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?


  1. In my understanding, the essence of Judaism — the Torah and its precepts — involve taking on the yoke of the 613 mitsvot. By accepting the mitsvot, one submits to a discipline the purpose of which is to contribute to the improvement of the world (tikkun olam). As far as I am concerned, there is no mitsvah superior to another, they are all important. The fundamental question is therefore, is a jew (born or converted) expected to take on all of the mitsvot, all at once? In theory, probably yes, but in practice? On this point, I would like to share three throughts. FIRST. If tikkun olam is the ultimate goal in the mind of the Almighty, and the mitsvot are the tools given to the Jews to work in that direction, it is at least arguable that He will rather have an “incomplete Jew” as His partner rather than none at all. If a Jew-by-choice takes on an active role in Jewish life, and the only “bit missing” is a circumcised foreskin, so be it. SECOND: Rabbis should encourage circumcision as part of the Jewish tradition and identity, but I doubt that they have the right to impose it. As for refusing the non-circumcised convert into the community, I wonder if they have the authority to do that, either. If being a Jew means being part of a covenant, as the strict enforcers of Brit Milah seem to suggest, then surely the decision is up to the Almighty and not to the rabbis or anyone else. The traditional halakhah is not unambiguous. While born jews must be circumcised, the requirement of milah on the ger is not clearly stated in the Torah and is therefore open to interpretation. In the absence of a clear Divine Decree that a non-circumcised convert cannot become a Jew, in my view the benefit of the doubt should be given to the otherwise sincere ger. THIRD. As a matter of consistency, only those Jews who meticulously respect all of the 613 mitsvot can argue to have the right to judge a fellow human being, and in particular another jew or a ger, over compliance with a mitsvah. For as long as the reform and conservative rabbis who do not even keep glatt kosher object to a ger without a circumsision, my opinion is… stop kvetsching.

    Comment by Joel — March 25, 2007 @ 4:58 pm

  2. Joel, you make some really good points. If the reform or conservative or reconstructionist rabbi him or herself has seen fit to alter the traditional rules of conversion because, as you say, the Torah is not explicit; and on top of that there is even a question about whether the rabbis have the authority to impose such rules, then why draw the line at circumcision?

    I think your approach is very honest and a logical extension of the way non-Orthodx Judaism works. You can’t throw out or reinterpret kashrut, Shabbat, laws of family purity, other laws of conversion, etc., and then raise an objection to a lack of circumcision in a male conversion.

    I would only add that I do not think there is such a thing as an “incomplete Jew.” One is either a Jew, or not a Jew, and there is nothing wrong with not being a Jew. How well a particular Jew is carrying out his or her mission of tikun olam, which is connected to performance of mitzvot, is an individual matter…each person has room to grow and do better. If one is a non-Jew, one does not have this God-given mission of tikun olam. A non-Jew, may adopt that mission through his or her actions, through devotion to and learning from the Jewish people’s monotheism, or by converting to Judaism. The former entail nothing formal in particular, but the latter requires a “soul-level” change to someone who is obligated by God to help fix the world from someone who was not so obligated by God. So personally, I believe brit milah, the entering into the Abrahamic covenance with God as one who will stand up against the world for turth and in order to do the right thing, is very important. Furthermore, the Torah does state that the non-circumcised may not eat of the Passover offering, and elsewhere states that converts are to have all the same laws as other bene-israel. Since Passover is the beginning of our peoplehood (appropriate topic this tiem of year), not eating of this offering would be a major impediment to integration, so I think the Torah clearly intends circumscision to be a part of conversion.

    That said, I am in full agreement with you that from a Reform theological perspective, it is hard to find a logical basis for drawing the line here. I welcome your further thoughts on the topic.

    Comment by marc — March 26, 2007 @ 11:13 am

  3. Marc,

    The inference you draw from the rule than no uncircumcised man may eat of the korban pessach is very interesting and supports the traditional stance, but … I disagree. (But DO bear in mind that I am no halakhic expert or authority, only a simple man who tries to understand.)

    FIRST, let us look at what the Torah says: Exodus 12:48: “Vechi-yagur itcha ger ve’asah Fesach l’Adonay himol lo chol-zachar ve’az yikrav la’asoto vehayah ke’ezrach ha’arets vechol-arel lo-yochal bo.” Or, in English: “When a proselyte joins you and wants to offer the Passover sacrifice to G-d, every male [in his household] must be circumcised, then he may join in the observance and be like a native-born [Israelite], and no uncircumcised man may eat [the sacrifice].

    The last bit of the sentence (ve lo-yochal bo) echoes/rhymes with the preceding verses, so it is more a stylistic device than purely a (redundant) carrier of message. The substance of the sentence means, in a nutshell, that IF the ger wants to eat the korban, he must be in all things like a native-born Jew, including circumcision. The stress on IF is (in my view) crucial. In the context of verses 47 and 49, it appears that the community of (native-born) Jews (kol-adat Yisrael) MUST hold the ritual (47), whereas the ger MAY hold it if he so chooses (48) provided that he has integrated into Jewish society to such extent as to be indistinguishable from native-born Jews, in which case the same laws applies to him as to the native-born (49). It follows that the ger must be circumcised if he chooses to take part in the ritual (which he is not obliged to), but it does not logically follow that the ger must be circumcised for any other purpose. In other words, Exodus 12:43-49 seems to suggest that a ger does NOT need to be circumcised UNLESS he wants to be able to eat the korban (which he is not obliged to do).

    If this is correct, then there are two consequences:

    1. Since there is no longer a Temple and sacrifices are no longer held, this rule is immaterial and a ger is not REQUIRED to be circumcised.

    2. It is not true that one can either be a jew (born or proseyte) or a non-jew. There are gradations in-between. This passage of the Torah seems to suggest that it contemplates and accepts different degrees of integration. A fully integrated ger, which has taken on all the customs and rules and habits of the native-born Jew will be indistinguishable from the latter. But there may be some gerim who are “pretty much” integrated, and accepted, in Jewish society, but not to the extent of being indistinguishable from the native born. There is no reason that these gerim should not participate in the civic and religious life of the jews, short of eating the korban. (Think of them as green-card holders, who have all the rights and duties of citizens, short of voting and holding public office.)

    Note also that gerim are exempt from saying the traditional berakha “shelo asani goy”. Why this exemption, if they are undistinguishable from native-born Jews and must not be reminded of their gentile origin? This does not make sense unless one is prepared to accept that it is forbidden to remind gerim of their gentile origin only when they are integrated to the extent of being indistinguishable from the native-born jews, but in that case they have had, as you said, a soul-changing experience that obliterates their previous identity as a goy, in which case they should be able to say “shelo asani goy”. Conversely, gerim that are “pretty much” integrated but, for instance, do not keep glatt kosher or are not circumcised, ought not to say the berakha because indeed, part of themselves is still shaped by the previous identity. As you say, there is no shame in being a (righteous) goy, so there is no shame in remembering (or even being reminded of) one’s origin, when the “effects” of the origin are still operative. In my view the confusion lies in, and much heartache is caused by, the rabbinical (not divine) requirement that a ger MUST integrate to the extend of being allowed to eat the no-longer-offered korban. But where does the Torah say that one has to be so demanding?

    SECOND, we should think a bit why modern reform rabbis insist on the performance of the atavic ritual of Brit Milah. The CCAR, in a famous responsum of 1893, laid down that it is not necessary to undergo any initiatory rite (including Milah) in order to be or become a Jew. This view held true for decades, and only fairly recently the tune has changed and many reform rabbis now tend to REQUIRE Milah UNLESS exceptional circumstances prevail. Why this turn to a more restrictive policy? I do not have a definitive answer, but one could be that in the past (1893) the reform movement tried to modernise judaism, to make it more contemporary, yet the jewish identity was fairly strong and communities close-knit. Today, Jews are more than ever integrated in gentile society, intermarriage is common. Some people, rabbis included, fear that the Jewish identity is being diluted, and to counter that they insist on a physical mark of jew-icity.

    Yet I feel that dilution is a possible consequence of the current situation, it is not the necessary one. Dilution will occur if one sticks to old stereotypes and modi operandi. But the present situation may also be met with a proactive stance, and may spur the development of a more inclusive, “porous” and — let’s face it — welcoming Judaism whilst strengthening the jewish sould and identity. Let us not forget that Judaism is, to my knowledge, the only religion with a pre-eminently ethical aspect (as opposed to a pre-eminently sacramental one like Christianity). There is no reason why non-jews may not join ‘am Yisrael in its traditional quest for an ethical, righteous future for the whole of humanity. As I have writeen elsewhere,”the traditional “Us v Them” mentality was helpful and justified only insofar as it prevented a relapse into idolatry of the neighbouring people, or it incites to follow Torah. But G-D did not chose the Jews to be an elitist club. Jews are the “chosen people” because they are set aside with the special responsibility to bear witness to Him. What is the point of bearing witness, if not to lead the way and call the Nations to recognize Him as the only Supreme Being? If so, why push a gentile away when he or she IS responding to G-D’s calling?”. If my interpretation above is correct, then there is no reason why — expecially nowadays — a proselyte may be welcome also in the absence to complete compliance with all traditional ritual requirements. These are meaningful and important, yes, to shape the identity, but not (in my view) a conditio sine qua non of Jew-icity. Or as the Reconstructionists say, the Past has a Vote, not a Veto.


    Comment by Joel — March 27, 2007 @ 8:08 am

  4. errata corrige:
    there is no reason why — expecially nowadays — a proselyte may NOT be welcome also …

    Comment by Joel — March 27, 2007 @ 8:33 am

  5. Yasher Koach Joel on a wonderfully thought-out response!

    Just a couple of things. You mention that IF your rendering of the verse in Exodus is correct, THEN there are two consequences:
    (1) The absence of a Temple renders my proof no longer relevent (I do not think this is a correct statment, logically speaking, but I think it need not be relevent to our discussion);
    (2) There are gradations of “Jews” (and gerim) and therefore no reason to require brit milah for conversion … and in fact the Reform Movement did not originally do so.

    Regarding the verse in Exodus. You have read the word “ger” to mean “proselyte” (”convert”). If you are correct, you posit, then it seems there are “gradations” of general category converts, or else the command that they be circumcised seems superfluous, unless there is some explanation we are not thinking of. I think this makes sense.

    However, we know that the hebrew word “ger” means both “proselyte” and “stranger” depending on the context and the mesorah (tradition) about what it means [indeed without the Mesorah of what the Torah and writings of the prophets means, the Christians would have a much stronger claim theologically than they currently do]. My copy and I believe that of the Jewish Publication Society, and any masoretic text will render THIS particular use of “ger” to mean “stranger.” Thus, the verse reads that, “when a stranger joins you…”, meaning a non-Jew (distinguished from an idolotrous non-Jew for which the Torah uses different words I believe). Some may even read this as a dictate that a non-Jew must convert in order to eat of the Pesach. The Reform movement, in fact, to justify allowing reform rabbis to officiate at interfaith weddings ( as in “love the stranger”) renders the term “ger” as “stranger” virtually every time it is used in the Torah (contrary to the way they render it in the 1893 REsponsa you cite where it states what the Mesorah says…most times it means proselyte). Indeed the very verse you quote is used to in some reform circles justify inviting non-Jews to seders. The word cannot mean both things in a single instance. And since here it means “stranger” according to both the Mesorah AND the Reform movement (a momentous occasion indeed…moshiach must be coming soon!!!), it cannot be used to prove that conversion does not entail circumcision.

    So, IF your two consequences were premised upon this verse, I think my rendering of the verse is more in accord with what the plain words of the verse mean. Therefore, I think my proof still stands that the Torah is being explicit in telling us that a (male) convert must be circumcised. Now I am no rabbi, and it could be the traditional commentaries do not use this verse at all, but I think my point about how the Reform movement renders this verse is still very strong…that if it means “convert” so you cannot use it to justify cooking for non-Jews for Pesach, and if it means “stranger” you cannot use it as a proof that there were converts who had not been circumcised (which may be the case…I am no historian either).

    What do you think?

    Comment by marc — March 27, 2007 @ 9:28 am

  6. Hi Marc, Koach right back to you! Hmmmm. You base your argument on the translation of “ger” as “stranger” and not as “proselyte”. Compelling, but I must question several issues:

    (1) By translating “ger” in verse 48 as “stranger” instead of “proselyte”, you implicitly posit that the idolatrous but circumcised man is allowed to eat the Korban… which of course is nonsense! And if to eat the sacrifice the stranger has to convert “to the extent of being indistinguishable from a native” (on this we seem to agree), then the issue is not resolved, and I maintain that this sentence only proves that the converted stranger must be circ’d to eat the sacrifice (and possibly enjoy other ritual rights like entering the Sanctuary), but not to “pretty much” convert as such. Proof of the latter requirement, if it exhists, must be found elsewhere.

    (2) The “real stranger” is dealt with in verse 43: no alien (ben-nechar) shall eat thereof. Verses 44-45 deal with two categories of “intermediate fellows”, the bonded man and the non-bonded temporary visitors, who cannot eat the korban (unless, one presumes, they decide to join the tribe permanently, but then they would be gerim). Finally, we have in verse 48 the position of the “permanent resident/proselyte”. Since each of the seven verses 43-49 set out a list of distinct rules, it makes little sense to have two, and only two, with overlapping provisions (an alien in verse 43 and a “stranger” in verse 48). Moreover, note the structure of the rules on whether one is allowed (Y) or not (N) to eat the korban: alien (N) — bonded man circumcised by his Jewish master (Y) — visitor (N) — ger (Y), provided he circumcises all the men in his household (ie also his slaves), thereby being under the obligation to behave like the Jewish master in the second case. Why this insistence on having the slaves circumcised? Because a master has power over him, and by cirumsizing the slave he allows the latter to partake in the spiritual benefits of the covenant. Not to do so would be unduly to deprive a human being that has no choice of the Divine presence, which is immoral. This consideration, too, in my view indicates that ger in verse 48 should be interpreted as a “full convert” and not “stranger”.

    (3) Verse 49 says that the same rules apply to the native-born and the proselyte (le’ezrach velager). In this case, there is no doubt that ger refers to a proselyte, and a full convert for that matter (or G-d would not have given one and the same law to both: Torah achad yihye…) Now, I think it would be odd, and unusual, to find the use of “ger” with two distinct meanings so close to each other, in fact in the same set of rules. Note also the assonance “vechi YAGUR itcha GER (48) … velaGER haGAR … The root GR is preeminent, and its meaning is “to join” (for the purpose of sojourning together). A ger is not merely a stranger within our walls, he is someone who has JOINED us, in the sense of having chosen to live with us and thus to join his destiny with ours. Joining the Jews (especially in those days) also means to adopt at least the most relevant religious aspects (and if one adopts them all, then one is a full convert — ger tzedek — who can even eat the korban).

    (4) Thus, when we say ger, we should probably distinguish “ger tzedek” from “ger hager”. When I speak of different gradations of geirut short of 100%, I refer to all “ger hager” characters, those who sojourn with “a green card” among ‘am Yisrael and have accepted most of its (relevant religious) customs and follow its laws, but are not (yet) citizens. Now, if the only difference between a ger hager and a ger tzedek/yisraeli lies in (1) access to certain rituals (eating the korban) and (2) having the options of taking up all mitsvot (relevant for reform!), instead of the obligation to do so, then there is mighty little difference between, on the one hand a ger tzedek and, on the one other hand a ger hager that has taken on voluntarily the yoke of those RELEVANT mitsvot.

    The fundamental question is therefore: is circumcision one of the mitsvot that are relevant for Reform? (If so, why? and why not kashrut?). And we are back to square one.

    In my view, circumcision is the indelible mark of the acceptance of the covenant and of (full) membership in ‘am Yisrael. But my understanding is that even in traditional halakhah physical circumcision is useless if it does not include an intellectual-emotive statement of acceptance of the covenant, which requires a knowledge of what the covenant actually means. Ezechiel said ‘kol ben nechar erel lev ve erel basar lo yavo el Mikdashi’ (all aliens uncircumcised of heart and uncircumcised of flesh may not enter the Sanctuary). This means that circumcision of the flesh MUST be accompanied by circumcision of the heart (certainly for the convert — but also for born-Jews?). Now,if the essential requirement of the Covenant is to be aware of its meaning and to be willing to respect it (a circumcision of the heart, lev), why do we need also cutting of the flesh (basar)? In fact, this is an outward sign of ritual fitness, of being an Israelite and not a pagan — and in some sense a “deed of covenant” signed, snip-sealed and delivered, on which (at least in theory) neither party can go back. Does Reform truly need an outward sign of ritual fitness, of being monotheistic and not a pagan? I doubt it. In my view, one would do better to insist on a true circumcision of the heart…

    Finally, I would like to point out that if permission to celebrate interfaith marriages hinges on the mitsvah “love the ger”, it is quite unnecessary — and in my view incorrect — to translate this phrase as “love the stranger”. A future spouse who has not fully converted (ger tzedek) will still, because of the nature of marriage, “sojourn among the Jews” (the family of the spouse), adopting or adapting some behaviour to fit the new situation. Hence the non-jewish spouse (with the possible exception of an idolatrous one) will be by definition a ger (hager, not tzedek). So where is the semantic problem? It seems to me that Reform should rely more on the original (unitary) meaning of the hebrew word than on a divisive translation into… a goyishe loshen! No?

    Comment by Joel — March 27, 2007 @ 12:00 pm

  7. You guys may be missing something here. The writer brought up the question–not to advocate for a paticular position–but rather to ask the important question: Is circumcision a deterrant to conversion? Neither of you seems to have addressed that issue.

    Comment by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky — March 27, 2007 @ 5:45 pm

  8. Hello Rabbi Olitsky,

    I think I would conceed to you, the author, and to Joel that circumcision IS a detterent to conversion…indeed I have seen historical date which suggests that during the times of the Roman Empire there was a large contingent of non-Jews takng on mitzvot and coming to a more Judaic outlook about how to relate to God, but most were deterred from converting because the Romans viewed circumcision as desecrating the body (they weren’t too keen on kashrut or family purity laws either). Perhaps it was made part of the conversion rules in order to be a deterrent…I don’t really know.

    The question I think Joel and I were haggling over was whether this deturrent, circumcision, is important enought to insist upon, or not. I think we’d all conceed that certain things are essential to conversion, like belief in one God as opposed to many gods; NOT accepting Jesus as a messianic figure; and perhps some other, more Jew-specific things in terms of beliefs or practices. Perhaps I am wrong about that, though, and others would disagree with there being any litmus test for conversion. If so, I’d be interested to hear what you have to say. Joel, what do you think?

    Comment by marc — March 27, 2007 @ 6:35 pm

  9. Rav Olitsky, Marc,

    Is it actually possible to say whether or not circumsision is a deterrent to conversion if we do not first define what conversion is or should be? I think implicit in the discussion so far is a fundamental question: what degree of “geirut tsedakah” should the ger attain before he is accepted into the fold of ‘am Yisrael?

    The traditional position, at least in theory, aims at a 100% ger tsedek — with circumcision of the flesh AND of the heart. I wonder if it is attainable at all. A 100% circumcision of the heart is not merely an intellectual exercise in understanding the covenant, it also means to absorb all the collective memories of a Nation, to soak up their pain and joys, all the culture that shapes the jewish view of the Jewish people and of the world. Can this be achieved by the time of conversion? I this not something of a goal to be reached after conversion, over a lifetime, with the support of the community? But how can it be possible, if the “as yet not 100% ger” is not allowed into the community? I guess what I am advocating here is a more realistic policy of conversion. Let the ger join the fold of Israel setting precise but not insurmountable standards of behaviour, knowledge and devotion. Then encourage the new Jew to continue on the path of learning — not only religious but also cultural and historical — and integration in the community. With time, the new Jew will become an old Jew, and chances are that he will choose to take on all the rituals that are meaningful to himself and the community, which may include milah (because this, too, is part of the collective memory of the Israelites), without any need of cohercion from the rabbi under pain of exclusion from the community.

    I think milah is unnecessary at conversion. Milah is the outward sign of having accepted and entered a covenant — it is NOT the covenant itself. In the biblical days, where membership databases did not exist and tribal affiliation was paramount, it may have been necessary. Today there are more reliable ways to track one’s status… and circumcision is not any longer a distinctive sign.

    So, insofar as CONVERSION is concerned, ie being accepted into the fold of the Jewish nation and a party to the covenant, a requirement of milah IS a deterrent, as is any exotic ritual (as opposed to substantive) requirement. It is a deterrent not only because of the inherent mutilation, but also because any insistence on it may be perceived as giving priority to form over substance. If anything, milah should be portrayed as the ultimate beauty mark of the consummate Jew, to be cherished and sought, but not a conditio sine qua non of membership.

    Comment by Joel — March 28, 2007 @ 4:40 am

  10. I grew up in the south. I realized that circumcision makes you different the first day of gym class in 7th grade. While I personally insist on circumcision, I also recognize that it is a deterrant for some.

    Comment by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky — March 28, 2007 @ 7:34 am

  11. Joel, much of your points have to do with what is relevent today, as opposed to what was relevent during Biblical times. I think that this assumes the reasons for the commandments were ascertainable in some tangible way during Biblical times, which I’m not sure is the case at all. Certain things, such as use of the ashes of the red heifer, we are told are “chukim” (laws whose reasons are not readily ascertainable by man). Yet we still had to do them.

    By framing the conversion discussion around what mitzvot are “relevent” to someone who is not even Jewish yet (of course, I would argue they are all “relevent” today, even those we cannot practice b/c we can learn something from them…but it takes hard work to see the relevance), I think you are setting them up for a life of disinsentive to explore the mitzvot in order to make an informed decision. After all, even reform and conservative and many orthodox Jews have trouble taking on mizvot they did not grow up with, especially if their families were lax in observance. All the more so will someone who grew up with none of it find it difficult to take on new, puzzling, and sometimes very difficult and even physically and psychologically painful mtizvot.

    The question for me is not whether circumcision is a disinsentive to conversion…I believe it is. But to many, so is having to shed their belief in Jesus, or multiple gods, which I think we would all insist upon. Given your reasoning, Joel, I am not sure what the basis for insisting upon even this monotheism would be, though. After all, what if someone agreed to all the mitzvot except they wanted to practice idolotry or maintain their belief in Jesus? Couldn’t we also say this one thing, “monotheism,” can be achieved over time? If so, I think we open the door to Jews for Jesus, Jew-Bhudists, and all sorts of other fringe groups which endanger Judaism having any content at all.

    As always, I would like to hear your always thoughtful remarks on the topic.
    And Rabbi Olitsky, since you insist upon circumcision, I think it would be helpful to our discussion to hear why that is.

    Comment by marc — March 28, 2007 @ 9:28 am

  12. Marc,

    You are right to say that I concentrate on the present. It is also true that the meaning of many mitzvot is obscure. But the adaptation of the law to modern times is the essence of Reform, so I don’t think I quite follow your argument there.

    I have not and will not advocate compromising on what I call “substantive requirements”: monotheism and all of its intellectual, moral, ethical & theological corollaries: in short, the ESSENCE of the Covenant. I only question the wisdom (in the present times) of insisting on *ritual* requirements (and this only in the context of Reform).

    J-f-J and, G-d forbid, “Hare Christians” and other exotic fringe movements are not monotheistic, non-Christian, non-idolatrous the way the Torah prescribes it. Since they do not meet essential substantive requirements, they are knocking at the wrong door. You touched on a crucial topic: “shedding the belief in Jesus”. This SHOULD be a requirement. But be aware that there are also potential gerim that have ALREADY shed their belief in Jesus, that already have come to the conclusion that the religion propagated by Paul of Tarsus 2000 years ago is, to put it mildly, not what they can or want to believe in, yet they remain attached to their roots and are NOT prepared to convert to, say, Hinduism. These people turn to Judaism as their “next of kin” — only to find many doors shut because of ritual requirements which they may be too scared to face (hey, circumcision is still, medically speaking, a mutilation!). Is terror of something like this not enough to grant an exception to the rule (well, according to the CCAR it is for minor boys)? The terrified, but otherwise sincere ger is thereby left out in the cold, without the benefit of spiritual support of the only religion he can believe in. I have two question here:
    (1) In the light of the consequences, and in the light of the purpose of milah, is the requirement proportionate to the goal? (I assume here that the principle of proportionality applies also in Jewish law…)
    (2) And how does the Jewish community deal with this responsibility (particularly in the light of the mitzvah “love the ger”)?

    I have no answer on this. Would anyone care to educate me?


    PS: What you describe as a danger of “disincentive to explore the mitzvot … take on painful mitzvot” is a danger in the context of the Orthodox and at least the traditionalist wing of the Conservatives — but in reform? Name me a physical and psychologically painful mitzvah (aside from milah).

    Comment by Joel — March 28, 2007 @ 10:52 am

  13. Joel, I see your points that, from a Reform perspective, brit milah is merely a ritual and that there are perhaps no other painful mitzvot to be taken on in Reform. Given that, and given that the Reform had already adopted an earlier stance indicating that it would not be required, I understand your argument that Reform should not require it today.

    This brings me back to the point you made in “3″ above that the fear that Jewish identity is being diluted could be driving the Reform return to outward signs of Jewishness…brit milah, allowing or wearing kippas in synagogue, having some semblance of kashrut at synagogue functions (even if it’s veggie only meals, etc.), and a number of others.
    —-Rabbi Olitsky, I was wondering, given Joel’s points, what your reasons are for insisting on brit milah. Do you agree this is a reaction to the “dilution” of Judaism?

    Joe, one last question: how do you distinguish (or alternatively, who gets to distinguish) between those things which are, as you put it, “the ESSENCE of the Covenant” and those which are “purely ritualistic.” For example, are all of the “Thou shalt not”s (murder, theft, etc.) part of the ESSENCE? Given the politics of Reform I think it will be hard to put things like homosexual relations into a neat box. Moreover, every mitzvah has some moral implication, but none is ONLY moral in it’s implication, so how can we decide which is part of the “ESSENCE” and which is not. (And sometimes the mroe esoteric a mitzvah seems, the deeper its moral teachings). It seems to me this will be rather an arbitrary decision. What do you think?

    Comment by marc — March 28, 2007 @ 4:53 pm

  14. The reaction of the Reform movement to various traditions and traditions is a result of the path that the American JEwish community has taken. In an era where American Jews were trying to Americanize, they avoided many rituals. Now that the American Jewish community is, for the most part, not an immigrant generation nor restricted by quotas, they can freely embrace those things that their parents or even grandparents might have rejected.

    As for brit milah, while there are many things that I insist on–or practice myself, it doesnt mean that I cant see or understand the perspective of others or their feeling that it is a deterrant> At JOI we want to lower barriers–without diluting–so we are prepared to confront it all/

    Comment by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky — March 28, 2007 @ 7:49 pm

  15. Rabbi Olitsky, I would only say that any lowering of the barriers is likely to lead to SOME dilution. The question is: “How much dilution is too much?”

    I’m sure opinions will differ on the matter, and it depends whether your MAIN focus is on maintaining a solid Jewish core or in widening the net of those who join Judaism. I think some balance is necessary to avoid the dilution…but where does one draw the line, without drawing it at the lowest common denominator (which is pretty much guaranteed to lead to this dilution). And once that line is drawnin the sand, how do you justify logically having drawn that line, but not another?

    Comment by marc — March 29, 2007 @ 9:02 am

  16. Marc, you ask me at 13 what is “essence” and what is “mere ritual”. I do not think it is black and white, there are clearly gradations of gray in between, so it is a difficult question (and that is why we are debating!).

    It is perhaps easier to perhaps to start with what is purely ritual (thus, in MY view, dispensable): generally these are acts or signs that testify to present or regained ritual purity, or milah, mikvah, ritual hand-washing…

    Examples of what I consider purely substantive and therefore essential are, well, the ten commandments to begin with, and anything that is a direct order to act ethically. This includes keeping the shabbat, which in fact is an order to forget mundane preoccupation and concentrate on what is truly important, at least once a week.

    Then, in between those two extremes, there are many intermediate rules that can be considered as laying down a DISCIPLINE, the purpose of which is to “sanctify”, or more prosaically remind the Jew of the spiritual every (busy) day of his life, not only on shabbat. Some will be more “substantive” than “ritual”, other more “ritual” than “substantive”.

    Among the first category of intermediates, I would place certain rites that periodically commemorate and introduce vividly for everyone to relieve a substantive episode: lighting the shabbat candles, havdalah, the seder for passover, etc… All of these are tools to enhance the experience of the substantive covenant.

    Among the latter, I would place the prohibition to “shave the corners of the head” (hence beard and peyot). The origin of this commandment was not to adopt the habit of idolatrous neighbours of self-defiling as a sign of mourning. It is only a sign in an of itself, but the implicit content (do not defile yourself) has a substantive character. (Of course in my view we can shave — provided it is not for mourning…)

    Half way in between, the most pre-eminent are the Kashrut, the rules on family purity,… any act or omission without a real practical effect (hence, ritual) but that is there to remind us that we are not animals (which is a substantive point).

    I n my opinion the (reformed) Jew should stick jealously to the “purely substantive” rules, may freely drop the “purely ritual”, and should adopt as much of the “intermediate discipline” that is meaningful to live a rewarding Jewish life without having to reject completely and isolate oneself from the rest of the world and its inhabitants. The quantity and quality of this discipline must take into account the environment: including the risk of dilution, and the wishes of the community.

    Does this make sense?

    Comment by Joel — March 29, 2007 @ 10:47 am

  17. I think that for most people the line is just outside of where they stand, wherever that is. Openness does not have to imply dilution at all.

    I am going to leave the conversation and prepare for Passover. Chag Sameach. May we all only know freedom and redemption.

    Comment by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky — March 29, 2007 @ 12:22 pm

  18. Joel, I think you are taking a very Christian approach to Judaism. I only say that b/c I had a philosophy Professor (with a Master’s in Divinity) who brought down this same dichotomy, perhaps from St. Augustine or some other early Church Father…I cannot remember his source. This is difficult from a Jewish perspective b/c, as you said in your first posting, no mitzvah is superior to another (although this is not 100% clear as the punishments for violating some is far more severe than for others).

    Furthermore, if you believe that those you call “rituals” don’t actually DO anything except serve as some outward sign, you MAY be right (I would argue that we need constant reminders in our busy and heavily assimilated world of our connection to God and the Jewish people). But what if that is not the case at all? What if the acts themselves transform the person and serve to better connect them to God and to better perform those “ethical” commandments? For example, there are Jewish laws against fornication (sex outside of marriage)…certainly we’d call this a “moral” law (given your own categories). It happens to be that circumcision reduces the male pleasure during intercourse and, some would say, the male sexual drive as well. This slight reduction makes it just that much easier for a male to control his libido (already a difficult task even with a circumcision!). This is just one example. I am sure there are similar examples of how every mitzvah, even those which clearly seem “ritual” to you, are actually effecting psychological and spiritual change in us, thus enabling us to better adhere to those “ethical” teachings you consider “essential.”

    I’m just concerned that the system you lay out leaves Reform Jews will very little guidance at all, opening the door to abborations and insertions into Judaism of things which are very UN-Jewish, and leading to the very dilution we fear.

    Comment by marc — March 30, 2007 @ 8:41 am

  19. Marc,

    I do not think (hope!) that I take a Christian approach, and I confess that I am entirely ignorant of St. Augustine’s works. But I am certainly trying to be provocative: my goal is to stimulate debate, not to prescribe a solution. If in the end you and I decide that the only correct way is 100% compliance with orthodoxy, we will have done so after having evaluated all imaginable alternatives. My starting points are (a) that Judaism is a religion of freedom and personal responsibility, and (rather reconstructively, b) that Judaism should be a dynamic culture.

    From a cultural point of view, we have to be flexible and inclusive if we want to be dynamic. Sheepishly and acritically to refuse any change is not Jewish culture: It is shtetl-nostalgia. Recognizing as optional certain rules that no longer have a meaning for the individual or the community creates space for cultural development, and is quite a far cry from opening the door to aberrations and unjewish insertions. (One can decide to purify oneself with a prayer under the shower rather than in a mikveh, or to shave off the peyot and have a kosher mohawk look instead — but one may not hold a wiccan sukkot celebration or a trinitarian bris.)

    The classical source for the classification of the 613 mitsvot is Maimonides’ Sefer haMitzvot, and if you look carefully his 28 categories (14 positive and 14 negative) can be roughly lumped into three supra-categories: ritual, ethical/moral, political (which we do not discuss here), so what you call dichotomy (in fact, a trichotomy) is hardly an original thought of mine.

    But Maimonides did not give precedence to one category over another. The big question is whether there SHOULD be any precedence. Are ethical mitzvot inherently more important than ritual? The answer depends on whether you take a teleological or a deontological approach. I am inclined to favour the former, also because each of the 613 Mitsvot has been traditionally linked to one of the 10 commandments given to Moses in Exodus 20 — all of which are ethical in nature and not purely ritualistic. So ethics are the core of all the commandments, hence I assume that the purpose of the comandments is to underpin ethical lives.

    With this regard, I agree entirely with you that some rituals (even those we do not understand) MAY help better to connect with Divinity, or to perform other mitzvot. But I share Martin Buber’s view that it is wise to take on only the mitsvot that are meaningful to the individual. Also following from your own logic: if a ritual mitzvah that is meant to connect you to G-d does not do the trick for you, why would you continue to perform it? Arguably, it could become a weight, an encumbrance that weighs you down and may tire you out of the performance of other mitzvot that DO have a meaning to you.

    There are, however, some counterarguments.

    (1) If we are to leave out anything that does not “do the trick”, are we not introducing arbitrariness and “convenience” into the choice? Is this compatible with the tenets of Judaism, or is Reform a mere “jewish convenience store”?

    (2) A Jew is a Jew because he has submitted to the mitzvot. But judaism is not only a religion, it is “peoplehood” and culture. Could all the mitzvot (including those we do not understand or appreciate) be the mortar that keeps the building of the Jewish nation together? If so, can we responsibly argue that we may ignore ANY of the rules without weakening the fabric of the nation? But then, how are we to avoid shtetl-nostaliga?



    PS: point taken about circumcision and “less pleasure”. But in my view circumcision is proving highly ineffective in preventing fornication!

    PPS: Incidentally, the Torah itself seems to separates ethical from ritual commandments: compare Exodus 34 with Exodus 20!

    Comment by Joel — April 2, 2007 @ 4:20 am

  20. PPPS: Marc, you wrote “What if the acts themselves transform the person”. But this is a Christian concept: Judaism has no notion of sacraments!!


    Comment by Joel — April 2, 2007 @ 4:31 am

  21. Joel, I think you bring up some excellent points. I must say, however, that the 2 questions you pose at the end are very relevent questions today, and questions I do not believe the non-Orthodox world has been considering seriously enough. Regardless of how we view the mitzvot, if the questions you raise are answered in the affirmative (i.e., that Reform has become basically a “Jewish convenience store” and that each rule ignored DOES do damage to the fabric of the Jewish nation, thus affecting us all), I fear the Jewish people are in a very sad state indeed. As to your question about shetl-nostalgia…I think it also relevent…having experienced it myself since becomming religious a few years ago. Unfortunately, most people (religious and not-so-religious) are, left to their own devices, insecure and unbalanced in at least some way…the same way some try to create a shtetl, others try to make their synagogues as “open” as possible, regardless of Jewish content or damage to the spiritual well-being of their Jewish congregants. Balance is always the key and it is not easy to attain. I am Torah-observant, an attorney, a real estate developer, I enjoy classical music and a ball game now and then, and feel the beauty that God put into the world is there to be enjoyed by us, including those which are man-made. At the same time, it is quite clear to me that the primary role of the Jew in this world is to be Light to the non-Jews, to show them what a model society is supposed to look like, to show them what it means to relate to the trancendent in a tangible way, and to spread the ethics of God.

    In this I can agree with you that, underlying all mitzvot, is ethics. However, that means ALL mitzvot ate “ethical.” (I do not argue, Heaven forbid, with the Rambam. His purpose in explaining the mitzvot as he did was to prevent Jews in Spain and throught the Muslim empire from adopting Muslim science and ethics in lieu of Jewish observance. In fact, he was well aware of the Rashi’s commentary on the Chumash which bring down many ethical teachings from “pure ritual” and does not take him to task for it. The Rambam himself, however, was taken to task doing this by Rabbeinu Yonah (same time period), who feared that doing so IN WRITING at all, even for a worthy purpose, would lead to future generations using his writing to ignore the mitzvot themselves if they would be able to come up with another way to get the same spiritual sensation or ethical teaching. The Reform movement later proved these fears most correct.)

    Torah is a system of living (”instructions” literally). You can adopt part of the system, but cannot expect it to work as well as if you adopt it in its entirety (over time…again, one must be balanced in his approach to growth and change). We must try to understand the meaning behind the mitzvot, as the Rambam helps us do, and as later Rabbi Samsom Raphael Hirsch helps us do, but ultimately only God knows the entirety of what a mitzvah does to connect us to Him, and the help change the world. And indeed, we DO know much, and each generation also can connect to teh mitzvot in a slightly different way than the generation before it. But to say that a mitzvah is somehow irrelevent (for all of us, or for any individual) is basically to second-guess God. How can this be consistent with growing closer to God??? (God said “do X”. I feel that X will not connect me to God so I will not do X or will do Y instead. Y will connect me to God despite that God did not say “do Y” and did say “do X”. The proposition seems logically absurd unless you take God out of the equation, in which case one must ask “Why are you worried about what connects you to God?”).

    To adress your point about Buber - to do this is to place yourself on a pedestal above God. A logically absurdity given, as expressed above, that a purpose of the mitzvot is to connect you to God. If something is “weighing you down” as you said, then perhaps you do need to step away from it so as not to turn you off to Judaism entirely…life is a process of growth. But it is one thing to say “I am not ready to do this right now, but will work toward it and MAYBE one day I will be able to do it” and saying “This is not relevent to me so I will not do it.” The former assumes God knows best and the latter assumes man knows better than God and is, by the way, a surefire recipe for dropping observance (which is difficult sometimes) altogether.

    Regarding teh postcript comments, which are very good, I would only say (1) If you are not in tune to why you were circumcised this is probably correct…proper intention is also important and can lead to a reduction of fornication…it is both physiological and psychological, the latter being able to control the situation if it tries hard enough; (2) I don’t get your references in Exodus or why you think this seperates out ethical and ritual…Both mention Shabbat, for example. Furthermore, who is to say that ceasing work on Shabbat or not making a graven image is more “ethical” than “ritual?” And even if you are right, shouldn’t then Reform be more meticulous in observing Shabbat rather than less??? (3) I believe Judaism does have a concept of being transformed by the mitzvot. It is brought down clearly that giving 10% to charity will make you into a charitable person and person who recognizes that everything we have belongs to God; that eating matzah on Pesach will aid in freeing you (of life’s labors) to better serve God; that putting on tefilin makes men a better receptacle for God’s Light; that fasting on Yom Kippur does make you like an angel without sin, etc., etc. - I think the Christians got this notion from us and distorted it…they gave up the “good works” in favor of, as you would say, “sacraments” which serve no real transforming purpose except as ritual. And is spite of their transubstantiation of the eucharest ceremnoy, at its base, CHristianity is more into thoughts than deed (accepting Jesus absolves even the murderer of his sins). Judaism requires real change and its “rituals” aid in that transformation. I am in agreement with you, though, that if you treat Jewish mitzvot as mere ritual, you will get little out of them and may be a very bad person b/c of your wrong mindset (the prophets speak all the time about those who bring sacrifices, but cheat in busines or don’t give enough charity, etc.)

    That was too long…sorry. Let me wish you a CHag Kasher v’Sameach! All the best to you and your family, Joel,


    Comment by marc — April 2, 2007 @ 10:00 am

  22. Marc,

    I hope you had a wonderful Pessah. I am still trying to recover from the seder… I will be briefer this morning because I have an early meeting.

    You seem to take a deontological approach, basically saying that “you have to do X because G-d says so and thus it is meaningful”. This is a perfectly legitimate approach, but is it appropriate for everyone? It is certainly valid for the man that already DOES find meaning in certain things. But put yourself for a moment in a more skeptical, or uninspired person. Is a teleological approach not more useful for him? I think judaism is flexible, or should be flexible, enough to allow for both approaches in accordance with the need of the individual, and I do not think that this necessarily takes G-d out of the equation.

    Having said this, I appreciate what you say, and personally, I find many small ritual details meaningful, and believe that observance should be encouraged. I agree entirely with you that it is legitimate to say “I am not ready to do this right now, but will work toward it and MAYBE one day I will be able to do it” and distinguish it “This is not relevent to me so I will not do it.” This is exactly what I meant when I said earlier, in relation to circumcision, that it is something that you will choose to do when you have internalized enough jewishness to be a Yid. Remember, I am not against milah, I only advocate persuasion/encouragement instead of cohercion/exclusion.

    As you say, life is a process of growth, and to insist on full compliance with all mitsvot by the time of conversion seems to me putting the goal as the starting point. So I am unsure that it is at all possible to undergo an orthodox conversion! The conservative/reform approach seems to me more realistic, and the question becomes then what is the minimum package you should take on when you set out on your journey of growth. Should circumcision be part of it? We may never agree on this. Perhaps this, too, should be taylored to the need of the individual. If the requirement provides a challenge that may bring about a spiritual change (which I accept it can), then YES. If it turns away the man, who will abandon the journey of growth, then NO. In this case. it is in my opinion advisable to risk having a Jew who ultimately will stray and choose not to undergo milah than having a man dropping the opportunity of growing in Torah.

    Doe this make sense?


    Comment by Joel — April 4, 2007 @ 1:29 am

  23. Joel, happy Passover…I too am recovering from the late-night seders. As tired as I am, I must admit, though, they were loads of fun. Even as my eyes were closing while singing at the end!

    I don’t think you characterized what I meant to get across quite the way I meant it…perhaps I can say it better. It’s not that “you have to do X b/c G-d said so and thus it is meaningful.” I don’t disagree with that statement…for ME, because I have already gone through the process of getting over that hump on taking on the mitzvot. But for those who are facing it now, or who haven’t faced it yet it’s more like this: “God said so and thus it is meaningful, objectively speaking. Whether I subjectively find it meaningful will dictate which mitzvot I find it easy to take on. Others will be harder b/c I don’t personally find the maning in them. It could be this is b/c they are difficult to understand…which means it may be a long process, or it may mean that experiencing and doing it (like Shabbat) is the only real way to appreciate it. I am willing to try mitzvot on my journey of growth and first take on those which speak to me, and to work on the others over time.” (very long, but I think more accurate to what I was getting at.) SInce I was once that “skeptical person” I can tell you that I’ve seen literally hundreds of Jews return to mitzvot using this soft-sell approach.

    But that is for the one who is already Jewish. Regarding the convert there has to be some baseline for joining the Jewish people. This is a very touchy topic…few of us have families void of intermarriage or a convert who did not come through Orthodoxy. But I’d like to put the emotions involved to the side for a moment and wonder out loud how it is that the Jewish people became so. I believe it happened at Mt. Sinai when we received the Torah, before which we all said Na’aseh v’Nishmah (we will DO and we will hear (or understand). Accepting the “yoke” of the mitzvot as binding upon ourselves was the key to transforming us into a people, spiritually as well as physically. Therefore, to join us, it seems logical that you would go through as similar a process as we did, to re-create the process of Mt. Sinai as closely as possible…mikve, circumision for males, etc…The Jewish people were being cut off from their former lives as semi-assimilated Egyptians (the erev rav was also undergoing a conversion to become Bene-Israel). It is very hard to become Jewish, and I have great admiration for the many geirim my wife and I know, who underwent Orthodox conversions, with all its rigours. When they are finally Jewish, they are really different people than they were the day before, and the Rambam himself says that one of the reasons for our current exile is to make righteous converts…that they are Jewish souls that were somehow lost from us and yearn to come back. We do not service to those soulds, however, to merely “dub them Jewish” w/o the rigours that aid them to a full spiritual return.

    There is nothing wrong with being a non-Jew, but the Jewish people have special responsibility in this world. A non-Jew can undergor a spiritual journey, and should be encouraged to do so, without necessarily becoming a Jew. There is, for example, a growing bene-Noach community here in the U.S. To allow someone to shoulder that responsibility without equipping them properly spiritually, mentally, and intellectually is, I feel, irresponsible, and shows a lack of concern to that individual. I hope this makes sense.

    Comment by marc — April 5, 2007 @ 9:09 am

  24. It does, but only from an orthodox/conservative perspective. The questions affecting reform remain open…

    Comment by Joel — April 18, 2007 @ 8:08 am

  25. I see what you mean, Joel. I think the refore movement has to define what reform judaism is exactly before they can decide what the baseline is for joining it. Unfortunately, many of my friends who grew up reform define their Judaism by what it is not, rather than what it is (e.g., NOT celebrating Xmas, NOT believing in Jesus, NOT celebrating Easter, etc.).

    I am not sure if today the Reform movement holds that “Jewish” is a religion, a people, a culture, or some combo of these things. I know originally in Germany they held it was only a religion, but today it is more difficult to tell. Ironically, Reform Jews today, without this strict definition, are in many ways more traditionally observant (synagogue, kippas, talits, hebrew prayers) than the early reformers.

    I’m not sure there is a good answer to this problem. The very question indicates how very far away traditional and reform Jews are from one another.

    Comment by marc — April 26, 2007 @ 9:04 am

  26. As President of the Jewish Community of Mexicali, I wish to comment on both the article and your comments.

    1. We are an inclusive community, which means we accept membership or conversion from any current with the Jewish world, we do not have the affluence that you have to become pick your flavor Jews.

    2. Regardless of what Rabbi Cuckierkorn or any other Rabbi say,
    one of our community requirements is that all members undergo circumcision.

    3. That is NOT a picture of our community with the article.

    4. If you all would spend a little more time helping groups such as ours, instead of criticizing us, we could guarantee a permanent Jewish community in Mexicali who respects alls personal search for truth within Judaism.

    5. Spend a little more time helping your fellow Jews and a little less inspecting crotches, please.

    Comment by ron cohen — November 5, 2007 @ 5:52 pm

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