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Is circumcision a requirement for conversion?

by Roberto Loiederman

March 15, 2007 | 8:00 pm

I called Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn at his home in Kansas City, Kan., where he's rabbi at that city's New Reform Temple. Was it true that he had told the group in Mexicali that it wasn't necessary for adult converts to Judaism to have a brit milah (ritual circumcision)?

"That is correct," Cukierkorn said. "I did tell them that. Brit milah is appropriate for babies, but not for adult men, for whom it's a gruesome and painful ritual. If an adult doesn't want to undergo it, he should not be required to do so."

"I get criticized for my attitude," said Cukierkorn, who's originally from South America. "I've had arguments with my own colleagues over this. I say that 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."

On the contrary, said Rabbi Neal Weinberg, who heads the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at the University of Judaism and has sponsored many conversions, the brit milah is a fundamental ritual, and adult men are required to undergo it in order to convert.

"In the past, there have been varying standards," Weinberg said. "Some rabbis said one thing; some said another. But now, accepted standards for conversion have been established through the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din, to which many non-Orthodox rabbis of Southern California are signatories. According to the Caplan Bet Din, brit milah is a requirement for men who were never circumcised as babies."

Weinberg said that if a non-Jewish male had been circumcised at birth, conversion requires a symbolic ritual, according to Jewish law: hatafat dam brit.

Weinberg smiled mischievously. "Just a small prick," he said, "enough to draw a single drop of blood."

Rabbi Suzanne Singer, director of the Union of Reform Judaism's regional Introduction to Judaism Program, said that a sponsoring Reform rabbi has flexibility when it comes to this issue, depending on what the convert wants to do. She pointed out that whether or not there is a brit milah, there's always a ceremony in which the convert is conferred a Hebrew name, which -- when there is no brit milah -- becomes the method by which he's welcomed to the covenant.

Marlon Franklin, 37, recently underwent a brit milah. Born into a Catholic family in Venezuela, he directs commercials and promotions for Spanish-language television. This past year, he converted after participating in the University of Judaism's introductory course given by Weinberg.

"The [brit milah] wasn't bad at all," Franklin said. "Dr. Sam Kunin explained everything, both before and during the procedure. I had local anesthesia, so I could see what was going on. It was excellent, no complications, no problems."

Franklin said he was very conscious of the ancient, spiritual nature of the ritual, which made it "an awesome experience."

Kunin is a "retired urologist and full-time mohel" who said he has performed more than 10,000 circumcisions in his life -- about 1,000 on adult men. What did Kunin think about Cukierkorn's comment that it's a "gruesome and painful experience"?

"Doing a brit milah on an adult has gotten a bum rap," Kunin said.

"I've had men drive home afterward. In most cases, a day or two later they're back at work. If you do it right, there should be no problem."

"I don't understand the fuss people make," he said. "In Africa now they're circumcising thousands of adult men for AIDS prevention. If it were such a big deal, don't you think word would get around and the men would stop doing it?"

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