RR21 no. 5756.13

Circumcision for an Eight-Year-Old Convert



Last year, a family in my congregation adopted an eight-year-old boy from the Far East. He attends religious school, participates in Jewish activities with his family, and intends to continue doing so in the coming years. He is not circumcised, however, and he adamantly refuses to undergo the procedure as part of his conversion ritual. His parents, who have their own reservations about milah, are not insisting that he be circumcised.

Assuming that the child is willing to go to the mikveh and that I cannot convince him and his parents that he should undergo circumcision, can I consider him a Jew? May I call him to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah when he reaches the age of thirteen? (Rabbi Rosalind Gold, Reston, Virginia)



The issue here is whether a boy (or, for that matter, an adult male) who fears circumcision or simply refuses to undergo that procedure may be accepted as a convert to Judaism. Traditional halakhah, of course, says “no”: “one is not a proselyte until he has been circumcised and ritually immersed.”[1] The Reform movement in the United States, however, says “yes.” The Central Conference of American rabbis has been on record since 1893 as accepting conversion “without any initiatory rite, ceremony, or observance whatever.” It is sufficient that the prospective Jew-by-choice declare his or her acceptance of the essential doctrines of Judaism and determination “to adhere in life and death, actively and faithfully, to the sacred cause and mission of Israel, as marked out in Holy Writ.”[2] This resolution has remained on the books for more than a century and as such is the official position of the Conference. In the words of a Reform responsum which bears directly upon this issue, while a ger “should be encouraged to undergo circumcision,” this could “strictly speaking” be waived in accordance with the 1893 resolution.[3]

This answer would, “strictly speaking,” fulfill our responsibility in this case. As a standing committee of the CCAR, we are bound by clear statements of Conference policy, and no policy statement can be clearer than the 1893 resolution which does away with the ritual and ceremonial requirements for conversion. Yet we cannot be satisfied with a simple restatement of that resolution, and this for two reasons:

  1. The 1893 resolution is accompanied by a lengthy report which justifies its conclusions on the basis of proofs drawn from biblical and rabbinic tradition. Those proofs rest upon readings of the sources that are, at best, questionable, and our concern for scholarly accuracy requires that we subject those arguments to critical analysis. We hasten to add that this analysis does not affect the validity of the resolution, whose force derives directly from a vote of the Conference and does not depend upon the cogency of its supporting argumentation. Nor does it in any way detract from our respect for our predecessors. These were students of Torah, whose love of Torah is evident to all who read their words. They were, in a word, rabbis, and their determination to base their position upon the interpretation of sacred text set the standard for a modern, liberal, and scholarly rabbinate. If we critique their work, it is because we seek to follow their example: a steadfast devotion to truth and to intellectual integrity.
  2. A great deal has changed, to put it mildly, during the past one hundred years. American Reform Judaism at the close of the nineteenth century displayed an attitude toward ritual and ceremonial observance that differed greatly from our own. Today, at the close of the twentieth century, our practice with regard to conversion suggests that we have journeyed down a different path than the one our predecessors advocated. Again, this fact does not mean that the resolution of 1893 is annulled or overturned; it does indicate, however, that many of us do not consider ourselves bound to the ritual theory and approach which dominate that document.

For these reasons, we feel that the simple response described above cannot suffice here. In the following, we shall consider the issue of conversion rituals generally; we shall then turn to our suggested resolution for this particular case.

I. “Circumcision for Adult Proselytes”: The Resolution of 1893. At the 1892 convention of the CCAR, a special committee was appointed to study the subject of milat gerim, the circumcision of adult proselytes. The committee, chaired by R. Isaac M. Wise, submitted its report to the Conference the following year. The report, reprinted in American Reform Responsa and extending over twenty-one pages of that volume,[4] concluded that no initiatory rites or ceremonies ought to be required for conversion to Judaism; its conclusion was adopted by vote of the Conference. Our teacher Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof devoted a responsum of his own to the analysis of the 1893 report.[5] In his summary, he notes that the committee bases its argument upon three essential points:

  1. The Torah contains no requirement of an initiatory rite (circumcision or immersion) for the proselyte (ger).
  2. While initiatory rites became customary (minhag) during the rabbinic period, they never achieved the status of actual rabbinic law (halakhah); hence, no definite requirement for circumcision or immersion is found in the Mishnah.
  3. The less-than-definite status of these rites can be seen in the fact that some medieval rabbinic authorities do not regard them as indispensable for conversion.

As R. Freehof writes, “if this statement can be proved adequately, it is of considerable importance.” It would demonstrate that although circumcision (milah) and immersion (t’vilah) play a pivotal role in the traditional rabbinic conception of the process of conversion, neither is absolutely required. That proof would allow us to say that according to the theory (if not the practice) of Jewish law, one could become a proselyte without undergoing these rituals. The difficulty, however, is that serious objections can be raised against each of these three assertions.

  1. The Torah. The 1893 report notes that there are over fifty references to the ger in the Torah, verses which prescribe how this “stranger” is to be accommodated and treated within the Israelite community, He is to be loved (Lev. 19:33-34), given sustenance (Lev. 19:10 and 23:22), and treated as an equal under the law (Num. 15:15-16 and elsewhere: “there shall be one law for you and for the ger, etc.”). Yet nowhere does Scripture demand that the ger undergo any particular initiatory rite, such as circumcision or immersion, in order to assume the status of ger within the community. Even Exodus 12:48, which requires that a ger who wishes to take part in the Paschal sacrifice “circumcise the members of his house”, means simply that as a Jew the proselyte has the duty to circumcise the male members of his family. It is only then, after he has converted to the Israelite religion, that he has the obligation to be circumcised as does any other Jewish male. The point, however, is that he becomes a proselyte without milah, for the Torah does not oblige a person to undergo any particular ritual in order to qualify as a ger.

The difficulty with this argument is its assumption that the biblical ger is equivalent to the “proselyte” of later times who was designated by the same word. The Bible, in fact, does not know of the institution of “proselyte”, if by that we mean a person who adopts the Israelite or Jewish faith. The biblical ger is, rather, a “stranger” or a “resident alien,” a foreigner who dwells in the land but is not a citizen thereof. This is certainly the sense of the word as Abraham uses it in Genesis 23:4, when he tells the Hittites that “I am a ger and a toshav among you.” Abraham surely does not mean to say that “I am a proselyte”; he declares instead that he is a “resident alien” in the community, which is precisely how the verse is rendered by the most widely-accepted Jewish translation of the Bible.[6] As such, the ger is a person “who lacks certain privileges that citizens have, in this case, the right to own land.”[7] Similarly, the word ger describes the status of the Israelites during their sojourn in Egypt.[8] We are enjoined to remember that “you were gerim in the land of Egypt.” Here, too, the term cannot possibly mean “proselyte.” We were, rather, “strangers” and aliens in a land which did not belong to us. This was a condition of powerlessness that led to our enslavement; we are therefore commanded to recall that experience and to learn from it not to mistreat the gerim in our midst, the resident alines under our political control. This notion of “alien-ness”, of the status of temporary resident, is used as well to depict our relationship toward God during our sojourn on earth. “I am an alien, resident with you” (Psalms 39:13); “for we are sojourners with you” (I Chronicles 29:15); “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (Leviticus 25:23). Again, the Bible does not mean here to call us “converts” but rather to stress that we are temporary residents on God’s earth, mere custodians of that which we possess.

The biblical word ger does not mean “proselyte” because that institution did not exist in biblical times. In his classic study of Jewish proselytism, our late colleague Bernard J. Bamberger notes that “in the Bible the word ger means a foreign resident in Palestine. It is frequently joined by “and” to the word toshab, meaning the same thing, and usually translated “sojourner.” By contrast, “in Rabbinic Hebrew, the term ger means an actual convert.” When they wish to distinguish between individuals possessing these differing legal statuses, “the Rabbis coin the phrase ger toshab,” which means “resident alien.”[9] This point is conclusively demonstrated by the biblical scholars Moshe Weinfeld[10] and Jacob Milgrom,[11] who document in great detail the precise legal distinctions between the biblical ger and the Israelite. While it is true that the Torah instructs that “there shall be one law for you and for the ger“,[12] this statement should not be read (as, indeed, the 1893 report reads it), as a general rule;[13] it applies only to the context of the particular case. The resident alien is indeed required, as is the homeborn Israelite (ezrach), to obey the civil (monetary) law of the land, and he is expected to observe those ritual laws which are prohibitive (mitzvot lo ta`aseh; “thou-shalt-nots”), since the violation of these pollutes the land and the Sanctuary.[14] On the other hand, the ger is not obliged to observe the positive commandments (mitzvot aseh) of a ritual nature.[15] These legal distinctions show that the ger of the Bible cannot be defined as a proselyte, for the latter, as understood by Jewish law and tradition, observes all the mitzvot, both positive and negative, that are incumbent upon the Jew. The ger, by contrast, is never an Israelite. He remains permanently an outsider, a non-member of the religious community of Israel.[16]

Thus, if the Torah does not impose initiatory rites upon the proselyte, this is because there were no proselytes during the biblical period. The ger, the resident alient, becomes a ger merely by taking up residence within the land. And though Israelites are required to love the stranger (Leviticus 19:34; Deuteronomy 10:19) and to care for him (Exodus 23:12; Deuteronomy 16:11, 14), this proves merely that the ger occupied a permanently inferior, if protected, legal status within the society.

The only reason we would identify the biblical ger, the “stranger,” with the later proselyte, not an alien but a member of the religious community in full standing, is that the ancient rabbis make that identification. It is they, and not the biblical authors, who tell us that “Scripture declares the equality of the ger with the native Israelite in all the commandments of the Torah.”[17] The rabbis, to be sure, did not invent the institution of conversion, the process by which a Gentile adopts the Jewish faith and attains equal status alongside the native Jew with respect to all the mitzvot. Although we do not know for certain just when it came into being, the scholarly consensus holds that the procedure of conversion originated at some point during the pre-rabbinic Second Temple period.[18] It is from that point, and not during the days of biblical Israel, that the Torah’s ger becomes understood as a proselyte, except for those cases in which it is clear to the rabbis that when Scripture says ger it is in fact referring to the “resident alien,” or ger toshav.[19] It is from that point, when the Jews came to perceive “Israel” as a religious rather than a purely national identity, that entry into the community took on the form of religious conversion rather than legal residence and cultural assimilation.

Biblical literature and history cannot supply proof for the proposition that “Judaism requires no initiatory rites for converts,” because there were no “converts,” in our sense of the term, during that period. The ger-as-proselyte is an invention of the rabbinic tradition, and it is that same rabbinic tradition which requires that the Gentile who wishes to become a ger must undergo the specified initiatory rites.

  1. Rabbinic Law. This, of course, is an assertion that the authors of the 1893 report strongly dispute. It is their opinion that the initiatory rites (milah and t’vilah) were never regarded as law by the ancient rabbis. They were instead a custom, a minhag, established during the post-Mishnaic period by the Amoraim, who had no authority to do so. Therefore, just as the initiatory rites are not mentioned in the Torah, so they cannot be regarded as a requirement of rabbinic law.

To justify this statement, the report must explain the substantial rabbinic source material which indicates the opposite, that circumcision and immersion are indispensable ritual requirements for conversion. The most important of these are:


  1. the statement of R. Judah Hanasi in B. K’ritot 9a that “just as Israel did not enter the covenant except by means of three things–circumcision, immersion, and the acceptance of a sacrifice–so it is the same with proselytes”;[20]
  2. the declaration in B. Y’vamot 46a-b by the tanaitic “sages,” by the Amora R. Yochanan, and by the s’tam (anonymous) Talmud that a male proselyte must be circumcised and immersed;
  3. the baraita (extra-mishnaic tanaitic statement) in B. Y’vamot 47a-b which describes the conversion procedure as including both milah and t’vilah as well as kabalat hamitzvot, acceptance of the religious obligations of a Jew.

In the face of this testimony, the 1893 report notes that these sources are baraitot, tanaitic statements which were not included in the Mishnah. For this reason, they are not “canon law,” for “Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi in his entire Mishnah laid down no rule, ordinance, or direction concerning the initiatory rites of the proselyte.  This must be a matter of surprise to those who consider those rites Rabbinical law.” Even Rabbi’s own statement (“just as Israel did not enter the covenant, etc.”) is merely an aggadic d’rashah, a “school chat.” It is not meant as halakhah, “or else the Rabbi must have stated it in the Mishna.”[21]

The difficulty with this argument is apparent. Although the explicit “rule” concerning the initiatory rites is found in baraitot, the extra-mishnaic tanaitic sources, there is no evidence that tanaitic opinion as a whole questions their necessity. If the Mishnah does not “lay down a rule,” it does mention the existence of initiatory rites for converts,[22] and it never hints that a Gentile might become a proselyte without them.[23] Moreover, nowhere in traditional Jewish law do we find a rule to the effect that something is not “halakhah” unless it is stated explicitly in the Mishnah. On the contrary: the post-talmudic halakhic codes, commentaries, and responsa cite a variety of literary sources in addition to mishnayot in support of their rulings. These include baraitot (included in the Talmudim, the Tosefta, or the halakhic midrashim), amoraic statements, and conclusions drawn from the s’tam talmud. The distinction between the legal authority of the Mishnah and that of all other classical rabbinic texts is unique to the authors of the 1893 report.[24]

A further (and fatal) difficulty for the assertion that the initiatory rites are a requirement of Jewish “canon law” is the fact that nowhere in talmudic literature do we find any indication that a Gentile can become a valid proselyte (ger tzedek) without milah and/or t’vilah. The same holds for the post-talmudic halakhic literature, that body of writings that for nearly fifteen centuries has interpreted and applied the biblical and talmudic sources as the constitutive legal rhetoric of the Jewish community. From geonic times onward, all the poskim (halakhic decisors) have understood rabbinic law to require both initiatory rites as absolutely essential for conversion to Judaism.[25] A Gentile who is circumcised and/or immersed for the purpose of conversion is a ger and is obligated to observe the mitzvot; in the absence of the necessary rites, he or she is not a Jew. There exists not the slightest evidence in the post-talmudic halakhic tradition of any dissent on this matter. And this lack of evidence dooms the argument that milat gerim and tevilat gerim are not truly requirements of rabbinic law.


  1. Post-Talmudic Literature. Yet the authors of the 1893 report believe that they have found such dissent. They offer citations from three medieval rabbinic authorities which purportedly declare that circumcision and/or immersion are not absolutely necessary for the validity of a conversion. If it is indeed correct that these authorities hold that one might become a ger without the initiatory rites, then the report has firm ground on which to conclude that these rites are not “canon law,” indispensable for conversion, but rather “custom (minhag) without foundation in the Torah.”

A close look at the three sources in question,[26] however, reveals that they do not in fact support this conclusion.

  1. One of the texts is Kol Sakhal, in which “Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh de Modena…expressed his opinion” that according to the law of the Torah, the proselyte need not undergo any initiatory rites. The Torah prescribes only that once he has sons, the ger must circumcise them. If he himself does not wish to undergo this rite, however, “let him be ritually immersed, and this will suffice to make him a Jew in every legal sense.” We need not enter here into the scholarly debate over whether Leon (Yehudah Aryeh) de Modena (d. 1648) in fact authored Kol Sakhal.[27] What is important is that the work in its essence is a polemic attacking the Oral Torah as a willful rabbinic distortion of the Torah of Moses. Kol Sakhal does not purport to be an interpretation of Jewish law but, quite to the contrary, an attack upon that law as promulgated by the rabbis.[28] As Rabbi Freehof puts it, its author “does not give the law as it is, but as he believes it ought to be.”[29] Thus, though it claims that the Torah, before the rabbis got hold of it, did not demand circumcision of the proselyte, the work does indicate that the rabbis do demand it, that existing Jewish law requires the initiatory rites for conversion; milat gerim, in other words, is indeed “canon law” and no “mere custom.”
  2. In his Sefer Hanitzachon, R. Yom Tov Lipmann Muelhausen (14th-15th century) assembles a polemical commentary on the Bible whose goal is to enable the Jewish reader to respond to Christian interpretations of Scriptural passages. On Genesis 17:10, R. Yom Tov writes that Christians sneer at Judaism because, since the rite of b’rit milah is so important, women cannot be truly Jewish. He responds: “faith (ha’emunah) does not depend upon milah but upon the heart. If one does not believe properly, his circumcision does not suffice to make him a Jew (y’hudi). One who does believe properly is a Jew, even if uncircumcised; he simply has committed a transgression which must be rectified.” The authors of the report read this as a statement of halakhah: namely, that a male can become a ger without circumcision.

It is impossible to maintain this interpretation. R. Yom Tov never mentions the subject of conversion in this passage, which speaks instead of the born Jew. He wishes to argue the importance of faith and of proper belief in Judaism, to refute the Christian contention that ours is purely a religion of ritual and legalism. His purpose is to declare that the Jew–that is, the Jew-by-birth–realizes his identity as y’hudi through proper faith. For this reason women as well as men can be “Jewish.” It is that point, hardly a revolutionary one, which can reasonably be inferred from the passage. Since R. Yom Tov does not discuss conversion here, and since Sefer Hanitzachon is not a treatise of halakhah but a work of polemic and homiletics, it is manifestly unreasonable to derive from his words the halakhic conclusion (one which would run counter to the accepted view among all the legal sources which R. Yom Tov recognizes as authoritative) that a Gentile male can legally convert to Judaism without circumcision.

  1. The third source is a responsum of R. Eliahu Mizrachi (15th-cent. Constantinople),[30] “who expresses himself thus in regard to the acceptance of a proselyte: `Umide-oraita sagi b’kabalat Torah bifnei beit din bilvad,’ `According to the Torah, the main declaration before a college of three to accept the Torah as the canon suffices for the proselyte [to receive him into the congregation of Israel] also, without circumcision and without the ritual bath.'”[31] This is surely the most powerful piece of evidence supporting the conclusions of the 1893 report. For this responsum, unlike the Kol Sakhal and the Sefer Hanitzachon, is a legal text. Its existence suggests that an eminent halakhist understands Jewish law to hold that neither milah nor t’vilah is an indispensable requirement for conversion.

Unfortunately, Mizrachi’s responsum proves no such thing. The authors of the report misinterpret his ruling, which says nothing at all about the halakhic requirement of circumcision and immersion. Mizrachi is referring rather to the question whether these rituals must be carried out in the setting of a rabbinic court.[32] In the correct rendering of the passage cited above, he writes that “according to the Torah, it is only the declaration of the acceptance of the Torah which must take place before a beit din, even if they [the judges] are not present at either the circumcision or the immersion.” He does not imply that the Torah does not demand either milah or t’vilah of converts; he states rather that should the ger undergo these rituals outside of the presence of a beit din his conversion might be valid, so long as he declared his acceptance of the Torah before three judges.[33] In words, this ruling does not support the authors’ contention that the initiatory rites are not a requirement of Jewish “canon law.” Indeed, given its clear implication that a ger must undergo milah and/or t’vilah, if not necessarily before a beit din, Mizrachi’s t’shuvah serves as additional evidence (as if any were necessary) that circumcision and immersion are the minimal ritual standards for the conversion process under the Jewish legal tradition.

We find, therefore, that the 1893 report fails to prove its principal contention: that Jewish law does not require initiatory rites of converts. It follows, therefore, that the resolution of that year which dispensed with the requirement of circumcision and immersion for converts is not justified on the basis of the Jewish legal tradition. This fact, of course, does not in and of itself invalidate the resolution, which remains on the books as the official policy of the Conference. Moreover, there may be other valid reasons besides the legal arguments presented in the report which do justify the resolution. Our findings are important, however, as a necessary correction to what we see as a scholarly error. We have taken the time to make this point because, as members of this Committee, we are concerned that our published responsa reflect the commitment of our rabbinate to the highest standards of scholarly accuracy. That very same commitment motivated the work of Rabbi Wise, his colleagues, and those who followed them. Our criticism of their words is thus in no way a sign of disrespect, but rather the highest kind of tribute we can pay to the example they have set for us.


  1. The Reform Jewish Practice of Conversion. Even though the resolution of 1893 remains in force, its dispensation with the requirement of “initiatory rites” for conversion does not necessarily serve as an ideal or a standard for our contemporary practice. Indeed, many Reform rabbis do insist upon milah and t’vilah. The ceremony for conversion in our current Rabbi’s Manual provides for both circumcision and immersion for proselytes. While noting that these rites are not mandatory, it goes on to remark:

we recognize today that there are social, psychological, and religious values associated with the traditional rites, and therefore recommend that the rabbi acquaint prospective converts with the halakhic background and rationale for b’rit milah, hatafat dam b’rit and tevila and offer them the opportunity to observe these rites. In Israel, Canada, and various communities elsewhere, giyur (conversion) is performed by our colleagues in accordance with traditional halakhic practice.[34]

The Responsa Committee, too, has concluded in a number of t’shuvot that milah and t’vilah are relevant and positive options for conversion under Reform auspices. We have noted that,”in practice, circumcision has been a virtually universal requirement.”35 And we have argued that the practice of t’vilah for converts allows us to preserve a sense of continuity with Jewish religious history and to express our solidarity with k’lal yisrael, with Jewish religious practice everywhere, including the practice of the progressive Jewish communities outside the United States which insist upon the rite.36 These statements indicate that, even if not an absolute requirement, the initiatory rites have achieved the status of widespread custom (minhag pashut) among our communities.

We should note as well that the existence of a B’rit Milah Board of Reform Judaism, which supervises training programs for Reform mohalim/ot, is evidence that we take the mitzvah of circumcision with the greatest seriousness.37 We reject with the utmost vigor all ideological criticisms of the practice of circumcision. And while it is true that b’rit milah, conducted on the eighth day of a Jewish boy’s life, is not the same ritual as milat gerim, we fear that the willingness to be lenient concerning the latter might well be perceived as a less-than-enthusiastic devotion to the former.

In other words, if the 1893 resolution dispenses with the requirement of the initiatory rites, it does not prohibit their use. Our statements on the subject, along with the fact that many Reform rabbis insist upon circumcision and immersion for converts, demonstrate that we raise no substantive theological or ideological objection against them. On the contrary: there are valid, positive reasons why we ought to include them in our practice.

III. The Case Before Us. How do these considerations apply to the present she’elah? Our case is indeed a most difficult one. An eight-year-old boy, born and raised in another culture, has been adopted by a Jewish family. This is surely a good thing, both for the boy himself, who appears to be quite happy in his new home, and for his parents, who have come to know the blessing of children and family. We certainly commend their determination to fulfill the mitzvah of teaching Torah to their child, and we are pleased that he seems to be developing a positive Jewish identity. The one dark cloud on this bright Jewish horizon is the prospect of circumcision, which is terrifying to a boy of this age. His fear is all the more understandable when we remember that many dramatic changes have quite recently overtaken him; he needs time to adjust to them. His refusal of circumcision is likely an expression of his desire to gain a measure of control over his life. He will most probably continue to resist all efforts to convince him to be circumcised.

In general, the tendency of this Committee is to urge in the strongest terms that all proselytes undergo the traditional rites for entry into the covenant. We do so, not because we suppose that Orthodox Jews will recognize the validity of our conversions, but because we regard these practices as a positive Jewish standard that applies to us as it does to all other Jews. This testifies to our conviction that when we accept a ger or giyoret into our midst, we convert him or her to Judaism. Although we presume that our proselytes will remain firm in their commitment to a Reform approach to our faith and tradition, we do not require that they do so; we do not make their conversion contingent upon their staying within our fold. We are not in the business of creating a separate sect, cut off from the rest of our Jewish family. Rather, when we accept a proselyte, we admit this person into am yisrael, the Jewish community as a whole, a living and historical enterprise of which we are an organic part. We therefore believe that it is appropriate and preferable to mark the moment of conversion not simply with liturgy of our own creation but precisely with those rituals that are and have been for centuries employed by the Jewish community as a whole.

In our case, however, these considerations matter little. We are not dealing, after all, with an adult male who can be expected to understand the significance of circumcision and of milat gerim in the religious tradition which he seeks to adopt. We have here a young boy struggling, all at the same time, to adjust to a new family, a new nation, and a new religious community. Bombarded with many new stimuli, he quite naturally perceives the previously unheard-of rite of milah as yet one more insult, an especially strange and frightening one at that, to his person. If we insist upon circumcision, we might well administer a fatal blow to his developing identification with the Jewish people.

We think that the 1893 resolution of the CCAR speaks directly to situations such as this. Although we do not believe it to be an accurate interpretation of Jewish law, and although we do not think it reflects a sound religious policy for our movement, the resolution remains on the books, offering a practical solution for particularly difficult cases like the one before us. Under its terms, this boy can be converted to Judaism without either milah or t’vilah, although we would certainly recommend the latter inasmuch as he seems to offer no serious objections to it. Following conversion and upon reaching the age of religious majority, it would be his obligation, like that of any other uncircumcised Jewish male, to undergo milah. It might well be, as he matures as a person and as a Jew, that with continued gentle encouragement from his rabbi he will assent to the procedure.

If the 1893 resolution cannot be supported by the letter of Jewish law, it can be read–and is much better explained–as an expression of the law’s spirit, especially its concern that potential converts not be excluded from our community on account of ritual requirements that cannot be met. A case in point is the statement by R. Yehudah Hanasi in B. Keritot 9a that today’s proselyte, like our ancestors at Sinai, must enter the covenant by means of milah, t’vilah, and the offering of a sacrifice. The Talmud suggests that since sacrifices are no longer offered, we ought not to accept any gerim at all. The answer to this, however, is that we allow the ger to become a Jew by milah and t’vilah “and when the Temple is rebuilt, he shall bring his sacrifice.”[38] That is to say, we do not turn away potential converts simply because they are incapable for reasons beyond their control of fulfilling one of the ritual requirements of giyur. Rather, the requirement is postponed, to be met when it becomes possible to do so. Another example is the rule that a person must convert in the presence of a beit din consisting of three judges. The talmudic source of this rule would seem to require that the judges be ordained, that is, recipients of s’mikhah, a practice which pertains only to Eretz Yisrael and which has long since been discontinued. How is it then that in the absence of such judges we still accept proselytes? Tosafot answers that the ordained judges of the land of Israel have empowered us to perform this task, “so as not to bar the door to gerim.”[39] Again, a ritual element of the conversion process is suspended when insistence upon it make conversion an impossibility. Finally, the halakhah declares that a male whose penis has been severed is permitted to convert through t’vilah alone. In this case, when milah is a physical impossibility, the person is nonetheless not on that account denied the opportunity to become a Jew.[40]

“Impossibility,” to be sure, is not to be equated with reluctance, fear, or even danger. Thus, halakhists have ruled that a male convert must undergo milah even if the circumcision would pose a medical danger to him.[41] They would presumably make no exception to their ruling in our case, where the danger involves the psyche of a young boy. We, however, do make that exception. We insist, to repeat, on the value and importance of the initiatory rites. But we perceive a major difference between an adult male (and, for that matter, most boys), whose fear of circumcision can be acknowledged and dealt with, and the boy in our she’elah, the circumstances of whose life render circumcision more an “impossibility” than an experience he would simply wish to avoid. Moreover, Orthodox authorities point out that since, in any event, there is no requirement for a Gentile to convert, there is no compelling need for us to relax the ritual standards of giyur.[42] In our case, however, this boy already thinks of himself as a Jew and is so regarded by his community. It is vital to his healthy emotional devlopment that we not turn him away by insisting on a rite to which, for the most understandable of reasons, he cannot at this moment say “yes.”


Conclusions. To summarize:

  1. The CCAR resolution of 1893, which dispenses with the requirement for initiatory rites for conversion, remains in force as our Conference’s official statement on the subject until such time as it is amended or repealed.
  2. The resolution, contrary to the assertions of the lengthy report which accompanies it, cannot be justified or defended as a persuasive interpretation of Jewish law. The biblical sources which mention the ger do not speak of a religious proselyte, and the talmudic and post-talmudic halakhic literature are uniform in their insistence upon the initiatory rites.
  3. Circumcision and immersion for proselytes are familiar elements of Reform practice, and we encourage their use, certainly for the conversion of adults, as a positive statement of our identification with k’lal yisrael and the Jewish tradition.
  4. The 1893 resolution should therefore be interpreted as a standard to be applied in particularly unusual or extreme cases. It can be viewed as an expression of the spirit of the law of conversion, which relaxes certain ritual requirements when to insist upon their observance would make conversion impossible.
  5. The question before us presents such a case. This boy thinks of himself as a Jew, and we should do our best to receive him with love and to continue to draw him into the family of am yisrael. His personal history, however, renders circumcision an impossible (as opposed to a merely disagreeable or unpleasant) standard; to insist upon it would likewise make his conversion and subsequent growth as a Jew an impossibility. Since it is important that he continue along his present religious path, we hold that he may be converted through t’vilah alone and called to the Torah at age thirteen. His rabbi should, however, seek to persuade him of the vital importance of milah in the Jewish tradition, to the end that he will someday (perhaps even before he reaches the age of bar mitzvah) assent to have himself circumcised.


  1. B. Y’vamot 46a-b; Yad, Isurey Bi’ah 13:6; SA YD 268:1-2.
  2. American Reform Responsa (ARR), no. 68, at 237; CCAR Yearbook 3 (1893), 95.
  3. ARR, no. 69.
  4. ARR, no. 68 (pp. 216-237).
  5. Reform Responsa for Our Time, no. 15.
  6. The Torah. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1962).
  7. Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary. (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), 156.
  8. Gen. 15:13; Ex. 22:20 and 23:9; Lev. 19:34; Deut. 10:19 and 23:8.
  9. Bernard J. Bamberger, Proselytism in the Talmudic Period (New York: Ktav, 1968), 16. See also his comment to Lev. 19:34 in Plaut, op.cit., 899.
  10. Moshe Weinfeld, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School (London: Oxford U. Press, 1972), 229-232.
  11. Jacob Milgrom, “Religious Conversion and the Revolt Model for the Formation of Israel,” Journal of Biblical Literature 101/2 (1982), 169-176. See also his remarks in The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1990), Excursus 34, 398-402.
  12. Ex. 12:48-49; Lev. 7:7 and 24:22; Num. 9:14, 15:15, 29-30.
  13. ARR, no. 68, at 218.
  14. Milgrom cites the arayot of Lev. 18 as an illustration. The ger as well as the ezrach is required to observe these sexual prohibitions (v. 26) because their violation defiles the land (v. 27). Likewise, Molekh worship, whether it is done by homeborn or resident alien, pollutes the sanctuary; thus, both are equally punished for it (Lev. 20:2-3). Presumptuous violation of a negative commandment subjects both the ger and the ezrach to karet (Num. 15:30). See his “Religious Conversion” for further examples.
  15. The ger may take part in the Passover sacrifice, but he does not have to do so (Ex. 12:47-48; Num. 9:13-14). The Israelite who is able to bring the sacrifice but does not do so is punished by karet (Num. 9:13). The ger may not, however, possess leaven, a violation of a negative ordinance. Similarly, the ger like the Israelite is forbidden to work on Yom Kippur, but he need not observe the positive commandment to “afflict himself” (by fasting) on that day (Lev. 16:29, 31). The positive commandment to dwell in the sukkah is explicitly addressed to the ezrach, the home-born, as opposed to the resident alien (Lev. 23:42).
  16. The case of Ruth, as well as others who seem to enter the community by means of accepting its religion, are not examples of conversion at all but of intermarriage. As we know, biblical law assumes that the wife follows the cultic practices of her husband. Thus, non-Israelites enter the community through assimilation, not conversion. The fear that assimilation will work to the disadvantage of Israel spurs the prohibition against intermarriage with the Canaanites in Deut. 7:3, as well as Ezra’s ban on intermarriage as a whole. Note, however, that neither of these sources speak of any effort, successful or not, to convert their neighbors to the religion of Israel. See Milgrom, “Religious Conversion,” 172ff, and his conclusion, at 175, that “conversion of individuals is not attested until the postexilic age.”
  17. Mekhilta to Ex. 12:49; Sifre Bamidbar, par. 109. The authors of the 1893 report admit that this equation goes beyond the biblical standard, even though they insist on defining the biblical ger as a proselyte; ARR, no. 68, at 229.
  18. Lawrence H. Schiffman, Who Was a Jew? Rabbinic and Halakhic Perspectives on the Jewish-Christian Schism (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1985), 25.
  19. See the summary by Nachmanides in his comment to Ex. 20:10.
  20. See also Sifre Bamidbar, par. 108, and Gerim 2:5.
  21. ARR, no. 68, at 231.
  22. M. P’sachim 8:8 refers to the ger as “one who has separated from his foreskin” and despite the cursory efforts of the 1893 report to explain that Mishnah away, it seems clear that the reference is to milat gerim, the circumcision required for the conversion. See Chanokh Albeck’s comment ad loc., as well as R. Moses Mielziner in CCAR Yearbook 2 (1892), 96. At least one leading scholar (Schiffman, 27-31) reads that Mishnah as requiring t’vilah as well as milah for male proselytes.
  23. The report cites B. Y’vamot 46a-b, where R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua disagree with the conclusion that both milah and t’vilah are essential for conversion, as evidence that the “law” of the initiatory rites was was a matter of dispute during tanaitic times and that it was the amoraim who fixed them as a requirement. It is more probable, however, that these two sages were not disputing the necessity of both rites. This baraita, as Bernard Bamberger concludes, is most probably a technical dispute over the precise moment at which conversion occurs: at milah, at t’vilah, or only upon the completion of both rites. See Bamberger, 51ff. See also Mielziner, 97, and Schiffman, 32-36.
  24. The report (at 236) claims that the initiatory rites were established as an edict (takanah) of the Amoraim, who did not have the power to do so, since all rabbinic legislative authority had become defunct with the disappearance of the Sanhedrin and the end of the tanaitic period. Thus, the rites are but mere “custom”. To this we might respond: 1. the evidence is overwhelming that the requirement of milah and t’vilah for converts was already established during the tanaitic period; 2. even if the requirement is the product of amoraic legislation, the power to legislate for all Israel does not cease until the end of the amoraic period, “the days of Rav Ashi and Ravina;” see Maimonides’ introduction to his Mishneh Torah.
  25. See note 1, above, as well as the geonic Halakhot Gedolot, Warsaw ed., 24d, and Hildesheimer ed., v. 1, p. 217; and Hilkhot HaRif (Alfasi), Y’vamot, fol. 15b-16a. Note the comments of both the Beit Yosef and the Bayit Chadash to the beginning of Tur YD 268: “the halakhah is decided (ifsika hilkheta) that” both milah and t’vilah are the minimum requirements for conversion. The requirement, in other words, is law and not “custom.”
  26. These are listed and described in ARR, no. 68, at 220.
  27. De Modena attributes the Kol Sakhal to an unnamed Sefardic author; de Modena himself is explicitly the author of the Sha’agat Aryeh, a brief response and refutation to the Kol Sakhal. The two works were published together by Isaac Reggio in 1852 under the title B’chinat Hakabalah. While Reggio and other scholars assume that de Modena is the composer of both books, not all agree; among the latter is Ellis Rivkin, who cites “positive evidence…that Leon could not have written the Kol Sakhal“; see Jewish Quarterly Review N.S. 40 (1949), at 156.
  28. B’chinat Hakabalah, 59.
  29. Freehof, op. cit., 76. He continues: “evidently those who participated in the Conference debate got their chief arguments here.”
  30. Resp. Mayim Amukim, ed. Berlin, 1778, no. 34.
  31. ARR, no. 68, at 229; see also at 220.
  32. Compare the language of this responsum to that of the codes (Yad, Isurey Bi’ah 13:6; SA and Tur YD 268:2) and the major commentaries thereto. The issue which all these sources address is whether all the rituals of giyur need to take place in a formal court setting (during daylight hours, in the presence of proper witnesses who are not relatives, etc.), or whether it is sufficient that kabalat hatorah takes place there. There is no evidence that R. Eliahu Mizrachi is discussing any issue which falls outside the confines of this technical discussion.
  33. As a matter of fact, R. Eliahu rules that in the case of an adult convert both milah and t’vilah must occur before a beit din. In the case of the child of a proselyte, however, we apply the de’oraita standard: if the mother accepted the Torah before a beit din, we do not require evidence that her immersion also took place before a court in order to declare the child Jewish.
  34. Rabbi’s Manual (New York: CCAR, 1988), 232. The conversion ceremony is at 199ff.
  35. ARR, no. 69, end. See also ARR, no. 57; Contemporary American Reform Responsa, nos. 44, 45, 47, and 49; Responsa Committee 5756.6 and 5752.2.
  36. Responsa Committee 5756.6, “A ‘Proper’ Reform Mikveh“.
  37. See Lewis M. Barth, ed., B’rit Milah in the Reform Context (New York: B’rit Milah Board of Reform Judaism, 1990), and Gates of Mitzvah, 13-16.
  38. Yad, Isurey Bi’ah 13:5.
  39. B. Y’vamot 46b and Tosafot, s.v. mishpat. The requirement of ordination, says Tosafot, derives from the fact that the word mishpat is applied to the ger in Num. 15:16; the root sh-p-t implies the presence of shoftim, “judges” in the Toraitic sense of the term, who possess the full array of power and authority pertaining to the status of the mumcheh or musmakh (ordinee).
  40. Tosafot, Y’vamot 46b, s.v. d’Rabbi Yose; SA YD 268:1 and Bi’ur HaGra, no. 4. In this case, when milah is a physical impossibility, we allow the man to follow the example of the women of the generation of Sinai, who entered the covenant by means of t’vilah alone (B. Y’vamot 46a-b).
  41. R. Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook, Resp. Da`at Kohen, no. 150; R. Gedaliah Felder, Nachalat Tzvi, v. 1, 54-55.
  42. This is a major point in R. Kook’s argument in Da`at Kohen.


If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.