Mohelot and Brit Milah: Does it matter if a woman wields the knife?
Can a woman perform a bris? Jewish scholars, even the most Orthodox, answer with a tentative “why not?” for there is no halachic (Jewish law) prohibition against mohelot – female mohels. While Jewish law states that it’s preferable for a Jewish male to perform the brit milah (circumcision) if one is present, it is not mandatory. The symbolism of a woman circumcising a man is inherently provocative, touching on questions of spirituality, nurturing mothers, and emasculation. Many men, when polled on the subject, reflexively cross their legs.
The brit milah (or bris) is the mark of Abraham’s covenant with God, a solemn ritual that is halachically necessary for Jewish boys, taking place eight days after birth. The birth of Jewish girls may be celebrated with a brit bat and a naming ceremony – but these are not as traditionally ritualized as the brit milah. Some feminists have argued that the brit milah is a sexist ceremony in that it is reserved for boys, containing an implicit value judgment in favor of them.
Beyond issues of gender equality, the bris itself is the subject of heated debate. A simple Google search for “bris” will produce articles decrying the ritual as a barbaric, mutilating custom unthinkable in the modern era. Contrarily, other articles will wax poetic about its beauty, symbolism, and religious necessity. Opponents to circumcision declare its potential detrimental psychological impact, and some organizations, such as the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights or the Israeli Association Against Genital Mutilation, deem the practice in violation of the human rights of a child. Circumcision’s proponents, religious reasons aside, will point to the procedure’s potential to reduce the likelihood of HIV infection.
Yet, who can perform the bris challenges traditional notions of male performance of the rite…after all, it should be noted that Zipporah, Moses’ wife, circumcised her son. A tragic piece featured in Yaffa Eliach’s Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust (Random House, 1982) relates the story of a desperate act of defiance in a death camp. According to the story, a woman asks for a knife of a Nazi soldier, circumcises her infant son, and cries: “Master of the Universe, You gave me a healthy child, and I return him to You a worthy Jew.”
The bris has traditionally been performed by a man, but there is a growing number of mohelot in the United States. Dr. Debra Weiss-Ishai, otherwise known as The Bris Doctor, is a mohelet and a pediatrician in the San Francisco Bay area. According to an article by Sue Fishkoff, there are thirty-five Reform and four Conservative trained mohelot trained in the United States. Another is Dr. Lillian Schapiro of Atlanta Georgia; still another is Dr. April Rubin, an OB-GYN in Washington who has performed around 70 britei milah. Dr. Laurie Radovsky, Dr. Emily Blake and Ilene Gelbaum have also redefined who can perform the bris.
Dr. Rubin sent me a copy of an article she had written about her life as a mohelet, whose concluding sentences seemed particularly appropriate for this forum: “Times certainly have changed. In 1977 my medical school dean warned me that my chosen profession might emasculate my husband. No one has suggested that about my becoming a mohelet.”
What might women add to the bris ceremony that men may not, and vice-versa? What do you think about a woman performing the act that defines a Jewish man’s covenant with God?