Is a scheduled Hatafat Dam Brit to be postponed if the convert's mother is expected to die within the week?
[Administrator's note: a somewhat similar question was posed in http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/question.php?id=650]
There are no easy answers in a situation like this. My heart goes out to anyone who is suffering from the impending death of a parent. It is sad, particularly at a time of joy surrounding the completion of conversion, that sometimes we must also be dealing with another life cycle event.
The halahah surrounding conversion to Judaism is quite clear – there is no mitzvah to convert. No blessing. No requirement. You can be a perfectly good person during your life and not be Jewish. Particularly as a Reconstructionist Jew who rejects the notion of chosenness of the Jewish people, conversion is not seen as an elevation of any kind. The rituals of conversion (aside from sitting before a beyt din) are rituals that any Jew should participate in – circumcision or hatafat dam, and mikvah. They are simply rituals that are the first step of a fully Jewish journey rather than simply a transition into a new civilization.
When a loved one is near death, our heart and mind ought to be with them. This is a decision that only a particular convert and his rabbi can answer – together. I would ask some guiding questions to help ascertain whether proceeding is in the best interest of that particular convert. Can we be fully present for the rituals of conversion if our soul is elsewhere? Perhaps it might be wise to postpone the hatafat dam until after the period of intense mourning has passed. Should here is a strong word. Like with all mourning traditions, it is best to see what will bring the most comfort to the living. I could envision a scenario where a convert might want to finish the conversion rituals so that they may fully mourn their parent in their new community.
The Talmud, in tractate Yevamot, tells the following story: The rabbis taught: When someone nowadays presents himself for conversion, we say to him: Why do you wish to convert? Are you not aware that nowadays Israelites are careworn, stressed, despised, harassed and persecuted? If he responds, “I know, and I feel unworthy to share their troubles”, we accept him at once. This is the standard for conversion. Surely if a convert feels unworthy to share the troubles of being part of the Jewish community, kal vehomer (all the more so) the community should come together and bear witness to the suffering of this person who is losing his parent.
Because there is no harm in delaying the conversion ritual, this is a decision best left to the candidate and his rabbi. I see no harm in delaying, and certainly there would be no halahic objection to a delay. On the contrary, I might ask whether we should conclude the ritual prior to the death of the parent so as to allow this new member of the community to fully mourn for their parent within the congregation. In any case, whatever decision the convert and rabbi make together would be supported in Jewish Law. When any path is acceptable, we should always incline to the path that brings the most comfort to those who are mourning, and the most peace to those who are in need.
Hatafat Dam Berit is a quasi-circumcision ceremony (taking a drop of blood) for previously circumcised male conversion candidates. It takes place prior to their immersion. It is not generally celebrated independently of the final conversion, so there is certainly no obligation to postpone it because of impending mourning
However, the hatafah often occurs on the same day as the actual conversion, and I suspect the real question is whether to postpone a conversion under such circumstances. . In general, the Jewish response to impending mourning is to rush to get celebrations in, rather than to delay them, as many celebrations are forbidden during mourning, even during the full year of mourning for parents. Here it seems to me that there is in any case good reason to have it go on as scheduled, as it causes sincere converts needless pain to unnecessarily delay their opportunity to perform many more mitzvoth fully and in the context of being commanded. If the mother is supportive, all the more so she should have the opportunity to see her son become part of the Jewish people.
On the other hand, unlike in the case of a born but uncircumcised adult Jew, and even more unlike the case of a Jewish infant boy before his eighth day of life, there is no requirement that the circumcision or hatafah of a potential convert (or for that matter the conversion) take place on a particular day, or as soon as possible – it should simply take place when it is best for the convert physically, psychologically, and spiritually. Therefore, if the potential convert feels that having the hatafah done now will generate a shadow over the joy of becoming Jewish, or if he feels that it will distract him from paying proper attention to his mother or other relatives, his feelings should be granted great deference.
According to Jewish law, all converts to Judaism must immerse in a “mikveh,” a ritual bath. A male convert, however, requires the additional step of a b’rit milah, a covenantal circumcision. Usually, to allow time for healing, the b’rit milah is conducted several weeks prior to the convert’s mikveh immersion, and is called a b’rit milah l’shem giyyur, literally a covenantal circumcision for the purpose of conversion. As with the circumcision of Jewish male babies, a strictly medical circumcision does not suffice. The procedure must be done with Jewish intent, expressed through certain prayers. But, as the term indicates, the conversion is not complete until the individual immerses in the mikveh.
In our time, when doctors routinely circumcise male babies, many male prospective converts are already circumcised. Since a person cannot be circumcised twice, such individuals cannot undergo a b’rit milah. But a medical circumcision is not enough. A circumcision must either be performed l’shem mitzvah, for the purpose of fulfilling the biblical command that Jewish babies be circumcised, or l’shem giyyur, for the purpose of conversion.
Since a medical circumcision does not fulfill either category, a medically circumcised convert must undergo what is known as a hatafat dam b’rit, literally a drop of covenantal blood, a procedure where a drop of blood is extracted from the circumcision site. This act symbolically re-circumcises the individual l’shem giyyur.
It is important to note, though, that there are no time requirements for hatafat dam b’rit. This makes it unlike b’rit milah, where timely completion overrides all other biblical commandments (i.e., even if a newborn boy’s 8th day is Saturday, the b’rit milah should still take place on time). Hatafat dam b’rit can wait (as can immersion in the mikveh, for that matter). Both acts may be done whenever the convert is ready.
Moreover, since the questioner has not yet undergone hatafat dam b’rit, one would assume that he also has not yet immersed in the mikveh. As such, the individual has not yet converted. Therefore, he has no Jewish legal obligations, and faces no legal urgency to undergo the hatafat dam b’rit procedure (or, for that matter, to immerse in the mikveh). Also, since the individual is not yet Jewish without hatafat dam b’rit and mikveh, he also is not subject to any of the Jewish laws governing the mourning process.
The end result is that a person in a situation like this may do whatever s/he feels comfortable doing. Since there is no time requirement for hatafat dam b’rit, it may be postponed as long as necessary. And because the individual is not yet Jewish he is not obligated to observe Jewish mourning practices, so there is no Jewish legal issue with keeping the hatafat dam b’rit as scheduled, should he choose to do so.
The more relevant questions, then, are personal: What will be more useful at this difficult time? What will help the process of grieving? What will be a greater honor to the deceased? Answer these questions, and you will have unimpeachable guidance.
First, assuming that this is an actual situation you face, allow me to offer my concern for you at this time. The time of your conversion should be one of happiness, and offer you a sense of joy and satisfaction at 'coming home'. On the other hand, facing the imminent death of your mother is hard enough; to face it at what should be a time of great joy must be a source of very mixed emotions, and be even more difficult for you.
To answer, I would offer you two thoughts. First, have you spoken to the rabbi with whom you are working towards your converison? Their answer should be the best advice for you.
Not to undercut what that rabbi might say, in general, with no other information to go on, I would think there is no reason not to proceed with the Hatafat dam brit. If you had completed your conversion a month ago and your mother's death occurred, it would be no different, as far as I can see. If you have been delaying the Hatafat dam brit out of respect for your mother, perhaps you want to wait until after the funeral and mourning period, but that does not seem to be the situation from what you have said.
I am sorry I can't be more specific - without more information I can't say anything else, and this is really a question that should be posed to your own rabbi.
Sha'ah tovah on your Hatafat dam brit and the related Mikvah and Beit Din to follow; my sympathies on the imminent loss of your mother. May you be strengthened and granted courage to handle all that is ahead of you.
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