By Barbara Trainin Blank
Anyone who has attended more than a few britei milah is likely to compare them: How fast did the mohel work? Did the baby cry a lot? How pale did the male family members become? But the guests at a brit milah of the grandson of Marcie and Tsvi Lieber in Silver Spring, Maryland, in August 2014 had one more factor to consider: A woman wearing a richly painted tallit called for attention and began the ceremony. No one among the attendees—a religiously mixed crowd that included many members of the maternal grandparents’ Modern Orthodox congregation—had ever seen a mohelet, yet they seemed more mystified than miffed. No one voiced objections, but the circumciser’s gender certainly fueled conversation during the seudat mitzvah (festive meal following the brit).
Surprisingly, the issue of whether women are permitted to perform a brit milah seems to have garnered less attention than other new roles on the Orthodox feminist agenda. In fact, in Exodus 4: 24–26, there is a precedent: When Moses did not circumcise his son on the prescribed eighth day and God sought to kill him, his wife, Tzipporah, saved the day by grabbing a flint and cutting off her son’s foreskin. (According to tradition, Moses then took the flint from her hand and completed the task, but it’s clear who the initiator was.)
Based on this biblical story, some rabbis in the Talmud and later sources seem to express no objection to a woman performing a brit milah. However, the practice doesn’t seem to have gained traction, at least among the Orthodox.
The Liebers’ mohelet describes herself as an observant Conservative Jew. An ob-gyn in the Washington, D.C. area for more than thirty years, Dr. April Rubin frequently has performed non-ritual circumcisions. But it was only in 2003 that she decided to “add another dimension” to her Jewish life by becoming a mohelet.
A member of Congregation Adas Israel in Washington, Dr. Rubin had long considered taking that course. But it was only when her rabbi, during a study session attended by Dr. Rubin’s husband, mentioned mohel training at the Jewish Theological Seminary and bemoaned the fact that his congregation had no mohel of its own, that she received the needed nudge.
“I hadn’t really investigated the possibility because I was uncertain the Conservative movement would accept women as mohalot,” she said. “Then it fell into my lap.”
Dr. Rubin attended an intense five-day “total immersion” course at JTS, which she called a “fantastic experience.” Of the nineteen people in her class, five were women, including two from Germany. (One has since made aliyah.)
A ‘Righteous Jew’
“The interesting thing is that, according to the Shulhan Arukh, the only requirement is that the person doing a brit milah be a ‘righteous Jew.’ There is nothing about gender,” Dr. Rubin said.
When she asked a Lubavitcher friend to research the acceptability of mohalot, he responded that he couldn’t find anything wrong with it, but just said that it’s “not right.”
Marcie Lieber, the grandmother of the baby mentioned earlier, who describes herself and her husband as Torah observant, Modern Orthodox Jews, didn’t object when her son and daughter-in-law, members of a Conservative congregation, said they would be using a Conservative mohelet. “My only desire was that the brit be kosher according to halakhah,” Lieber said. “Since I had never heard about a woman performing a brit, I had a conversation with an Orthodox rabbi, who researched the issue in the Talmud and Shulhan Arukh. He responded that although a mohelet would be an unusual presence in Orthodox circles, and that such a presence may not conform to Orthodox social mores, a brit performed by a woman, pursuant to all Jewish laws, is a kosher brit.”
Some possible issues, however, were raised by Cantor Philip L. Sherman, a long-time New York-based mohel.
“There is a general halakhic principle that a person who is not obligated to perform a specific mitzvah cannot fulfill that obligation for a person who is,” he said. “This is not necessarily a gender issue. In the traditional/Orthodox world, the differences are often illustrated between a Jew and a non-Jew, observant and non-observant, a minor and an adult, or male and female. A father is obligated to perform the brit milah for his son. A woman is not obligated in the mitzvah.”
However, he clarified, that is l’khathila (a priori). B’di’avad (after the fact), any Jew can perform a brit milah. If a family lives in Yemen, for example, and the only person available to perform the brit is a nonobservant Jewish physician, male or female, the circumcision may be considered a kosher brit milah retroactively (although there are some who would require hatafat dam brit [a symbolic drop of blood], later).
“There may be other issues, such as modesty and kevod hatzibbur,” Cantor Sherman continued. “If the community objects, whether the person is nonobservant or female, it would not be allowed. Some observant Jewish communities will allow a woman to be a sandakit, and some will not.” (See On Being a Sandakit By Belda Lindenbaum about being a sandakit at a brit milah.)
Another consideration, regardless of gender, is whether the mohel/mohelet is shomer/et mitzvot.
In Times of Duress
Women have performed brit milah during times of duress. According to an August 2010 article by Alma Heckman on the Jewish Women’s Archive website, Yaffa Eliach’s Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust recounts a time when a Jewish woman in a concentration camp grabbed a knife from a guard to circumcise her son.
Ms. Heckman cites an article by journalist Sue Fishkoff that at the time (in 2010) there were thirty-five Reform and four Conservative-trained mohalot. There still may be some resistance because of the issues of modesty—perhaps less so with a physician who is a mohelet—and kevod hatzibbur, as mentioned by Cantor Sherman. However, with training programs now open to women, perhaps this number has grown by now and will soon be making an impact on the Modern Orthodox world as well.
Barbara Trainin Blank is a journalist, playwright, and co-author of What to Do About Mama: A Guide to Caring for Aging Family Members (Sunbury Press).