Thursday, February 16, 2012

Is a Circumcision Absolutely Required for Male Conversion?

I'm reading an interesting book I plan to review on the blog soon. The book describes a halachic issue that never occurred to me before: Can a man convert if a medical condition prevents him from getting a circumcision?

Apparently, according to most authorities, no. In fact, at least one great Rabbi (Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg in Seridei Eish) says the conversion cannot happen under any circumstances, in order to prevent the man from risking the procedure. Pikuach nefesh in an unusual application, I suppose.

Sorry, hemophiliacs. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (the first Askenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel) says no in Da'at Kohein. In Rabbi Weinberg's case, he refused an admittedly "pure and selfless" conversion of a man suffering from diabetes and a heart condition. Because of these conditions, the doctors felt that he could not safely have the procedure.

Here's the reasoning: circumcision is absolutely required by the halacha. An uncircumcised Jew is punished with being cut off from his people, so every day he remained uncircumcised, he is actively breaking the halacha. Further, he states a policy reason: Rav Kook says that this would create an "ambiguous situation" that might confuse people as to the requirements for a proper conversion or think they can opt out of it based solely on a doctor's recommendation. Very interesting stuff...

I'm curious if any of you know how this applies to a born Jew, either a baby or an uncircumcised adult baal teshuva. It seems that pikuach nefesh would require forgoing the circumcision on a baby, and it is definitely acceptable to delay the circumcision of a baby, per the recommendation of a doctor and your rabbi. If the child were a hemophiliac, could he ever be required to get circumcised? If not, is there still a punishment for not being circumcised?

Who says reading halachic opinions is boring??


  1. Great question regarding born Jews. As far as I know, milah is pushed off unconditionally in the case of danger to life, but I have opened the question at Stack:

  2. A hemophiliac born-Jew does NOT get a circumcision. Also, a boy who is born sick, his circumcision is postponed until he is healthy.

    The issue here, is that a born Jew is already a Jew, so whether or not he gets a circumcision, makes no difference to his Jewishness. He forgoes a circumcision the same way that we violate ANY mitzvah for the sake of piquah nefesh (except for the Big Three, viz. murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality).

    With the convert, the issue is entirely different: here, he cannot become a Jew in the first place until he gets his circumcision. The circumcision is not merely a thing that all Jews must do, the same way that all Jews must eat kosher and keep Shabbat. No, the circumcision is itself an intrinsic and integral part of the conversion ritual, just like the mikvah and the witnesses. So the situation is entirely different.

    On the other hand, the halakhah also states that conversion requires a Temple sacrifice, and obviously, no one today can bring one, but we simply say that since we are not able to bring sacrifices, the failure to bring one does not prevent the conversion. Why do not say the same thing about a hemophiliac gentile's circumcision? I honestly do not know. But until then, the fact remains that the issues of a born-Jew hemophiliac and a gentile hemophiliac, are two separate, unrelated issues: one is that of a Jew doing a mitzvah like any other, the other is that of a gentile doing an integral part of a ritual that is independent of what his obligations will be as a Jew.

  3. Obviously in ages past there was no way to know if a baby was a hemophiliac before the bris, and such cases would of course have a terrible end. The halacha was that if two brothers born to the same mother prove to be hemophiliac and die then if a third boy is born he must not have a bris.

    Today blood is drawn from newborns right away and they will know if he is hemophiliac. Given this I doubt anything like the former scenario applies anymore.

    Furthermore, there are also coagulants. I don't know for sure, but it's possible that there is a safe way to perform a bris on someone with hemophilia. In practice this is probably what it comes down to: if it could be done safely it would be done, although probably once the baby is older. If not, then it would not be done. Therein the principle "ahnus rachmana patrei," "God excuses the innocent," will apply. A Jewish man who cannot have a bris because it would be life-threatening is neither obligated nor allowed to have one, and certainly there is no judgment or punishment.

  4. hemophiliacs aren't circumcised. I think the Mishna or elsewhere in Halacha relates that when 3 children have died from circumcision, you dont preform on #4.
    I suppose that the difference is that a born Jew is obliged not endanger himself, whereas the non Jew has no obligation to concert, so why should he put himself in a position where he must refrain from preforming a positive commandment a bitul asa
    It sounds like very interesting Halachic question
    Does the danger uproot the commandment or is it just an exemption where the commandment still looms in the backround

  5. se achiezer 4:45-46; see tosphos Yevamus 71a s.v. Mei Taama; see also Chavtalus Hasharun on Yisro and Pneneni Mbei Midrasha shmos 146

  6. Yes there are born-Jews that are uncircumcised, but it's pretty darn rare. It is completely related to piquah nefesh.

    I know people who could not be circumcised for medical reasons but were still allowed to convert. Most had to convert Reform or Reconstructionist (where it is easier to get exempted since the movements state that it's strongly recommended and not required), but a handful were able to get an Orthodox conversion but they had to find a very sympathetic bet din who were all knowledgeable about medical matters. They gave him some waiver and I think it was an actual piece of paper explaining that he couldn't be snipped but went through an Orthodox conversion. Last I heard he made aliyah.