Why Non-Jews Are Choosing Jewish Circumcision Ceremonies
Some parents opt for traditional mohels, rather than doctors, to perform the procedure on their sons—even when they aren’t Jewish themselves.
When Allison Finch, a 36-year-old mother of five from Houston, had her first son, in 2007, she had him circumcised before taking him home. But the circumcision was cosmetically uneven, a result that left her regretting the choice to have the procedure done in the hospital. “We weren’t overly impressed, but we didn’t know that there was another way,” she says.
So when their second son, Henry, was born in 2011, she and her husband Robert went a different route. Although they identify as practicing Christians, the Finches decided to have their baby circumcised by a mohel, a Jewish person trained to perform a ritual circumcision, or brit milah (Hebrew for “the covenant of circumcision”). In keeping with Jewish tradition, the family asked the mohel to circumcise Henry on the eighth day of his life.
Finch isn’t the only non-Jew who has felt a connection to the religious elements of the procedure. Nationwide, circumcisions have decreased over the last few decades—from 64.5 percent of newborn boys in 1979 to 58.3 percent in 2010, according to Centers for Disease Control data—but among those opting to circumcise their sons, some non-Jews are forgoing the hospital or doctor’s office and requesting Jewish mohels for reasons both practical and religious. (Reliable statistics on religious circumcisions are hard to come by, but several mohels I talked to said they’ve noticed an uptick in their popularity in recent years.) Mohels, who typically perform circumcisions in private homes, can be doctors, but some are simply devout Jews—often, but not always, members of the clergy—who undergo technical training in order to learn how to perform the procedure. All mohels, including health professionals, are also trained in the ritual aspects of circumcision.
In a hospital setting, the parents may not necessarily be present while the procedure is performed. (After confirming with the family that they wanted their son circumcised, Finch says, members of the hospital staff “just came in and told us that it had been done and how to care for it.”) At a traditional Jewish circumcision, a baby is circumcised in the presence of his family, usually as he lays on a pillow that’s been placed on the lap of a family member. Mohels have varied methods for comforting the baby, including a sugar solution, a drop of wine, or topical or injectable anesthesia. Physicians in the hospital may use topical or injectable anesthesia to make the baby more comfortable.
Sherman draws a clear distinction between his work and the medical realm: “I do not perform medical procedures,” he explains. “All brisses and circumcisions that I perform are religious in nature. If it is a bris,” he said, using the Yiddish shorthand for Brit Milah, “it is a religious ceremony. If it is for a non-Jewish family, there may be scriptural readings, psalms, blessings, and prayers that are recited.”
As demand for circumcision by mohels continues outside of the Jewish community, though, some experts caution that mohels like Sherman may be putting themselves at legal risk.
Thus far, legal regulation of mohels has been mostly limited to civil suits. In 2013, for example, a Pennsylvania family sued the mohel who severed their infant son’s penis during a ritual circumcision, citing negligence. Pennsylvania authorities also have the option to prosecute negligent mohels for practicing medicine without a license, a state spokesman told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but with circumcision, “You have to balance religious-freedom protections against public health and safety.”
A religious ritual, such as a circumcision, anciently practiced and reasonably conducted, is not subject to governmental restrictions so long as it is consistent with the peace or safety of this State. Therefore, while a circumcision performed by a physician would be the practice of medicine, a circumcision performed as a religious ritual by a qualified person (a mohel, in this case) does not constitute the practice of the profession of medicine.
Both of these cases involved Jewish plaintiffs—but they have tricky implications for mohels performing non-Jewish circumcisions. The right to perform brit milah is protected under the First Amendment, but when it’s no longer a religious ritual, mohels may run up against laws that forbid the practice of medicine without a license, explains Marci Hamilton, a church-state scholar and professor at the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. There is no legal gray area for mohels who are also health professionals—these mohels can perform the procedure on non-Jews as part of their medical practice, even if the primary purpose is religious rather than medical. But others, Hamilton says, may be subject to prosecution when they perform the procedure outside of its religious context.
When it’s a non-Jewish family using a mohel, “The mohel is not acting as a religious participant, and therefore his acts are not protected as free exercise,” she explains. “This is really a medical business transaction, not a religious transaction.”
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