Female Mohelet – a personal touch

Female mohelet

Yeah, I know, this is my fourth post of the day, but who’s counting?

I read in the Jerusalem Post this weekend about a female Mohelet, Rochelle Schwartz, who came to Israel recently to perform a ritual brit milah, circumcision, on a newborn boy. The article reveals:

With over 25 years of medical practice under her belt, Schwartz has provided non-ritual medical circumcisions as a family doctor to many of her patients and their new young family members. She has developed, over the past 15 years, a unique pain prevention protocol. The technique includes topical and local anesthetic, pain medication and sugar pacifiers (for the newborn to suck on along with the wine), all of which help to virtually eliminate the pain involved in the circumcision procedure.

Schwartz, 53, finally acted on her feelings nine years ago, when she became one of three practicing female mohalot in Canada. Rochelle had studied the Halachot of brit mila with a rabbi for a year prior to becoming a mohelet. She had a Conservative upbringing and currently belongs to a Reform synagogue in her Jewish community in Toronto.

“I always had a love and passion for my Judaism,” she says. “I began to think that being a mohelet would be a way to combine my love for Judaism, my surgical [skills] as well as my spiritual life.”

I can’t deny it sounds great – it seems very logical that women, who by nature are more compassionate than men, should work as mohelot, but as an Orthodox Jew, the first question that entered my mind when I read this article was: what does Halacha have to say about this?

The article addresses this very question:

While according to Halacha, the obligation to perform brit mila falls on the father, there is a biblical precedent for a woman carrying out the act.

According to traditional sources, Jewish tradition does not recognize that the mother has a mitzva to fulfill; that is, the responsibility falls upon the father to recite the blessing of the brit mila. “The mother is encouraged to recite the bracha [blessing] with the father or without the father present following the circumcision,” says Sacks.

Theoretically, he says, women may circumcise. He also mentions Tzippora in the Book of Exodus, in which she performed a brit mila. However, according to tradition, Moses is said to have taken the flint from her hand and completed the brit, thus ultimately retaining male dominance in the performance of this traditional Jewish practice.

The male dominance is also seen in Orthodoxy, which adopts the view that since it is not normative practice within Jewish communities, permitting women to perform brit mila would only erode the power of custom and tradition. Rabbi Shaul Farber, a practicing Orthodox rabbi, and founder and director of Itim, the Jewish life Information and Advocacy Center, says that there is an ongoing debate within the Orthodox community on whether women can function as mohalot.

The Shulhan Aruch, the universally accepted legal code book of Jewish law, includes the basic laws of brit mila. The legal code, which was compiled by the great Sephardi Rabbi Joseph Caro in the mid 1500s, combines both the differing customs and laws of Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jewry. It is a reliable legal source of Jewish laws and practices.

The male dominance is also seen in Orthodoxy, which adopts the view that since it is not normative practice within Jewish communities, permitting women to perform brit mila would only erode the power of custom and tradition. Rabbi Shaul Farber, a practicing Orthodox rabbi, and founder and director of Itim, the Jewish life Information and Advocacy Center, says that there is an ongoing debate within the Orthodox community on whether women can function as mohalot.

The Shulhan Aruch, the universally accepted legal code book of Jewish law, includes the basic laws of brit mila. The legal code, which was compiled by the great Sephardi Rabbi Joseph Caro in the mid 1500s, combines both the differing customs and laws of Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jewry. It is a reliable legal source of Jewish laws and practices.

Halacha is not set in stone – each generation confronts a new set of circumstances, and while we endeavor to adhere as closely as possible to Halacha, it has to change with the times and needs of new generations. The root of the word “Halacha” means in English, “to walk, to go,” denoting physical movement. We live in a generation where women’s talents and special qualities are no longer going unnoticed, and while it is true that some mitzvot apply to men and some mitzvot apply to women, if there is a biblical precedent for female mohalet, I don’t see the problem. If it was OK for Tzipporah to circumcise her son, why should Jewish women not train for this, if they so wish?

It seems to me that the only real Halachic objection against female Mohelot is the fact that “since it is not normative practice within Jewish communities, permitting women to perform brit mila would only erode the power of custom and tradition.”

This line of reasoning begs the question: Is our tradition not strong enough to withstand POSITIVE change? Why are we, as Orthodox Jews, so petrified of making changes that will allow women to play a more participatory role in Jewish rituals and communal life?

On the other hand, people might question Rochelle Schwartz’s sincerity. I know I did when I read the article. She writes that she performed a brit milah in Israel for the following reason:

I wanted to come to Israel to perform the brit mila, because this has traditionally been performed by an Orthodox mohel and just as I was a pioneer in Canada performing brit mila there, I wanted to become a pioneer in changing the way people feel about brit mila in Israel and be one of the first women to perform it in Israel.

It seems that Rochelle’s motivation is to go down in history as being a pioneer, to be one of the first women to perform brit milah in Israel. While I obviously understand her desire to be famous, if she were truly genuine about performing the mitzvah of brit milah, why couldn’t she have continued to perform other brit milot in the US, without needing to seek the limelight?

I am interested in hearing your thoughts.

Leave a comment



yitz..

13 years ago

there are clear halachic ramifications.

Since the mother has no halachic obligation to perform the brit milah, her performing the brit milah would mean that the child/father/beit din would still need to perform a brit milah (or at least draw a drop of blood representing the milah — as is the practice in the case of someone who is incidentally already circumcised (like a convert, someone circumcised by someone with no mitzwah obligation, or a baby born naturally circumcised–which does happen)) at a later time.

Similarly, a non-jew, or a child, can’t perform the brit milah because they too are not obligated in the mitzwah.

That’s as far as performing the mitzwah one self. As to appointing a woman shaliach to perform the mitzwah on one’s behalf–I don’t think halachah recognizes women as shlichim—but I’m not a Rabbi, nor do I have the requisite knowledge.

Let’s just leave it at there’s more to it than just minhag — as opposed to other feminist issues like female sofrot.

Also, you copied the quoted paragraphs twice..

And lastly, There’s another aspect of traditional brit milah that might raise eyebrows (well, raise them even more) w/ a female mohelet.

Sorelle

13 years ago

Yitz: Thanks for your comments. In the case of Havdalah or Kiddush, isn’t a woman allowed to act as shaliach? Isn’t that the same thing?

yitz..

13 years ago

Not at all the same thing. A woman *has a requirement* to say Kiddush AND Havdalah.

Often, the woman doesn’t say it because the person saying kiddush or havdalah has everyone (other men and women included) in mind, ie. he is being the shaliach for all of them.

But, if a woman didn’t hear kiddush or havdalah from someone else, or that person didn’t have her in mind, then she is halachically required (just as much as a man) to say it for herself.

Some people think that since the mitzwah of kiddush or havdallah is a time-bound mitzwah, then a woman isn’t obligated by it. But, mitzwoth pertaining to Shabbath don’t fall into this category because the mitzwoth of Shabbath involve and intimate mix of positive and negative commandments; and since the woman is required to keep the negative commandments–even those bound to time–in the case of shabbath this brings with it the requirement to keep the positive mitzwoth of shabbath as well.

again *consult a Rabbi for exactly how this all plays out*, but in short since a woman has an obligation to say havdalah and kiddush, she can also say kiddush/havdalah for men as well.

Charles

12 years ago

http://mylifeasalush.blogspot.com/2007/06/penis-free-columbia.html is an example that most circs in USA are medical not religious of course the physical outcome is the same. After reading her blog, I am convinced I hold no resentment towards being circumcised at birth as the critics say “without my consent.”