Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Interesting Article On Fe-Mohels

Available here. An excerpt:
Weiss-Ishai is one of just a few female mohels in the United States. There are about 35 Reform female mohels, and just four trained by the U.S. Conservative movement, as well as a handful who learned outside the United States.

It's not surprising that throughout Jewish history, mohels have been men. Circumcision is, after all, a guy thing. Beyond the obvious anatomical requirements, it's something the Torah commands a father, not a mother, to do for his son on the eighth day of life.

What is surprising, however, is that while half of all new non-Orthodox rabbis and cantors in this country are women, few women are choosing to become mohels.

Yet unlike rabbis and cantors, there is no halachic prohibition against female mohels. Every Orthodox authority consulted for this story agreed on that point, though most asked not to be quoted. Jewish law states only that if a Jewish male is present, it's preferable that he do the brit milah.
You already know the drill -- discussions on parshablog are never halacha limaaseh. This issue, of whether a woman may circumcise, is a dispute attributed (by the setama) to Rav and Rabbi Yochanan in Avodah Zarah 27a. And yes, the fact that Tzippora circumcised her son comes up, and an answer on behalf of Rav (who disallows) is advanced, that Moshe finished the circumcision.

{Update: Which makes it a good post for this parsha, Shemot, since the pasuk describing this circumcision by Tzippora occurs in it, in Shemot 4:25:

כה וַתִּקַּח צִפֹּרָה צֹר, וַתִּכְרֹת אֶת-עָרְלַת בְּנָהּ, וַתַּגַּע, לְרַגְלָיו; וַתֹּאמֶר, כִּי חֲתַן-דָּמִים אַתָּה לִי. 25 Then Zipporah took a flint, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet; and she said: 'Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me.'

The Rif on Shabbat (Rif daf 56a) cites this gemara and rules that a woman may circumcise:
And a gentile is forbidden to circumcise, for we learn in tractate Avoda Zara {Avoda Zara 27b}: How do we know that circumcision via a gentile that it is invalid?
Daru bar Papa cited Rav: As it is written {in Bereishit 17:9}:

ט וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקִים אֶל-אַבְרָהָם, וְאַתָּה אֶת-בְּרִיתִי תִשְׁמֹר --אַתָּה וְזַרְעֲךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ, לְדֹרֹתָם. 9 And God said unto Abraham: 'And as for thee, thou shalt keep My covenant, thou, and thy seed after thee throughout their generations.
Rabbi Yochanan said: {Bereishit 17:13}:
יג הִמּוֹל יִמּוֹל יְלִיד בֵּיתְךָ, וּמִקְנַת כַּסְפֶּךָ; וְהָיְתָה בְרִיתִי בִּבְשַׂרְכֶם, לִבְרִית עוֹלָם 13 He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised; and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.
HaMal {without the cholam} Yimol it is read. {that is, one who is circumcised does the circumcision}.

What is the difference between them? This is the difference: A woman.
To Rav, who says וְאַתָּה אֶת-בְּרִיתִי תִשְׁמֹר - "And as for thee, thou shalt keep My covenant" - a woman, since she is not in the covenant {or circumcision} she may not circumcise.
To Rabbi Yochanan, who says הִמּוֹל יִמּוֹל - since he is an Israelite -- and even the uncircumcised {male Israelite} are like the circumcised. So too a woman is within the category of Israelite and may circumcise.

And if there is a Jewish woman who knows how to circumcise, and circumcises, it is fine, for the halacha is like Rabbi Yochanan, for it is established for us that {in a dispute between} Rav and Rabbi Yochanan, the halacha is like Rabbi Yochanan.
So from a straightforward reading of the Rif, this would be permitted, and more importantly, the circumcision would be valid.

However, this only considers the question on the purely halachic grounds of this specific question of whether circumcision by a woman is valid. There may well be meta-halachic considerations which would argue against doing this in practice, which may well depend on the current social climate, which is different than it was in the days of the Rif. There is a consideration of not doing as other sects do. There is a consideration of how an Orthodox initiative (if one were to arise) to do this may fit in with larger feminist efforts which may be contrary to the spirit of halacha.

And the public nature of bris, done in shul, may well violate meta-halachic (or perhaps, rather, halachic) considerations of the public role of women, where skilled men who can circumcise are available. (Though I would imagine that a bris was a public event in the days of the Rif, as well.) Indeed, this was a point of controversy a while back in terms of a statement that while on a halachic level, it was entirely valid for a woman (or a monkey, or a parrot, or a text-to-speech computer program) to read the ketuba under the chuppa, since the halachic requirement is to create a hefsek (interlude) between kiddushin and nisuin, it still should not be done because it is a public role, which clashes with ideals of modesty. Perhaps one might argue with this. But lest anyone claim that this is a recent innovation which finds no source in Jewish law, see an example in the Sifrei on Ki Teitzei:
ואמר אבי הנערה אל הזקנים. מכאן שאין רשות לאשה לדבר במקום האיש
All this is why one should not automatically pasken straight from the gemara, or here the Rif, on matters such as this. And presumably why few wished to be quoted on this. And perhaps why the article mentioned a preference stated in Jewish law for the Jewish male, if present, to do the milah. (I haven't look too deeply into this, so perhaps there is a different basis.)

Also, the radical academic Talmudist in me wants to point out that neither Rav nor Rabbi Yochanan explicitly state that a woman may or may not circumcise. (See the gemara here.) This is all the setama digemara. Rav and Rabbi Yochanan merely give sources for why if gentile circumcises, the circumcision is not valid. The setama digemara tries a few times to answer a question it itself poses: מאי בינייהו? In the end, the distinction of a woman circumcising is posed, and is left unchallenged. But perhaps there was in fact no distinction intended in terms of actual halacha, and the "dispute" between Rav and Rabbi Yochanan was merely which verse to use to derive the law. One might even say, according to Rabbi Yochanan, that a circumcision performed by a woman is invalid, since HaMal Yimol, and she is not, and cannot, be circumcised (as defined by Jewish law).

No comments:


Blog Widget by LinkWithin