Monday, October 18, 2010

Women and Brit Milah

“This is My covenant which you shall keep between Me and you and your offspring after you: for every male among you to be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. At the age of eight days every male among you shall be circumcised, throughout your generations…An uncircumcised one, a male who will not circumcise the flesh of his foreskin - that soul shall be cut off from its people; he has invalidated My covenant” (Gen 17:10-12, 14).

Brit milah (circumcision) is a mitzvah (commandment) that has garnered a lot of controversy over the years. Proponents discuss its health benefits; opponents call it barbaric and a violation of human rights. Despite the debate, observant Jews still circumcise their sons, keeping the covenant that God gave to Abraham in Genesis (as read above). Many secular Jews also circumcise their sons, continuing the tradition of their foreparents.

Brit milah has typically been considered a men’s mitzvah; anyone who has witnessed a brit milah can attest that the people directly involved are usually male. The Talmud in Kidushin 29a commands only fathers to circumcise their sons, even specifying that women are exempt. That didn’t stop Zipporah, Moses’ wife, from doing so.

“24 When he was on the way, at the inn, God encountered him and sought to kill him. 25 So Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and touched it to his feet; and she said, ‘A husband of blood you are to me!’ 26 So he loosened his hold on him; then she said, ‘A husband of blood because of circumcision’” (Ex 4:24-26).

This short portion of the Torah has been discussed at length by commentators trying to explain the vague language of the text. I could go on forever and write a five-page analysis of these three verses, but I’ll keep it short, as it’s not really the aim of this piece.

The usual interpretation is that the “he” referred to in verse 24 is Moses. Moses had just been commanded by God at the Burning Bush to ask Pharaoh to free the Jews from slavery, and was on his way to Egypt during this episode. It’s unclear why God wanted to kill Moses until verse 25, when the narrative explains that Zipporah circumcised her son. The commentators interpret this as a cause-effect: Moses didn’t circumcise his son on the eighth day from his birth, and so God wanted to kill him. When commentators question how Zipporah figured out the cause, they explain that a messenger of God engulfed Moses up to the place of circumcision. Zipporah realized that her eight-day-old son was not yet circumcised, and she took it into her own hands. Once the infant was circumcised, the messenger loosened its hold on Moses. I interpret Zipporah’s cryptic statement “a husband of blood you are to me” as an olden-day way to say “idiot;” she was an irate wife with a newborn child yelling at her husband, “You almost caused your own death, your own bloodshed - idiot!” (I haven’t found a commentator who agrees with me, but hey, you never know.)

Zipporah’s action brings up questions about whether or not a woman can circumcise a boy in a kosher brit milah ceremony. Most rabbis hold that women are indeed completely within their rights to mohelot (female circumcisers). R Johanan of the Talmud uses the example of Zipporah as proof that women are allowed to circumcise, and other major commentators agree with him. The reasoning behind the allowance for mohelot is that while a father is commanded to circumcise his son, if he fails to do so, the beit din (religious court) must do so. When it becomes the responsibility of the beit din, the Jewish community at large is also commanded to take charge of the circumcision. Women are part of the Jewish community, and even if they are not specifically commanded to circumcise the boys, they can still do so if they want to. (Just as women are not specifically commanded to wave the Four Species on the holiday of Sukkot, they are allowed to if they want to.)

Some rabbis cite that in the commandment of circumcision, it says that only one who is circumcised is allowed to circumcise others, using this as proof that women cannot perform brit milah. Other commentators use the same proof that women can perform circumcision, since women are not born with a foreskin, so it is considered as if they are born circumcised. The majority of rabbis agree with the latter interpretation, allowing women to become mohelot.

In recent years, women have embraced the ability to perform the brit milah ceremony and become mohelot. While male mohalim still outnumber the women in the profession, women are on their way to equality. When Jeanette Rankin ran for the House of Representatives in 1916, she was the first and only woman there. Women now hold 16.8% of all Congress seats. While that number is disproportionate to population of women, it’s still a lot more than in 1916. Women have made progress so far; with God’s help, we will continue.

This blog post is dedicated in memory of Feige bat Ita, my grandmother. The name Feige is the Yiddish equivalent of the Hebrew name Zipporah. My grandmother lived a well-off life in Europe before she was taken to Auschwitz. She survived the Holocaust with her husband and made a new life in America. She never described herself as a feminist, but she was always a strong woman, part of the Line we have in our family, passing down Judaism to the next generation of women. May her nishama (soul) reach the highest levels of Olam HaBa (heaven).

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