What is the Halakhic Status of an Uncircumcised Jew? Responsa in a Moment: Volume 9, Issue No. 3, February 2015


In memory of my father-in-law Daniel ben Meir Halevi Rotnemer z”l on his yahrzeit.


Questions from two laypeople and one rabbi: May an uncircumcised Jew have an aliyah, serve as a sheliah tzibbur, have a Bar Mitzvah, a Jewish wedding or burial? Does it make a difference if he or his parents refused to circumcise him for ideological reasons or if he is an uncircumcised jew as he was prevented from having a brit milah [circumcision] by outside forces, such as the Soviet regime?

Responsum: Unfortunately, in our day, there are many Jewish men and boys who have not had a brit milah. There are many who grew up in the Former Soviet Union where there were no mohalimor where it was dangerous for Jews to undergo circumcision. There are others who grew up in assimilated homes where brit milah was simply not important. And, finally, there are those opposed to brit milah for ideological reasons.

We will survey many modern halakhic authorities who gave rulings on this subject and then we will give our own ruling.

I) Rabbis who ruled very strictly regarding “an apostate regarding circumcision” (mumar l’orlot)

1. It is customary among many Jewish communities until today to purchase honors in the synagogue such as aliyot, opening the ark,maftir and more. Rabbi Raphael Meldola (see the Bibliography below; Italy, 1685-1748) was asked if one of the “anusim[Marranos] of our time” who had not yet been circumcised — since his money was still in the city from which he had come — could purchase the mitzvah of taking the Torah out of the ark on one of the Shalosh Regalim [three Pilgrim Festivals]. He forbade this, among other reasons, by an argument of kal vahomer [a fortiori, from minor to major] – if one has to keep a Sefer Torah far from filth because of disgrace, how much the more so must it be kept far from the touch of an uncircumcised Jew, for there is nothing morema’us [loathsome – see Zevahim 22b and elsewhere] than a foreskin.

2. In 1843, the Society of the Friends of Reform in Frankfurt am Main was in favor of abolishing circumcision (Michael A. Meyer, Bein Masoret L’kidma, Jerusalem, 1990, p. 146 and notes 86-87 (which was translated from: Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism,New York, 1988). As a result, Rabbi Salomon Abraham (Zalmen) Trier, Chief Rabbi of Frankfurt am Main, published an entire volume of Gutachten [Responsa] which included Orthodox reactions to that intent. Rabbi Trier wrote in a letter to the City Council that “the father who walks around in his guilt and does not allow one to circumcise his son out of contempt, on purpose, out of heresy against the Torah, is a heretic and has left Klal Yisrael [the collective Jewish people] and is disqualified from giving testimony and from taking an oath” (quoted by Rabbi Weiss, p. 27).

3. Shadal, Rabbi Samuel David Luzzato, the famous Bible commentator (Trieste and Padua, 1800-1865), stated that: “a person who violates the brit of Abraham our Forefather he is like an apostate against the entire Torah… one does not count him in the minyan and one does not call him to the Torah” (ibid.).

4. Shir (Rabbi Shlomo Yehudah) Rapoport (Av Bet Din of Prague, 1790-1867) stated that “every Jewish man who did not circumcise [himself] or will not circumcise his son from this day onward… will not be considered just an apostate regarding circumcision (mumar l’orlot) but rather, as he is in truth, a denier of the Jewish religion” (ibid.).

5. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Frankfurt am Main, 1808-1888), who is considered the founder of neo-Orthodoxy, stated in a letter to Rabbi Trier in 1843 that a person who said that Shabbat and Brit Milah are not required mitzvot and also performed a public act “cannot be counted among Klal Yisrael… for those people, since they removed themselves from the collective, denied [God] and are not counted among the congregation. And the rabbis are obligated… to push those people [away] from all rights in the life of the community”. (Rabbi Hirsch, Shemesh Marpei, p. 187)

6. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Chajes (or: Hayyot; Brody, Zolkeva, Kalisch, 1805-1855) reacted very strongly to the intent of the Reformers in his book Minhat Kena’ot. He ruled that if the father refuses to circumcise his child, the Bet Din must do so (as per Yoreh Deah261:1).

7. Finally, Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathanson (Lemberg, 1810-1875) ruled very strictly regarding a Jew who did not want to circumcise his son. He ruled that since Abraham our Forefather and his sons after him were commanded regarding circumcision (Genesis 17) and our Jewish religion stems from Abraham, “whoever is uncircumcised is no longer part of Judaism“. He also relied onMidrash Tanhuma (Mishpatim, paragraph 5) that whoever is not circumcised may not study Torah “and since he may not attain Torah, he is not part of the Jewish religion”.

As we shall see below, these very strict opinions are not based on the accepted halakhah in the Talmud and Codes of Jewish Law. There is no doubt that they stemmed from struggles and polemics against Marranos who did not circumcise themselves (No. 1) or against Reform Judaism which wanted to do away with circumcision entirely (Nos. 2-7). Indeed, many of these rulings are aimed at thefather of the child who refuses to circumcise his son and not against the child. Even so, they influenced the halakhic authorities who came after them who wanted to rule strictly regarding this issue.

II) Rabbis who ruled strictly regarding a Bar Mitzvah, a wedding or other honors for an uncircumcised Jew

1. In addition to the letter cited above, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch “decided not to call such a child [i.e., a Bar Mitzvah] to the Torah as a fence” [around the Torah]. (Rabbi Hirsch quoted by Rabbi Schick)

2. Rabbi Shlomo Tzvi Schick (Karczag, d. 1916) disagreed with Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathanson who ruled, as we saw, that an uncircumcised Jew is “not part of the Jewish religion”. Even so, he saw this as serious problem: “how will he bless asher bahar banu mikol ha’amim v’natan lanu et torato [who has chosen us from among all the nations and gave us His Torah]”. In his opinion, the Sages of the generation have the power l’migdar milta [to make a fence around something] and to make a fence around the Torahas a group, “but individuals do not have the power to enact and to decree without a gathering of all the Sages in the country”. This was impossible in his place because “the House of Israel is divided into sects and groups” and therefore every rabbi must “stand in the breach and stand as a man of valor with a brave heart” as an individual.

3. Rabbi Abraham Tzvi Klein (Siloshbulhash, 1853-1927) also felt that it’s impossible that the child should recite the blessing on the Torah “asher bahar banu” and at the same moment stand uncircumcised, which is punishable by Karet [extirpation; Genesis 17:14]. Furthermore, how will the young man go up to the Torah “with feelings of holiness and have full intention… to fulfill all the words of this Torah… He is like a person who immerses in theMikveh while holding an unclean insect!” And how will the father bless Barukh Shepetarani. which is traditionally recited at a Bar Mitzvah ceremony (Orah Hayyim 228:2), when he has violated the covenant of Abraham our Forefather? (Regarding this blessing, see what I wrote in Responsa of the Va’ad Halakhah 5 (5752-5754), pp. 101-108 (Hebrew with English summary); also available at www.responsafortoday.com). He therefore forbids a Bar Mitzvah ceremony for an uncircumcised boy.

4. Rabbi Menahem Mendel Kirschboim (Frankfurt am Main, 1895-1943) discussed our topic briefly in a lengthy responsum which deals primarily with another issue. He ruled that the aliyah of an uncircumcised Jew to the Torah is something “ugly and there isHillul Hashem [desecration of God’s name]” and he drew support from the opinion of Rabbi Nathanson.

5. Rabbi Ben-Tziyon Meir Hai Ouziel (Jerusalem, 1880-1953), who later became the first Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, was asked in 1946 if an uncircumcised Jew who did not circumcise his son who was a member of a Va’ad Kehillah [Board of a Jewish Community] could become the head of the Va’ad. He wrote a lengthy responsum emphasizing the importance and uniqueness ofbrit milah. He ruled that it is absolutely forbidden for a person who rejects the covenant of Israel to be the head of the Va’ad. Furthermore, the leaders of the community must force the man to circumcise his son. Indeed, they may publically embarrass him and prevent him from having any public honor in the synagogue and the Kehillah until he circumcises his son.

6. Rabbi Boaz Cohen (New York, 1899-1968), the Chair of the Committee on Jewish Law of the Rabbinical Assembly, reported in 1946 on a decision regarding the admission of uncircumcised Jews into synagogue membership: “The Committee held that such an act would be highly improper and should be avoided at all costs unless the party in question has been advised by his physician that circumcision would put his health or life in jeopardy.”

7. Rabbi Arthur Neulander (New York, 1896-1988), the Chair of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement (CJLS), discussed our topic in 1956 inthe case of a woman and her son in Sao Paulo, both Holocaust survivors. The woman refused to circumcise her son because she had saved him twice during the Holocaust period precisely because he was notcircumcised. Rabbi Neulander ruled in the name of the CJLS that, in general, one must demand circumcision before a Bar Mitzvah ceremony. It is possible to be lenient in that specific case only if a competent medical authority determines “that a psycho-pathological case exists, in which instance it might be wise to waive temporarily the necessity for milah“.

8. Rabbi Yehezkel Abramsky (Russia, London, Israel; 1886-1976) was asked if it’s permissible to perform the marriage of an uncircumcised Jew. He said that there is no halakhic problem, but we should refuse to perform the wedding as a means of forcing the groom, “perhaps he will regret his sin and will enter the covenant of Abraham our Forefather”.

9. Rabbi Yitzhak Ya’akov Weiss (1902-1989) was the Av Bet Din of Manchester, England and then of the Edah Haredit inJerusalem. He was asked in 1962 by a rabbi inParis if it’s permissible to conduct a Bar Mitzvah ceremony for uncircumcised children. He ruled strictly on the basis of Rabbis Nathanson, Ashkenazi, Abramsky,Trier, Meldola, and Hoffmann.

10. Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (Jerusalem, 1915-2006) was a very prolific posek and a member of the Supreme Bet Din (Rabbinic Court) of the Chief Rabbinate. He dealt with our topic in a reaction to the “Responsa of Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer”, which were first published in 1969 (see below). He disagreed with the lenient approach of Rabbi Yitzhak Elhanan Spector (quoted ibid.): “And in my humble opinion it seems that it’s a disgrace to count in theminyan and to call up to the Torah a man with a foreskin” for it’s like a person who “immerses with an insect in his hand”. He relies on Rabbis Tzvi Hirsch Ashkenazi and Rafael Meldola and he learns a kal vahomer from the latter responsum: If an uncircumcised man may not open the Holy Ark and hand the Torah scroll to the Cantor, kal vahomer that it is forbidden for him to go up to the Torah, to hold the handles of the Torah and to recite the blessing over it. He also rules strictly on the basis of Rabbis Nathanson, Shick, Hoffmann and Weiss. At the end of his responsum, he forbids not just an aliyah to the Torah but any Bar Mitzvah celebration until the boy is circumcised.

11. Rabbi Gedalia Felder (Galicia and Toronto; 1922-1991) ruled that an uncircumcised Jew “may not be called to go up to the Torah and one may not honor him with any davar shebikdushah [holy ritual]”. He ruled strictly, following Rabbis Hirsch, Shick, Hoffmann, Nathanson and Meldola.

It must be emphasized that all of the halakhic authorities who ruled strictly on these issues did not rely on the Talmud and Codes but wanted  l’migdar milta [to fence in the matter], i.e. to make a fence against the Reform and others who wanted to abolish circumcision. They quoted some midrashim, but they relied primarily on the opinions of other modern rabbis who had ruled strictly.

III) Halakhic Authorities who were lenient regarding a Bar Mitzvah ceremony for an uncircumcised boy

1. Rabbi Ezriel Hildesheimer (Berlin, 1820-1899), a colleague of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and the founder of the Orthodox Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin, was asked in 1886 if one could call an uncircumcised Bar Mitzvah boy up to the Torah. His tendency was to rule leniently, but “really I am still confused about this”. He therefore sent the question to Rabbi Yitzhak Elhanan Spector of Kovno (1817-1896), one of the leading halakhic authorities in the 19th century.

2. The following is the most important section of Rabbi Spector’s responsum:

… behold, according to law, we have an established principle that “an apostate regarding circumcision (mumar l’orlot) is not an apostate for the entire Torah”, as is explicit in Hullin fol. 5a, in Yoreh Deah 2:7 and in the Shakh to Yoreh Deah 264, subparagraph 4… and therefore, according to law, he should be counted for a minyan and for all the above [i.e., aliyot and Bar Mitzvah] and therefore we should not distance them, and one should be concerned lest they stray from the path and leave the collective Jewish people, and even though now they are separating themselves from the congregation, even so one should be concerned lest they go out and, God forbid, persecute our people and our religion as our eyes have seen, due to our great sins in our day. Therefore, in my opinion, one should not distance them entirely and perhaps, as a result, they will [want] a little to return from their evil way until they return entirely with God’s help…

In other words, according to the Talmud and Jewish law, it is permissible for an uncircumcised boy to be counted in a minyan, to have a Bar Mitzvah and to have aliyot and this will, hopefully, draw him closer to Judaism until he returns entirely.

3. Rabbi Pinhass Goldschmidt (born 1963) has served for many years as a rabbi in Moscow, so he is very familiar with the condition of Soviet Jews. In 1990, he ruled leniently, in opposition to Rabbis Weiss, Felder, Meldola and Nathanson: “In my humble opinion, since this halakah [i.e. to prevent an uncircumcised Jew from having an aliyah] was not mentioned in the Talmud and Codes, but rather in the Midrash and in the philosophical works of theRishonim [medieval rabbis], it is difficult to derive the halakhah from these things”. He maintains that Rabbi Nathanson’s attitude stemmed from his struggle against the “Reformers”, but in the Soviet Union after seventy years of persecution there are many Jews who are drawing close once again to God and his Torah and “if we push them away with two hands [see Sanhedrin 107b andSotah 47a], the damage is not worth it. Therefore, since according to law, there is no prohibition at all… one should not forbid the uncircumcised from here [i.e. theSoviet Union] to go up to the Torah.” Finally, he relies on responsa which allow sinners to read from the Torah and on the responsum of Rabbi Spector quoted above.

IV) The Poskim who ruled pragmatically, according to the circumstances

1. Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffmann (Berlin; 1843-1921), who succeeded Rabbi Hildesheimer as head of the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary, was one of the most important halakhic authorities in Germany. He was asked (No. 79) if one could perform the wedding of a mumar l’orlot[an apostate regarding circumcision] or call him to the Torah. He admitted that, according to the basic halakhah, “an apostate regarding circumcision” is an apostate for that alone and not for the entire Torah (Yoreh Deah 2:7). According to Jewish law, one may perform his wedding and he may recite the Priestly Blessing (Magen Avraham to Orah Hayyim 128, subparagraph 54).

And in any case, regarding the Torah reading, according tohalakhah there is no prohibition, but he should not go up for an aliyah for a portion which contains the mitzvah of circumcision [e.g. Genesis 17]. All of this is according to law, but if we see that one must make a fence against those who breach [Jewish law], then one should certainly not allow him to read from the Torah.

On the other hand, regarding a marriage ceremony, one should not try to force him to undergo circumcision because he might simply go and marry the woman in a civil ceremony.

In another reponsum (No. 115), he was asked about burying an uncircumcised Jew in a Jewish cemetery. Here too he said that this was permissible according to halakhah, but we should nonetheless separate that person’s grave from the other graves in orderl’migdar milta [to make a fence] so that everyone should see.

In other words, according to halakhah these things are permitted, but, if there is a sociological need to fight against the Reformers, one can build a fence and forbid.

2. Rabbi Yehiel Ya’akov Wienberg (Lithuania, Berlin, Switzerland; 1885-1966), who subsequently became the successor of Rabbis Hildesheimer and Hoffmann at the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary, was asked in 1926 whether an uncircumcised boy can have a Bar Mitzvah and read the Haftarah. He emphasized that, according to the law of the Torah, it is permissible to call an uncircumcised Bar Mitzvah boy for Maftir. He proves this from the law of a Kohen who married a divorcee who may not go up for the first aliyah, but he may have another aliyah (Orah Hayyim 128:40) and from theMagen Avraham (ibid., subparagraph 54) that a person who refuses to be circumcised may recite the Priestly Blessing. He also relies on Yoreh Deah 2:7 cited above that an apostate regarding one mitzvah is not an apostate for the entire Torah. Finally, he admits that it is possible in certain circumstances to decree that they should not be called to the Torah “to fence in [l’migdar milta] and to show that we do not honor people who violate the covenant of the fathers and do not circumcise their sons…”.

He concludes his responsum: “and the matter is in the hands of the rabbis who stand guard for the Torah. If they know that by preventing this honor to the father and to the son, they will return them to the good path, then they should prevent them from having an aliyah to the Torah, but if, God forbid, this will cause them to remove themselves entirely from the congregation, then they should draw them close, since, according to law, it is permissible to call up to the Torah both the father and the son.”

3. This was also the opinion of Rabbi Solomon Freehof (Pittsburgh, 1892-1990), the leading halakhic authority of the Reform movement in the twentieth century. He maintains that, according to the simple law, an uncircumcised boy is a Jew in all respects. According to Yoreh Deah 261, a father must circumcise his son, and if not, the Bet Din must do so, and if not, the boy must circumcise himself when he grows up. But there is no doubt that he is Jewish and one may not prevent him from having a Bar Mitzvah ceremony. However, a rabbi or a congregation may fence in the matter [l’migdar milta], and, if the tendency to resist circumcision is growing stronger, the rabbi has the right to prevent a child from celebrating a Bar Mitzvah ceremony.

V) Summary and Conclusions

1. There is no question that, according to the basic halakhah, it’s permissible for an uncircumcised Jew to have an aliyah because:

a. an apostate regarding circumcision is not an apostate regarding the entire Torah (Hullin 5a; Yoreh Deah 2:7; Shakh to Yoreh Deah264, subparagraph 4).

b. Even a person who has transgressed, as long as he was not excommunicated by a court of Jewish law (something no longer practiced today) he is counted in a minyan (Rabbi Yosef Karo inOrah Hayyim 55:11).

c. A Kohen who marries a divorcee may not recite the Priestly Blessing and may not have the first aliyah, but he may haveanother aliyah (Orah Hayyim 128:40).

d. According to many halakhic authorities, an uncircumcised Kohen may recite the Priestly Blessing (Rambam, Hilkhot Nesiat Kapayim15:1, 6-7; Magen Avraham to Orah Hayyim 128, subparagraph 54; Rema to Orah Hayyim 128:39).

Indeed, this was the ruling of Rabbis Spector, Hoffmann, Weinberg, Freehof and Goldschmidt quoted above in sections III-IV.

2. Rabbi Spector and Rabbi Goldschmidt emphasized that one must attempt to draw such uncircumcised Jews closer to Judaism because otherwise, they will grow even farther away from Judaism.

3. On the other hand, those who ruled strictly did so to build a fence [l’migdar milta] and to fight against those who wished to abolish brit milah.

4. Therefore, “ein l’hakham elah mah she-einav ro-ot“, a local rabbi must rule according to what his eyes see. He must rule strictly or leniently according to local conditions and according to the specific case in front of him. If a person refuses to circumcise himself or his son because he wants to abolish the mitzvah of brit milah, then a rabbi might rule strictly. On the other hand, if a Russian-speaking Jew did not have a brit because his family was cut off from Judaism and the Jewish people for seventy years, he might rule leniently. Or, as Rabbi Yehiel Ya’akov Weinberg wrote above: “And the matter is in the hands of the rabbis who stand guard for the Torah. If they know that by preventing this honor to the father and to the son, he will return them to the good path, then they should prevent them from having an aliyah to the Torah, but if, God forbid, this will cause them to remove themselves entirely from the congregation, then they should draw them close, since, according to law, it is permissible to call up to the Torah both the father and the son.”

David Golinkin
Jerusalem
5 Adar 5775


Bibliography

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