.

Among the group of JTS trainees were two women, both physicians. One of them, a gynecologist-obstetrician and clinical geneticist, is also the wife of a rabbi. The other, a family practitioner, is a recent convert to Judaism.

Both spoke of having received disparaging remarks about their intentions. Yet women are permitted to perform the brit, according to halacha, or traditional Jewish law, even as interpreted by the Orthodox.

Even with certification of 27 new Conservative mohalim, their ranks in America are small. Until the conference, there were only between 15 to 20 Conservative mohalim in the country, said Roth, who is chairman of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.

The Reform movement now has 64 certified mohalim, 20 of whose certification was completed this month at the biennial conference of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

SOME REFUSED TO PERFORM CEREMONY

The numbers of certified Orthodox mohalim are not great, either. There are only an estimated 100 mohalim certified by the American B’rith Milah Board. There are also uncertified mohalim who practice, and some Hasidic groups, such as the Satmar, use their own mohalim, not those of the board.

Conservative and Reform mohalim are recognized by the B’rith Milah Board, according to Rabbi Eugene Cohen, the board’s president, who welcomed the Conservative program.

Cohen, who is himself an Orthodox rabbi, also said he had not heard of cases in which an Orthodox mohel refused to perform a circumcision on a baby born of Conservative converts to Judaism. Yet that issue was raised several times during the training conference at JTS.

Dr. Kiva Shtull of Solon, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, said his father, a Conservative rabbi, had encountered enough difficulties with the three Orthodox mohalim in the area that he brought in a Conservative mohel from Pennsylvania to perform circumcisions on congregants’ newborn boys.

Shtull recalled that one of the Orthodox mohalim refused to perform a circumcision on the son of one congregant, because he contested the conversion of the baby’s grandmother.

The decision to train Conservative mohalim, said Roth at JTS, was less a reaction to such problems as it was part of a drive to become more independent.

It was also part of a larger plan to teach other Jewish arts to Conservative Jews, including training scribes and supervisors of kashrut, he emphasized.

PERSONAL DEVOTION REQUIRED

Lebeau highlighted the personal devotion to Judaism displayed by each potential mohel, emphasizing the requirement that the mohel observe kashrut, Shabbat and regular prayer.

The classes at JTS ranged from detailed medical techniques to understanding the meaning of the brit milah in Jewish law, Kabbalah and biblical tradition. There were also sessions on the psychology of the brit, medical ethics and personal piety.

All of the candidates had already been performing circumcisions for many years. Opinions valuing ritual circumcision over medical were heard several times from the candidates.

During a video presentation of an actual brit, presented by Dr. Lawrence Veltman of Portland, Ore., candidates jumped up to offer advice on the procedure.

Schoenberg of the Rabbinical Assembly said those who choose to become mohalim “are committed Jews. They had a spiritual experience studying at the seminary. They will be role models to other Jews.”

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