Dr. Robert Worthington-Kirsch isn’t your ordinary phlebologist. He can diagnose and treat your varicose veins.
He can read your x-rays, CT scans, MRIs, and ultrasounds. He can tell you precisely what’s wrong with your aging or ailing blood vessels, and he can tell you how to fix them.
There’s something more: Dr. Worthington-Kirsch is the only Messianic Jewish mohel in existence. Mohels are very important. There’s no Judaism—Messianic or otherwise—without mohels.
Mohels—or if your heritage favors the Yiddish pronunciation, “moyels”—have the mostly invisible job of performing ritual circumcision on male Jewish infants. They aren’t conferred the rock-star status accorded to the great rabbis and sages of old who interpreted the Torah for their generations, but without mohels, without circumcision, Judaism as a way of life has no way to move from past to future.
Undergoing Brit Milah—the specific practice of Jewish ritual circumcision—is what technically brings a Jewish male into the Abrahamic covenant. It’s an integral part of Jewish experience and identity.
A person who has undergone Brit Milah is Jewish, obligated to all the demands of Jewish law. It’s not so much a rite of passage as it is a promise: A family circumcising their child understands that they are irrevocably inducting him into the thought world and lifestyle of Judaism, a way of life that can never truly be left behind.
Brit Milah, however, has rules; only a tiny minority of Jews are equipped to facilitate this delicate ritual. It’s not enough to remove the foreskin at a local clinic or hospital. The sages laid down a plethora of medically specific and ritually obligatory components that must be properly implemented to undertake a Brit Milah correctly.
This intersection of medical expertise, Jewish identity, and halachic knowledge finds expression in exactly one active Messianic Jewish mohel: Dr. Worthington-Kirsch.
We sat down with Dr. Worthington-Kirsch and asked him how he ended up as a mohel, what barriers to entry might exist for other Messianic prospects, and what it might look like to train more.
Dr. Worthington-Kirsch was raised as a Conservative Jew and became a follower of Yeshua in 1979. He says, “When [my wife and I] came to Philadelphia for my residency, we initially got involved in the church and got exposed to the Messianic movement by Bob Winer, who was an elder at Beth Yeshua and was a physician on staff at the hospital.”
Dr. Worthington-Kirsch’s journey from Judaism to Christianity to Messianic Judaism mirrors that of thousands of others. His path toward the office of mohel, however, was born of his unique circumstances as a resident physician and his desire to fulfill his obligation to Jewish law and have his male children—should he ever have any—properly circumcised.
“There was no Messianic mohel available, and the mohel who was the dominant force in the Philadelphia area had made it clear that he was not willing to do Brit Milah for Messianic Jews,” Dr. Worthington-Kirsch recalls. The only other options available were to have a pediatrician perform the circumcision or “avoid the question with the mohel.” Although these remain the only two options for most Messianic Jewish families today, neither is ideal.
A Brit Milah isn’t just an outpatient surgery. Many doctors use a plastibell—a device that performs circumcision without any loss of blood. But such a circumcision doesn’t fulfill the halachic ritual requirements of Brit Milah. As Dr. Worthington-Kirsch puts it, “If there’s no blood, there’s no covenant.” On the other hand, a Messianic Jewish family will generally want to embellish the traditional Brit Milah service with references to Yeshua as Messiah, the new covenant secured by his death and resurrection, and circumcision of the heart. Simply avoiding the question with an Orthodox mohel casts a cloud of anxiety over what should be a joyful event, and some families understandably find the practice deceptive.
After consulting with a few other Messianic Jewish leaders, Dr. Worthington-Kirsch found that the main objection they raised with him was the issue of liability—the legal ramifications if, God forbid, something were to go wrong during the procedure. He concluded, however, “At that point, I was practicing medicine, and infant circumcision is nothing compared to the liabilities [associated with] the procedures I was doing in the office every day.”
Necessity forced Dr. Worthington-Kirsch’s hand when his wife became pregnant with a boy. He decided to take his first concrete step toward becoming a mohel:
I made an arrangement with the GYN department and with one of the urologists on staff … and for somewhere between four and six months, the urologist and I, or I with the urologist’s supervision, did circumcisions on babies who were delivered to the clinic service so that I could get solid on the surgical procedure.
[It’s] a very simple surgical procedure, again, compared to the stuff that I do every day. The urologist eventually provided a letter to Rabbi Chernoff that said that, in his opinion, I was fully competent to do infant circumcisions without any supervision.
This left only the ritual portion of the service, which Dr. Worthington-Kirsch mastered after “a lot of reading.”
His first circumcision was that of his own son in his living room. Since then, for the past twenty-seven years, he’s circumcised nearly every male child born in his congregation. However, Messianic Judaism’s shallow bench in this area has resulted in a continent-wide ministry for the first Messianic Jewish mohel: New Jersey, Maryland, Ontario, Florida, Wisconsin—“As I’ve had time and availability, I’m happy to travel.”
Dr. Worthington-Kirsch sometimes receives requests from Gentiles who want to circumcise their male infants in a sort of emulation of the Abrahamic covenant. He’s happy to perform the surgical procedure, but he says,
I do not do Brit Milah [for Gentiles] … We pray over the family and the baby, and I circumcise the baby, and we view that as a personal covenant between the family and the LORD to raise their child in the LORD’s service, but … I’m very, very careful to maintain that that’s not a Brit Milah, and I’m not bringing the child into the covenant of Abraham, and I’m not bringing the child into a Jewish identity.
Being the only active Messianic Jewish mohel, Dr. Worthington-Kirsch is keenly aware of the need to train more. He has formed a Brit Milah board with several congregational leaders in the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC). They are working on “writing bylaws and developing some sort of plan for recognition of mohels within the community.”
The difficulty of training more mohels is a unique problem for the Messianic Jewish community. Although traditional Judaism has essentially used preceptorship or mentorship—that is, mohels training other mohels, with no requirement for modern medical education—this is not an ideal path for Messianic Judaism, simply because Dr. Worthington-Kirsch doesn’t perform circumcisions with enough frequency to be able to train his own successor. Furthermore, over the last twenty-seven years, only one or two people have even reached out to him to ask how they might be able to get started on the road to being a mohel. “I’m not sure how much self-starting interest there is,” he says.
He envisions the next generation of mohels following a path similar to his own: “We would want somebody to have some medical experience at least … a nurse if not a nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant or physician. That certainly would make it easier for that person to get training because hopefully within their own medical community, they’d be able to find somebody who would be willing to [oversee] them to do the procedure itself.”
Of course, one sticking point is that a mohel must be Jewish. To the question of whether God might call a Gentile to be a mohel or not, Dr. Worthington-Kirsch responds, “Wrong. Because this is ministering the covenant for the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and if you don’t participate in that covenant, I don’t see how you can be a minister of it.”
Whether a Jewish woman could accede to the role—the Hebrew term would be mohelet—is a little more nuanced. He’s open to the idea, but it’s still up for debate. Indeed, the UMJC Brit Milah board has its work cut out for it.
Dr. Worthington-Kirsch is moving to Tampa and will assuredly leave a mohel-shaped hole in his Philadelphia community. Perhaps necessity will force the hand of another Messianic Jewish doctor who can keep carrying the torch.