Is circumcision a deterrent to conversion?

When one thinks of bastions of Catholicism, one of the first places to spring to mind has to be Mexico. The 2000 census reported that Mexico had roughly 75 million Catholics, which equates to around 88% of that country’s total population. Given those numbers, the likelihood of being born into and raised in a household steeped in Catholic tradition is strong – so what would lead a group of Mexicans to choose to Judaism? Recently, the Jewish Journal’s Roberto Loiederman published a story about a group of people in the Mexicali region east of San Diego who, despite being born into traditionally Catholic families, opted to practice Judaism. Despite several impediments (such as not having a rabbi or a nearby synagogue), this group of Jews-by-choice enthusiastically embraces their new religion.

Their devotion is made all the more interesting due to the fact that they are such a pronounced minority. The Jewish population is sizable in the Los Angeles region and Mexico city has a growing Jewish community as well (especially now with the presence of Hebraic University, whose students are shown in the photo above), but in Mexicali, these Jews-by-choice run the risk of standing out and isolating themselves from a community where the culture is closely entwined with Catholic traditions. Facing such long odds, it is undeniably important for the Jewish community to reach out to this group and treat them as equals, or risk them becoming discouraged and disengaged. Fortunately, several members of the Jewish community have gone out of their way to make them feel welcomed and accepted as full-fledged members. A Reform rabbi, Jacques Cukierkorn, recently spoke to the group and told them that it was unnecessary for adult male Jews-by-choice to have a brit milah (ritual circumcision). Cukierkorn reasoned, “if we Reform rabbis emphasize ritual too much, we take the focus away from our main mandate, which is to make the world a better place in which we all behave in a more ethical manner.”

This is a very controversial suggestion for many Jews. On the one hand, Rabbi Cukierkorn’s attitude helps to smooth the transition into Judaism for this Mexicali group, and ensures that their newfound faith will be viewed more as a positive addition to their lives rather than a painful affliction. As they grow more comfortable and feel more accepted, there is a greater chance that not only will they be more engaged, but that their children and grandchildren will be as well, and maybe they will even take on some of those higher-barrier rituals. On the other hand, at what point do we lower the barriers too much, so that their acceptance even among fellow Reform Jews is called into question? For better or worse, Judaism is probably the most challenging religion to convert into. Many Jews believe that challenge—in the form of high barriers like circumcision—are directives from God and not human decisions. While we have long been strong supporters of Rabbi Cukierkorn’s work and his inclusive message, we also recognize why some might feel he went too far. What do you think?

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