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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?

More on: Ritual,
12 Comments

"A tragic piece featured"

It's a mayseh. It never happened. Chassidic TALES from the Holocaust. It's not a history book, despite what Aish.com suggests.

reverse gaze wrote,

"Men have been handling, observing, analyzing and operating on women's privat body parts since...forever...Suddenly when it becomes reverse, it's problematic. That's so typical."

This is not about gazing. This is about amputating. Let's try the reverse and see if isn't also problematic, shall we?

Your obtuseness is quite typical.

The Intactivist movement will over time defeat the mohelet movement. As it should.

My sister had a local mohel (male) do her sons and I decide then and there that I would do better than use anyone like him! We had a female mohel ( a midwife) who was EXACTLY what we wished for. She has circumcised many boys and always gives beautiful results. The male mohels have an attitude of rudeness while she was always kind and seemed to really enjoy doing this service. No loose floppy results with this lady, a complete circumcision was her result. He is now 3 years old and his scar is nearly invisible. My opinion is that a Briss should always be conducted by women.

Our 2nd son had a female mohel conduct his briss, she was wonderful and very skilled. With our 1st son,we had a male Mohel who botched it from start to finish. My advice, to everyone, have a female do this service! Women are more compassionate and strive to give perfect circumcisions.

In my opinion,it,s better that woman mohelet perform the brit mila. This is because the woman has more courage than the male mohel have, to cut all the foreskin ,without leaving excess foreskin on the tip of the penis. my child was circumcised by woman works as a nurse. befor the brit mila , I question her About, the method in which she performs the bris mila, and she told me that she Rather chop off, all the foreskin. So that's why I gave her to cut off the foreskin of my little guy. I would like to note that my eldest son was circumcised by male mohel, and he dident cut the foreskin properly , When he left a lot of Excess foreskin, that Causing him to increase masturbate

Conducting a boys Bris is a perfect fit for a woman. She would be more compassionate with the child and the parents. I have attended a bris performed by a woman and it was so much more beautiful than a man could do. There are plenty of women who would be glad to do a bris, so I say "Its a womans job".

Circumcision is one of the most ancient and time honoured customs of the human race. We have to thank Judaism for keeping alive this tradition. What better than submission to the circumcision knife being used by the mohelet or female circumciser. We are born into this world by a woman and she should {and can} make her mark on our male body.

My wife is of Jewish descent; her mother and grandmother both Jewish and Jewish ancestors murdered in the Holocaust, she decided no Mohel Moholet or Jewish tradition was going any where near her boys' genitals with a sharp knife. That tradition has ended in our and following generations as our adult children have also rejected circumcision.

The only woman who should do that to a man in his lifetime is his wife.

Men have been handling, observing, analyzing and operating on women's privat body parts since...forever...Suddenly when it becomes reverse, it's problematic. That's so typical.

The women you mention appear to also be medical doctors, but it should be noted that most mohelim are trained as such and need not be medical doctors.

I never actually heard of the concept of a female mohel - all the mohels that I ever heard of were male. I guess if a woman can be a mashgiach, why not mohel? They should create some sort of organization for female mohels called the Daughters of Zipporah or something...

We used a female mohelet 11 years ago with our son. I didn't even think twice about using a woman: she was great. We felt very comfortable as she was a urologist (so we figured she knew what she was doing). She had the ceremony all planned out, and even had things for us (parents) to read during the actual procedure so we were happily and completely distracted from what was going on.

How to cite this page

Heckman, Alma. "Mohelot and Brit Milah: Does it matter if a woman wields the knife?." 16 August 2010. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 27, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/mohelet-and-brit-milah>.

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