The Board of Deputies of British Jews is asked frequently to explain the principles which underlie the Jewish practice of brit milah (circumcision). They have prepared a Question and Answer paper to address this issue.
Q. What is Brit Milah?
A. Brit Milah literally translates as “Covenant of Circumcision.” For Jews, male circumcision is the fulfilment of a Divine command which is designated 13 times as a covenant between God and the Jewish people. Unless there is a medical contraindication, Brit Milah takes place on the baby’s eighth day even if it coincides with the Sabbath or another holy day. The procedure itself consists of the removal of the foreskin using surgical tools accompanied throughout by a series of liturgical blessings and prayers. If there is any doubt whatsoever about the baby’s health, the ceremony is postponed until he is entirely healthy.
Q. Who Performs Brit Milah?
A. The Brit Milah ceremony and procedure is conducted by a “Mohel” (plural “Mohelim”). He is required to be a committed Jew and is very often a qualified doctor as well. (The General Medical Council permits doctors to perform Brit Milah on children after parental consent has been obtained, in recognition of the fact that it is of social, cultural and religious significance to the family.) In the United Kingdom the training, examination and supervision of most Mohelim is under the auspices of the Initiation Society of Great Britain which was founded in 1745. Traditionally the Initiation Society has appointed a Medical Officer who monitors Brit Milah and reports to their Council regularly. The Court of the Chief Rabbi (also known as the London Beth Din, the Jewish Ecclesiastical Court) plays an important role in advising the Initiation Society, as do, local Ecclesiastical Courts in other parts of the UK, the Federation of Synagogues, the Spanish and Portuguese community and the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations. There are also similar highly trained and carefully monitored doctors who work with the Reform and Liberal communities to perform circumcisions for their members. A Mohel’s duties demand the highest standards of ethics, religious practice and surgical skills including strict hygiene.
Q. Is any anaesthetic provided?
A. The skin is treated with appropriate cleansing solutions and sweet liquid or juice is often fed to the baby. No formal anaesthesia is given routinely. It is important to note that Jewish religious circumcision is standardised and very different from the Plastibell or hospital surgical methods which are more likely to cause pain. Fathers often report that their sons begin crying when their nappies are removed or when their legs are held in place and that there is no audible difference in their cry during the procedure. It has been suggested that administering a local anaesthetic at this age would itself involve pain and discomfort, and that there is a risk involved in any other more generalized anaesthetic procedure. Some parents administer topical anaesthetic cream on and around the foreskin before Brit Milah is performed.
Q. Are all Jews Circumcised?
A. Inevitably there are a small number of Jews who, for whatever reason, were never circumcised. However for the vast majority of people who identify as a part of the Jewish community, Brit Milah is the primary symbol of “Jewishness” for men. There are many with no other connection to Judaism who will ensure that their sons are circumcised. Additionally, the competence and consistently good results of Mohelim are reflected by the number of non-Jewish parents who use their services. For several centuries this has included members of the Royal Family.
Q. Are there any medical implications of circumcision?
A. The only reasons for observance of this fundamental Jewish law are religious and cultural. Whilst we are aware of media reports of positive medical implications, such reports are not relevant to the Jewish motivation. Equally there is no evidence to suggest that there are any specific negative effects of the procedure. Millions of Jews and non-Jews have been circumcised worldwide, over many centuries without any documented major medical complications.
Q. What is the Board’s Role in this area?
A. The Board recognises Brit Milah as fundamental to modern Jewish life. Therefore we keep in regular contact with the Initiation Society and with all of the Jewish religious authorities. We monitor campaigns against circumcision, maintain interfaith links on the matter (including with the Muslim community) and also discuss issues relating to circumcision with Jewish communities in other countries, where our processes and standards are often regarded as a model. We make submissions to outside bodies that enquire about this topic, seeking to ensure that there are no misconceptions either about the safety of the procedure itself or our right to carry it out.