When the Mohel is a Woman

Moving an ancient ritual into a new era

“I think you…fail to see how serious this circumcision business is to Jews. I am still hypnotized by uncircumcised men when I see them at my swimming pool locker room. The damn thing never goes unregistered….I asked several of my equally secular Jewish male friends if they could have an uncircumcised son, and they all said no, sometimes without having to think about it and sometimes after the nice long pause that any rationalist takes before opting for the irrational.”—Philip Roth, in a letter to Mary McCarthy. (New Yorker, Dec. 1998)

Jewish circumcision is the ultimate initiation rite. Buck up, it says to the Jewish newborn; you’ve got to go through this to be a Jewish man. Buck up, it says to the boy’s father, let’s see if you’ve got the stomach for the Covenant. Tough luck, it says to Jewish mothers and baby girls; this is a boys’ club; God didn’t give you what it takes to join.

The arch old-Jewish-boy himself, Philip Roth, understands that. Abraham, circumcising his son Isaac, understood that. And Jewish circumcisers, who report mother after mother fleeing the scene, know that as well. But now, women are challenging that rite of initiation—not by protesting its existence, but by finding a way to take part.

To be a Jewish man is to be circumcised; and, until recently, to be a Jewish woman was to be excluded from the very first covenantal ritual in a Jewish life. But in the last decade, liberal Jewish institutions have begun to train non-Orthodox mohels—some 50 women among them. At a time when circumcision has come under attack as anachronistic and even harmful, the presence of female mohels raises other challenging questions: What does it mean that women—despite the limits of physiology—have found a way to participate in this historically male-on-male ritual? Does it change the ceremony’s meaning? Does it change the old boys’ club? Does it change the Covenant itself?

Brit mila always has been a boys’ show: Centered on the male baby and anatomy, a male mohel presided, the father was toasted, and the male relatives participated in the enactment. Women stayed in the kitchen comforting the mother as she heard her baby cry in the next room. The mother entered only to receive the baby when the ceremony was over. For centuries, the ceremony and circumcision were performed by the newborn boy’s father. Later a professional substitute—the mohel—stood in while father and grandfather looked on. Throughout history, mohels have been exclusively men trained in apprenticeships with veteran mohels. Like many Jewish ritual trades, the profession was passed from father to son.

In addition, the brit was the culmination of a community-wide celebration of the birth of a boy. During the pre-brit “week of the son,” writes scholar Michele Klein in her new book A Time to Be Born: Customs and Folklore of Jewish Birth, “the father hosted festive meals for the visitors, who brought gifts or money….It was customary for candles and lamps to burn all week.” By contrast, Klein quotes a Baghdadi rabbi of the 19th century, who writes, “A women who bears only girls will be neglected and in her distress can harm herself [immediately after] the hour of birth….Her family and friends, husband and in-laws deride and scorn her as if she had committed a terrible crime.”

Professor Lawrence Hoffman, who teaches at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, describes in Covenant of Blood the “extreme sexist symbolism of this rite that has initiated a male lifeline, that once called on boys entering puberty to wash their hands in a mixture of circumcision blood and water, that contrasted male blood that saves with female blood that pollutes, and that became the dominant male ritual from which women were eventually forcefully excluded.” The brit is so important, Jewish texts tell us, even a woman, a minor and a slave may perform it.

In 1984, under pressure to serve an increasingly diverse community, the Reform movement recognized the need for non-Orthodox mohels. Inspired by Dr. Debra Cohen’s request for training (Conservative and Orthodox groups had turned her down), HUC came through. It created the Brit Milah Board, the first training program offered by any liberal Jewish institutions to train medical professionals—men and women alike—to perform ritual circumcision. Gender-blind on principle—women were already ordained as Reform rabbis—the movement didn’t meditate on the intense historical chauvinism that surrounds Jewish circumcision. They were not concerned with the psychological question “What does it mean for a woman to preside?” The only question was, “Is there a need?”

When they asked that question, they found parents expressing a desire for their sons’ brit mila ceremonies to reflect their own Jewish practices. It is reported that Orthodox mohels asked to preside over a brit have insisted that both parents be Jewish and heterosexual, and often exclude women from the ceremony, making brit mila uncomfortable and sometimes impossible for non-traditional couples hoping to raise a Jewish child.

“The opposition”—and there was plenty—”is more psychological and sociological than halachic,” wrote the late Solomon Freehof, one of Reform Judaism’s preeminent legal authorities, during that first controversial year. “Male functionaries through time have taken unto themselves certain ritual practices. The sociology of the Jewish community has enforced this practice and barred other competent and skilled practitioners from exercising their legal right.”

The creation of the Brit Mila Board signified the end of the Orthodox monopoly in the business of the brit. It meant that intermarried, unmarried, and gay and lesbian couples could have their sons circumcised in a Jewish ritual. It also meant that women’s right to perform a brit—for the first time in history since Tzipporah circumcised Moses—was officially recognized. Since the Hebrew Union College’s Reform program began in 1984 and the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Conservative program began in 1989, 260 mohels have been trained; 48 are women.

“It’s incredibly important for women to have a chance to be mohalot—that women can contribute to Jewish culture as men can,” says Cohen, the first mohelet.

Following the recognition of women as rabbis and cantors, licensing women to be mohalot enriches the texture of Jewish ceremonial leadership. But as purveyors of a sacred ceremony, the mohelet must grapple with the psychological and social incongruity of performing and perpetuating a ritual that excludes her on both religious and anatomical counts.

“It’s quintessentially sexist, and all my feminist friends hate me for it, ” says plastic surgeon Marjorie Cramer about her role as a mohelet and member of the Brit Mila Board of Reform Judaism, “but Judaism is too good to walk away from and leave to the men.” So Cramer, like other mohalot, wades into what she calls a “weird, sexist, primitive, old-fashioned, superstitious ritual” with the faith that it is still meaningful for Jews, and that what she brings to it as a woman is nonetheless unique.

While Dorothy Greenbaum was studying for an adult confirmation at her synagogue, her rabbi signed her up for a certification course to become a mohelet. “It was bashert,” says Greenbaum, a pediatrician. “To have, at that moment, an outlet for my blooming love for Judaism that would combine with my medical skills, well, it was too good to be a coincidence.”

Greenbaum exudes: “To move an ancient ritual into the 21st century and keep it alive for young people…this is a vanguard I am privileged to be a part of. This is a new song, using the same old words. It’s really exciting to be a part of this.”

Most mohalot—all of whom are doctors—base the ceremony on a manual from either the Reform or Conservative movements. The prayers are the same as those said in an Orthodox ceremony. But whereas, as one mohelet described it, Orthodox mohels may “come in, shoo the women out of the room, mumble prayers, and leave,” mohalot are tailoring their ceremonies to match and include the families they serve. They aim at inspiration, making language more gender-neutral, adding commentary, and offering translations, all of which enrich and soften an otherwise upsetting and intimidating ritual.

“I see my job to educate, to make people feel comfortable, instead of alienated, so they walk away [from the brit] and feel happy to be Jewish,” comments Emily Blake, a mohelet from New York City. “I want to shine an attractive light on the Jewish faith, so that the parents see it as something beautiful they want to give to their children.”

This role of includer, of hostess even, welcoming new baby and family into Judaism’s tent, is a joy cited by mohalim, regardless of gender. “When you have parents who haven’t had anything to do with Judaism since their wedding, [and as a result of the brit] they become more involved, it’s a wonderful thing,” says Barry Meisel, obstetrician/gynecologist, mohel and chairman of the Brit Milah board.

Debra Schlossberg, a mohelet in a Chicago suburb, always includes an explanation of why Jews perform brit mila. Cramer likes to have a female relative serve as sandek, the person who holds the baby during the circumcision, an honor usually bestowed on the baby’s grandfather. Blake gives a discourse on the historical chain of the ritual, and her medical interpretation of brit mila. “God doesn’t pretend to put us here fully formed, or perfect,” she says, reflecting one traditional line of Jewish thinking that says God creates man imperfect—uncircumcised—so that man must work to perfect himself. “We circumcise to help make the baby perfect, just as the people in this room have to instill love and ethics in this new life to help him grow up perfect.”

Perhaps because they are doctors, and perhaps because they are women, female mohels seem to enjoy the trust from families that they will put the child, and the family, more at ease. Being a mother, Greenbaum believes, has influenced her attitude about the circumcision surgery itself. One current debate centers on whether to use anesthetic during the brit. Greenbaum favors its use; she also feeds the baby beforehand, swaddles him, and gives him a sugar sucker to release endorphins that help ameliorate the pain. All of these steps make the baby more comfortable.

“This is maternal experience,” she says. “If we have the knowledge of how to make things pain-free, it’s divinely inspired knowledge. If we don’t use it, it’s as though we are turning our back on something God-given.”

Greenbaum likes to begin the ceremony with a “chain of tradition.” In this ceremony, the child is passed to the mohelet through the hands of all the grandparents and parents, who in the process offer their private blessing over the child. For children of mixed marriages, she simply calls it “the chain of love.” Greenbaum also adds a prayer of thanksgiving for the parents to recite and her own blessing in honor of people lost in the Holocaust. It reads: “In a century in which we have lost so many, we are so very grateful for this new Jewish life.”

She explains about the Holocaust prayer: “Some of the families I have worked with have been turned away by Orthodox mohalim, especially if the child’s mother is not Jewish. To me that is an affront. Here is a child of Jewish ancestry whose parents are going to raise him Jewish and they are going to turn him away when so many have died.”

At the end of the brit, Greenbaum blesses the entire family with a slightly modified priestly blessing. “May God bless you and keep you, may God watch over you and be gracious unto you, may God grant you health and love and joy and mazel to your beautiful new child and that most precious of all gifts, the gift of people in your home.” When she is finished, Greenbaum notes, there are few dry eyes.

Without the option of mohels such as Meisel and Blake, many families wishing for a Jewish ritual to sanctify their baby’s birth would be denied. Greenbaum’s recent client list reflects the diversity of Jews seeking to sanctify their lives through this ritual: in addition to many “ordinary” Jewish couples, she has served a family with two fathers, a Reform Jewish couple, an intermarried couple, an Israeli couple speaking out against Orthodoxy. Some guests may be surprised to see a woman in an unfamiliar role, but any objection is usually limited to, “I didn’t know a woman could do that,” says Beverly Siegal, a mohelet in Los Angeles.

“Older women,” says Cramer, “are especially positive. One women said to me, “That’s it. Now I’ve lived long enough to have a great-grandchild, and to have a woman do the brit!”

Greenbaum states, “One of the biggest honors after performing a brit is when someone comes up to me and says, “This was a beautiful brit. I apologize for the prejudice I felt before I heard you.'”

Orthodox Opposition

Today, though sanctioned by the Reform and Conservative governing bodies, mohalot still confront obstacles of centuries-old expectation and custom, as well as categorical disapproval from the Orthodox community.

Orthodoxy criticizes Reform Judaism for its departure from halachic observance, and generally refuses to recognize Reform leaders as Jewish authorities. Therefore female mohels are “unkosher” according to Orthodoxy first and foremost because they are Reform Jews, and second because they are women. While some Reform mohels enjoy positive relationships with Orthodox leaders (some Orthodox hospital chaplains will even refer Reform new parents to a Reform mohel or mohelet), at least two mohalot in the New York area have experienced outright harassment. Orthodox mohels have contacted their clients, warning that a brit performed by a mohelet is unkosher and would have to be performed again. One new father in New York, Raz Blit, says he was offered $100 by an Orthodox mohel if he would call off his contract with a female mohel. (He refused.)

Orthodox feminist Blu Greenberg recognizes her own “conditioning that bris was something women weren’t supposed to be involved in or even come near,” she says. But “as it fits into the category of new religious roles and responsibilities for women, I do think it’s a good thing. There shouldn’t be any stigma attached, it’s halachically permissible, and kol ha-kavod to the women who do it.”

Occasionally, mohalot experience cancellations out of respect for the protestations of a religious parent or grandparent. “This is rare,” emphasized Greenbaum, and is balanced by such experiences as performing a brit in an Orthodox synagogue, alongside an Orthodox rabbi, for a family that felt strongly about having her involvement.

Still, New York psychoanalyst Miriam Schacter, who describes herself as a traditionally observant feminist, suggests that the real downside to female mohels is that it sidelines fathers even more from the very female-oriented processes of pregnancy, birth and nursing. “Men have to bend themselves into a pretzel to be part of it,” she says. “If we take this away from men too, then…how would we like men to become part of this process?! Particularly in this stage of life, I think we have to work hard to find a place for the men.”

Freud’s Nightmare?

The fact that female mohels are doctors and highly professional allows people to sidestep the question of gender to some extent. But these are, after all, women wielding knives in pursuit of the foreskin, and in the post-Freud era the gender significance must at least raise eyebrows. One mohelet bitterly related a male relative’s joke: “Still performing circumcisions? Would you trust your son’s penis to a feminist?”

Most of the mohalot interviewed had few encounters with fears or anger connected to their role as circumcises. The issues, however, are subtle. Schacter, a classically trained psychoanalyst, sometimes explores her male patients’ feelings about the moment of their own brit. And, she comments, at a brit, men often joke about castration.

“If I have patients in psychoanalysis who are male,” she told LILITH, “I will address with them their fantasies about being circumcised. God often comes into the picture, because God is the reason for the circumcision. But they also talk about castration by the father….The castration stuff with the fathers, it’s usually competitive. With the mothers, it would be the engulfing, intrusive castrating mother.”

Reform leaders, however, are less concerned with these psychological questions. “Is it to be viewed in psychological and Freudian terms or is it to be viewed in terms of the religious meaning of the service?” asks Rabbi Lewis Barth, who presided over the creation of the Reform mohel program. Willing to ask the question, he seems wary of the psychological adventure it invites. “This is a religious moment, and its evaluation is in a different class of human experience The religious dimension takes over. “

What Do We Do for Our Girls?

Though Greenbaum feels the same Covenant—both divine and human—devolves on the Jewish woman through her ability to give birth, many new parents have not been satisfied by this “different but equal” approach. The fact of so much attention to the newborn boy forces the question, as mohelet Emily Blake asks, “What are we saying to our girls if we only make a big hullabaloo over our boys?” There is a gaping hole where a parallel, obligatory covenant for baby girls should be.

Without exception, the mohalot interviewed for this article enthusiastically express a desire to create and perform a brit bat (literally a “covenant for the girl,” more commonly translated as “baby naming”) for Jewish baby girls. “In my mind,” says Cramer, “God’s Covenant was with all Jews, not just with men.”

The fact is, an entire mini-industry of ritual makers and creative parents has sprung up to try to match the brit with a female counterpart. In Elise Herman’s Washington State town of 13,000—which includes a small percentage of Jews—every Jewish baby girl has a naming. Since the town lacks a local rabbi, she and her husband—a rare example of a husband-and-wife team of mohels—perform them as well. “If we had ceremonies [only] for boys, it would be like the synagogue wasn’t acknowledging the girl. It would feel like they were excluding me. I can’t even imagine it,” she says. “The baby naming ceremonies for my daughters were the high points of my life….I had this tremendous feeling of tradition, that I was introducing my daughters to the Jewish community and that they were taking their places in a long line of Jewish women.”

Time and again, however, parents and theologians complain that these ceremonies, while beautiful, lack the raw impact of the physical act of circumcision. The brit bat ceremony, while not standardized, usually includes a naming and recitation of the Mi-Shebeirakh prayer. Some parents incorporate symbolic substitutes for the circumcision, such as touching the baby’s hand to the Torah scroll, wrapping her in a tallit, or washing her feet. In a controversial article in the 1970s, Mary Gendler suggested that a small nick be made on the genitalia of Jewish baby girls. Needless to say, this never caught on—and is less likely to now since the very appropriate outcry over female genital mutilation in other cultures.

In another attempt to resolve the question, Professor Hoffman, of HUC, suggests that both men and women enter into the brit, the covenant, equally. “If the mila [the circumcision] is merely a necessary byproduct of covenant for men, but not for women, it is not altogether obvious that men are privileged in the least.”

So mohalot, caught in the pull between a male ritual and their own femaleness, struggle to find an equally symbolic ritual. “I would love to see the naming take on the force of the brit. I would love to see people scurrying around on the eighth day after their daughter’s birth to find someone to come to their home and perform the ceremony,” says Cramer. But what would that ceremony be?

Recently, Herman received a call from a pregnant woman who wanted to employ her services if she had a boy. When Herman asked her what she would do the case of a girl, the mother-to-be answered, “Oh, then anyone can do the [welcoming] ceremony.”

“It’s really been bugging me,” Herman mused. “I feel that I had specific training in the history and blessings and the meaning of the Covenant, which makes a mohel entering [a child into] the Covenant in a more formal way have more significance, more impact.”

Indeed, the question of a ceremony for girls has traditionally focused on what is being done to the child, rarely on who is doing the ceremony, when the ceremony is performed, and what it signifies. Herman offers an alternative. “The bris [offers] a sense of being enveloped by the Jewish community, and it doesn’t matter so much whether you do that with a surgical procedure or not. A naming for a girl has to do with welcoming the child and what you wish for the child. I think the intent of the ceremony is the same.”

If what these mohalot say is true, then the brit is potentially matched by an official ceremony for girls, conducted by an official emcee trained to give girls an entrance into the Covenant with a brit, minus the circumcision. Such a thought is possible in large part thanks to the efforts of women mohels, who have been changing the texture and the understanding of the brit.

“This is holy work,” comments Blu Greenberg about mohalot. “I am happy that women perform the mitzvah, not just for the new parents, but for the whole community. Brit mila, after all, is the whole community’s enterprise, and it serves all of us to bring a child into the Covenant.” 

Ilana Trachtman is a television producer in New York City.