Adrian A. Durlester

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Lekh Lekha 5767

Penile Pilpul

A news story was reported recently about a a dispute in Australia that forced the cancellation of a young man being called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah, due to questions about his circumcision. The young man in question has a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother who has undergone a "progressive" (as they say down under) conversion. Several years ago, she began attending services at a local Chabad along with her son, and has begin studying for an orthodox conversion. The mother is also the gossip columnist for the Sydney Sunday Telegraph. (I wonder how she can continue to do that kind of work considering Jewish views of gossip?)

The young man was circumcised by a Jewish doctor 8 days after his birth in 1993, in the presence of the rabbi of a Progressive synagogue. However, two rabbis from the Beit Din who were at the mikvah the Monday before the service to perform the ritual taking of a drop of blood from the penis that is accepted practice in the orthodox community to insure that the brit milah was "kosher" determined that the original circumcision was improperly done. They called in a mohel to be sure, and he also pronounced the original circumcision inadequate. They stated that the young man would need to undergo another complete circumcision, performed under a general or local anesthesia. They told the mother that many young men, particularly émigrés from the former Soviet Union, have undergone circumcisions as young boys in this manner.

The mother refused, and the Chabad rabbis refused to allow the young man to be called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah as scheduled. So the mother went to a Progressive synagogue, which, despite an already full schedule of simchas, accommodated her. 100 or so guests were told that the service had been moved due to "technical problems." The young man was called to the Torah and, according to all reports, did quite well, despite all the trauma of the preceding week.

The mother is quite distressed with the Chabad rabbis and felt they were not very compassionate. She feels she will never again be welcome at Chabad. For their part, the Chabad rabbis said they were sympathetic but they didn't have any choice.

Of course, our liberal senses are offended by this story. Nevertheless the end of this week's parasha describes how Abraham circumcised himself at age 99, along with a 13 year old Ishmael and all the male members of Abraham's household. And next week we go one to read of Avraham's hospitality even while still recuperating from this self-performed surgery. G"d told Abraham to circumcise himself and all the males of his household as a sign of the covenant between them.

It's dilemma I'm really struggling with. There are many mitzvot in the Torah that we can and do deconstruct and reconstruct to be more in keeping with the general practices of our own time. Or we work around them. Or rationalize them (or rationalize not observing them in strict interpretation, but rather by intent.) Or we choose to ignore them as not relevant in our time. Yet it would seem a difficult thing to do in this case. Or is it?

If we take the "intent" approach, it's clear from that the young man was circumcised when he was 8 days old and this should serve as proof of the intention of his parents to bring him into the Jewish covenant with G"d. Surely the additional spilling of a drop of blood should have been enough to satisfy the beit din for the young man's commitment to be accepted by the orthodox community. He was more than willing to have this done to him.

One wonders if G"d goes around checking the penis of every young Jew to insure that the circumcision was properly performed according to the Halakha. I somehow doubt that. If the offering of our lips can substitute for the required sacrifices...

While I respect orthodoxy and these rabbis for their insistence upon adherence to the Halakha, as that is their way, the lack of effort on their part to try and find a more compassionate or humane solution is troubling. The rabbis of the Talmud, and many of our great sages, went to great lengths to distance themselves from troubling commandments like those calling for the death penalty. If these Tannaim and Amoraim could be so sensitive, why can not today's rabbis be the same? I seriously believe that had this case come before them, the rabbis of the Talmud might have ruled rather differently.

Maybe it is time for some of the traditional rabbis to "go forth for themselves" from their safe little fenced-in place, to a land that G"d will show them.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2006 by Adrian A. Durlester 


Some other musings on the same parasha:

Lekh Lekha 5766-The Other Siders
Lekh Lekha 5765 - Redux 5760
Lekh Lekha 5764-Ma'aseir Mikol-The Ten Percent Solution
Lekh Lekha 5763-No Explanations
Lekh Lekha 5761-The Intellectual Echad
Lekh Lekha 5760-Things Are Seldom What They Seem An Excerpt from the "Journal of Lot"

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