Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Reform mohalim

Reform making the cut.

Chicago Tribune:

...NOAM stands for National Organization of American Mohalim - ritual circumcisers to the Reform wing of the Jewish faith.
The group's emergence and growth - it now numbers some 300 certified mohalim - witnesses a telling shift in the cultural demographics of the American Jewish community. The 57 conventioneers who came to Chicago from around the United States and Canada attended four days of seminars and PowerPoint presentations on rendering proper care to the male sex organ, medically no less than liturgically. Their trade dates to biblical times, the book of Genesis recording God's commandment to Abraham: "And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations."
Given the subject matter, it's difficult to avoid double entendre and word games. Some presenters at NOAM's convention seemed to think it futile even to try. Rabbi Neal Schuster lectured on the history of the practice, tracing it to ancient Egypt and Syria. He researched the issue for a doctoral dissertation and indicated he'd have been embarrassed to find someone looking over his shoulder.
"I leafed through archeology books, looking for pictures of naked men," Schuster said. "But it bore fruit. No pun intended."
That is not to say NOAM's members take their responsibilities lightly. They are medical professionals, physicians and nurse-midwives, who have been crossed-trained cross-trained in the liturgy of a bris, or ritual circumcision. They voluntarily take time out from busy medical practices - their "day jobs," as they like to put it - to perform Judaism's oldest rite for one of its newest branches.
The Reform movement originated in the19th Century as a self-conscious effort to modernize the faith. Some of its founders looked down on circumcision as a barbaric leftover from a pre-civilized era.
More recently, Reform Jews have been feeling a need to get back to their religion's roots. Even as more and more parents have wanted a bris for their sons, the Reform community grew until it outdistanced the numbers of Orthodox Jews. That resulted in increasing friction between Reform Jews and Orthodox mohalim - not over technique but theology.
If anything, NOAM members are more than respectful of their Orthodox brethren, though traditionally they're not medically trained but come to the profession by serving a lengthy apprenticeship.
"They do it better," said Allen Kern, a NOAM member and a urologist. "You know why? Because doctors, being doctors, had to introduce new tools for the procedure instead of sticking with methods worked out over centuries by the old-time mohels."
There were, however, points of conflict engendered by the Orthodox and Reform understandings of who is a Jew. Traditional Judaism considers people Jewish only if their mothers are. But the Reform movement began counting someone as a Jew if either parent was Jewish.
In recent decades, intermarriage has been escalating: In some Reform congregations upwards of half the families have a non-Jewish member. Even when they later embraced Judaism, there could be problems when seeking the service of a mohel (the singular of mohalim).
"An Orthodox mohel might not accept a mother who converted to Judaism, if the conversion wasn't done by an Orthodox rabbi," said Rabbi Lewis Barth, co-founder of NOAM and dean of Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.
Some non-Orthodox parents have been subject to a kind of shell game, noted Fred Kogen, who took his medical degree at the University of Chicago. The trick depends upon secular Jews not knowing the faith's liturgical language. He explained that a bris is something more than a circumcision. The latter is a surgical procedure; it becomes a bris only when the proper blessings are said, welcoming the boy into the Jewish people by name.
"Parents would get a Mr. Orthodox mohel, right out of central casting with a long white beard," Kogen said. "He'd change the blessing, murmuring something in Hebrew about it being done pending the `future conversion' of the child."
To free Reform parents from those dilemmas, the NOAM program was established, Barth explained. Participants, who are often recruited by their rabbi, go through intensive short-courses in the theology and liturgy of the bris. It can be a life-changing experience, say veterans of the program, which is offered at various locations around the nation.
"I was only marginally Jewish," recalled Kogen, who gave up his medical practice to become a full-time mohel in 1992. California-based, he has performed thousands of ceremonies across the nation and as far field as Gibraltar and Beijing.
"Doing the bris sang to me," he said.
A mohel need not be a rabbi, even in the Orthodox community. But he or she can exercise an important rabbinical function, observed Rabbi Dan Rabishaw in his after-dinner address. For Jews who are not affiliated with a synagogue, the birth of a son may mark an unaccustomed brush with Jewish tradition, noted Rabishaw, a regional director of the Reform movement.
A mohel serving unaffiliated Jews has the opportunity to nudge them back to the fold by inspiring them with the beauty of the ritual, Rabishaw noted. He exhorted conventioners to strive to be more than mere circumcisiers.
"Are you a cutter? A snipper?" Rabishaw said. "Or are you a Jewish identity facilitator?"....

Good to see their return to some halacha.
posted by Yeshiva Orthodoxy
at 2:13 PM


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