The Covenant of Circumcision

Male converts to Judaism are traditionally required to undergo circumcision or, if already circumcised, a ritual removal of a single drop of blood.

Brit milah [circumcision] is sometimes referred to as the covenant of Abraham, who circumcised himself in order to become a Jew. According to the midrash [scriptural interpretation], the timing of Abraham’s act had special significance.

“Abraham was 48 years old when he came to know his creator. Yet he was not commanded to circumcise himself at that time and waited until he was much older — 99 years of age.

Why? In order not to close the door upon proselytes, however advanced in years.”

Actually, there is no explicit commandment in the Torah requiring circumcision (or immersion) for proselytes. The Talmud–the Oral Law–is where the laws and debates about initiation rites are found. There was general, though by no means universal, agreement among the rabbis that male converts must undergo both circumcision and mikveh [immersion in a ritual bath]. (Women only have to immerse.)

Despite the pain and risk that attended adult circumcision prior to the invention of anesthetics and antiseptic practice, adult men in every generation have submitted to circumcision in order to become Jews. Today, Orthodox and Conservative Jews still require circumcision or hatafat dam brit [extracting a drop of blood], its ritual reenactment. The Reform movement has accepted converts without milah or mikveh since 1892, a decision based in part on the absence of biblical law and also upon minority positions in the Talmud that argued circumcision was not the sine qua non for conversion. While the Reform and Reconstructionist movements do not require milah or mikveh, an increasing number of rabbis affiliated with both do make it a condition for their conversion candidates, so check with your rabbi.

Given the historical and religious significance of brit milah, the idea that an uncircumcised man can be a Jew seems like a logical impossibility. However, the case has been made that, like the uncircumcised Russian Jews who embraced their birthright after immigrating to the United States or Israel, uncircumcised converts may be seen as Jews in need of circumcision–but Jews nonetheless.

Hatafat Dam Brit–Reenacting the Ritual

For much of this century, nearly all American baby boys underwent circumcision as a health measure, a fact that made adult circumcision unnecessary for most male converts. However, medical circumcision is not the same as brit milah. The removal of the foreskin is only one part of the ritual, which must be performed with the intention of entering a boy or man into the covenant of Israel. Thus, Jewish law requires that circumcised converts undergo a ritual reenactment called hatafat dam brit. Hatafat means “drop”; dam means “blood.”

The ritual requires that a single drop of blood be taken from the site of the circumcision–more precisely, from the corona of skin that surrounds the head (or glans) of the penis. The person performing the hatafat dam brit applies an alcohol swab to the area and then pricks the skin either with a hypodermic needle or a sterile lancet. The blood is collected on a gauze pad, which may then be shown to three witnesses.

The ritual is generally scheduled days or even hours before mikveh. Typically, your rabbi will make all the necessary arrangements for hatafat dam brit, which is usually performed in a physician’s office, though it can take place in any private place. The convert does not need to fully disrobe. There is no cutting, no suturing, and no subsequent bleeding. The entire procedure takes only a few moments.

Hatafat dam brit is generally performed by a mohel, a ritual circumciser. (The Yiddish pronunciation is “moil,” the Hebrew is “mo-hail.”) A mohel is someone trained to perform both the covenantal prayers and the surgical procedure of brit milah. Traditionally, one becomes a mohel by apprenticeship with an established practitioner, but since the 1980s the Reform and Conservative movements have recruited, trained, and certified licensed physicians to serve as mohelim for the liberal Jewish community.

Rabbis and mohelim tend to insist that hatafat dam brit is painless. Converts allow that although it’s over in a second, “painless” is not an altogether accurate description, though some men find the alcohol wipe more irritating than the jab. Physicians who perform hatafat dam brit sometimes prescribe a numbing cream, which is applied to the area a few hours earlier.

Despite the minor physical and not-so-minor psychological discomfort (the anticipation is always worse than the event), converts invariably say that the importance of the ritual far outweighed any pain. And as one man said, “You wouldn’t believe the kind of respect it earned me from my mother-in-law.”

There is no liturgy for the ritual of hatafat dam brit. Some mohelim recite a blessing before drawing the drop of blood, but others do not. Afterward, the witnesses, mohel, rabbi, and convert may say the blessing over wine–a universal feature of all Jewish rituals. However, given the emotional and ritual importance of the moment, some rabbis and mohelim now include new as well as old blessings and even a brief ceremony.

Brit Milah–Adult Circumcision for Conversion

The requirement of circumcision for male converts has undoubtedly limited Judaism’s appeal to outsiders. The prospect of submitting one’s penis to the knife is physically daunting and psychologically traumatic. And yet, there have always been men willing to undergo brit milah in order to become full members of the Jewish community.

Of course, modern medicine greatly minimizes the danger and pain associated with circumcision, and since urologists and some general surgeons routinely perform circumcisions for medical reasons, the procedure itself is fairly easy to arrange.

Only an experienced urologist or general surgeon should undertake an adult circumcision, and several of the mohelim certified by the Conservative and Reform movements are qualified in these fields. A Jewish surgeon who is not a mohel can perform brit milah by saying the blessing before he does the surgery. If the only available surgeon is a non-Jew, a mohel (or indeed any Jew) may say the blessing. Finally, a medical circumcision can be performed and then followed, at a later date, by hatafat dam brit. Your rabbi should be able to refer you to a physician/mohel or help set up a kosher alternative.

Adult circumcision is performed as day surgery. The procedure takes about 30 minutes, and patients are sent home as soon as the anesthesia wears off. Local, spinal, or general anesthesia may be used, depending upon the patient’s anxiety level. Most men return to work the day after circumcision, with a prescription for a mild analgesic to alleviate postoperative pain. Dissolvable sutures are used so there are no stitches to remove; however, the urologist will want to check on the healing process after about two weeks. Swelling and discoloration persist for a week or two, and intercourse is prohibited for three to four weeks. Complications are rare, minor, and easily treated.

The religious ritual for an adult brit milah is minimal: the surgeon/mohel recites the blessing for the circumcision of converts prior to making the first incision, and a beit din [a court of three] must witness the brit by viewing a drop of blood from the incision.

Whereas the Orthodox and Conservative movements require circumcision or, for those already circumcised, the ritual extraction of a drop of blood for a conversion to be valid, the Reform movement gives more latitude to individual rabbis. The latest official Reform position is that rabbis should educate converts about these traditional rituals, but have the choice to either counsel the conversion candidate to undergo the ceremonies (this being the preferred option) or to allow the candidate to choose whether or not to do so. Reconstructionists have a similar position to the Reform movement.

Excerpted with permission from Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for Their Family and Friends (Schocken Books).

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