3

This is a real question. I personally know of two cases. One is a friend of mine in USA. The other is in UK via my wife on a professional basis, where I was able to read the coroner's report. This is in addition to cases I know of via newspapers.

The case involving my friend is the core motivation for this question. She is in a paradox of faith and anguish.


What comfort is there?

What scripture can you turn to?

What can you say to the grieving mother?

How does the mohel handle his feelings of guilt?

How does the community respond if that bereaved mother now refuses to have a future son circumcised?

How does the community respond if that mohel now refuses to conduct another circumcision?

  • 4
    Welcome to the site, Stewart! Please note the warning against getting practical advice from the site, especially for such a difficult and sensitive issue. This could be broken down into several questions with distinct answers, and there are a couple related ones, including this recent one already around. See if you would like to sharpen this one after gleaning what you can from those. – WAF Dec 25 '18 at 10:36
  • @WAF Of the question you referenced, what I understood from the answers is: "We do not mourn for stillborn infants. Whenever a human offspring does not live for 30 days, he is considered as stillborn." Please forgive me if I consider this a cold and unhelpful attitude for a grieving mother. It also sort of creates a, "Whoops, my bad" viewpoint for the Mohel, which does not seem spiritually healthy to me. – Stewart Dec 25 '18 at 13:37
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    I'm not sure this can be answered in any terms more than a personal sense. How does a doctor deal with losing a patient, or a parent who loses a child during surgery and then refuses to get a necessary surgery for a later child? Grief is personal and struggles with faith cannot be explained. – rosends Dec 25 '18 at 13:56
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    @Stewart it isn't about a "wash our hands" approach. Getting necessary surgery is also connected to a direct commandment. We can turn into Elisha Ben Avuyah or we can take another path and say like Ish Gamzu. – rosends Dec 25 '18 at 14:24
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    @Stewart I have NEVER heard of a baby dying from circumcision. Can you give us details about the rare case that you're personally familiar with? Was this a case of undiagnosed hemophilia, which is a general medical problem, and not related to circumcision per se? – IsraelReader Dec 25 '18 at 19:22
3

At least to points 1-3, I'm not sure there's any one-size-fits-all answer. First of all, what comforts one person may not comfort another (or they might even consider it insensitive). Second, ideas from one or another Jewish source may or may not mean something to your friend, depending on her level of engagement/identification with those sources and ideas. (It's also possible that the wound is too raw for any kind of comfort right now.)

For example:

  1. There is a popular story about a couple whose son, born after many years of childlessness, died at age 2. They are told by the Baal Shem Tov that this child was a reincarnation of a heroic Jew whose soul needed just a short time more on earth to complete its mission, and that they had the privilege of helping it to do so. (The entire story is at https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/102694/jewish/The-Reincarnated-Prince.htm. I think I've also seen a version where the couple ended up having another child who grew up to be a famous holy Jew.)

    Conceivably the same might be true of your friend and her child, although (a) there's of course no way for us to know, (b) depending on to what extent she identifies with the Baal Shem Tov's teachings and/or accepts reincarnation as a Jewish belief, this story may or may not mean something to her.

  2. The Talmud (Gittin 57b), commenting on a verse (Psalms 44:23), "For Your sake we are killed all day long," comments that circumcision is an example of this (because of the nonzero level of danger involved). That statement follows several other interpretations of this verse, one of them being that it refers to the famous story of Chanah (Hannah) and her seven sons, a classic example of Jews being ready to die "for the sanctification of G-d's name" (https://www.chabad.org/holidays/chanukah/article_cdo/aid/429014/jewish/chanah-and-her-seven-sons.htm). And such sacrifice has always been seen in Jewish history as a privilege and a great merit (it's told about R. Yosef Caro, a revered sage and author of the standard code of Jewish law, that he was promised this privilege and then later had it withdrawn).

It might be worth checking with her local Orthodox rabbi to see whether either of these, or other relevant sources, might speak to her.


About point 4 (and 6), if the mohel's guilty feelings make him re-evaluate his practices (make sure to check the baby more carefully, improve his hygienic standards, etc.), so much the better. He might choose instead to withdraw, in which case one important factor to consider might be whether are there enough other mohalim available to serve the community.

  • Thank you for your answer. There is much to consider here. However one immediate comment I have, is that I had no idea that reincarnation formed a part of Jewish theology. – Stewart Dec 27 '18 at 14:36
  • The 2nd story about Chanah and her Seven sons is pretty hardcore brutal. I'm not sure how to translate that into an appropriate response for my friend. What I notice is that in the story, the king who killed the children was an enemy. In my friend's situation, her son died not by enemy hands. And that, more than anything, is where her struggle is. – Stewart Dec 27 '18 at 16:35
  • @Stewart: true, and not all the gory details need to be given. (The version in the Talmud indeed is much shorter; the details in that article are from other sources.) I mentioned it only because Chanah and her sons have always been considered among the great heroes of Jewish history, and so it might be some source of comfort for your friend to think that in some small way her child (and she and her husband) are in that category too. – Meir Dec 27 '18 at 16:58
  • (As for your point about enemy hands vs. otherwise - everything ultimately is from G-d; neither Antiochus nor germs have any power independent of Him, though that's a whole other discussion.) – Meir Dec 27 '18 at 16:58
2

Let me get started on this point, about future circumcisions. Obviously if there is familial hemophilia or any other medical indication against future babies having circumcision, don't do it. If, however, the doctors say "this baby is totally fine" and the parents can't bring themselves to do it ... the parents are viewed as tragically mistaken, but not heretics.

Zevachim 22b reads:

Had the Torah told us that a heretic can't serve as a Temple priest, I would have said that's because his heart isn't aligned with Heaven. However someone who didn't fulfill circumcision, their heart is aligned with Heaven, so I would have thought they could; therefore the verse (Ezekiel 44) spells out that both the heretic and the circumcision-noncompliant may not serve.

(A similar quote appears in Pesachim 96a concerning who may eat the Passover sacrifice.)

Tosafot (on Zevachim, s.v. arel) observes that we are talking about someone who is obligated to perform circumcision and not doing it, yet we still say "their heart is aligned with Heaven." He says this means someone who believes in the mitzva, but just panics as he fears his child being in pain.

One of the other commentaries on that subject -- afraid I haven't found it off-hand -- suggest another case of "they're not doing when obligated, but their heart is in the right place" -- would be if only one previous child died of circumcision.

So if the parents couldn't do it again, we'd say they're wrong, they are still obligated ... but we certainly understand where they are coming from.

  • Thank you for your answer. In the text you quote, I'm not 100% clear where the difference is made between a bereaved parent, and a parent who is not bereaved, but still fears for the pain of the child. In other words, does a parent need such a powerful motivation as the loss of a child, in order to be "understood" as not heretics? – Stewart Dec 27 '18 at 14:42
  • @Stewart two different commentaries' interpretations of noncompliant-but-not-a-heretic. One opinion is "fears for pain"; the other opinion is "fears because they lost one." The first opinion is older and more widespread, so my short answer to your question would be no. – Shalom Dec 27 '18 at 23:58
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What Judaism taught me is that ABSOLUTELY everything is for the good. Everything. For the ultimate good.

(Yes, that includes the Holocaust as well. But not only that. Everything that will happen in the future - what might be of way grander magnitude, a reckoning of some sort perhaps - is also for the good).

It might be that nothing can confort her. It's a spiritual wound the poor mother will have to carry until the end of her life.

  • Could you give me an explanation for the downvotes? I don't think there is any (written) source that deals with this particular topic and all advice and comfort is subjective. – Anonymous Dec 25 '18 at 18:02
  • I am not Jewish. My friend is. I wanted to comfort her within the framework of her faith. The mohel involved has told her he will never do another circumcision again, but is afraid of ostracism. – Stewart Dec 25 '18 at 18:11
  • For the ultimate and unknown good!" – Al Berko Dec 25 '18 at 19:24
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    I didn't downvote, but see here for a guide which might help understand the downvotes, especially the fact MY is not a discussion site but one for sourced answers. – mbloch Dec 26 '18 at 4:21
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    @Stewart No I can not. It would be pointless. You can not possibly understand. Hopefully you will though (in the future). – Anonymous Dec 27 '18 at 16:14

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