Ask the Rabbi: Blood sisters

Why is there no covenantal Jewish ritual to bind a female child to her religion?

baby 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
baby 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Q Circumcision plays an important role in theology and ritual - is there a functional equivalent for women? - B.T., Netanya A The commendable desire for a meaningful service to celebrate a newborn daughter has led to the restoration of bygone ceremonies and the innovation of others, some decidedly more appropriate than others. I have been blessed with both a daughter and a son, and believe that both celebrations, while ritually different, were equally joyful for both our home and community. Frequently overlooked, however, are the potential theological implications of the absence of a ritual that inducts girls into Judaism. As the Hebrew name for circumcision, brit mila, implies, God commanded Abraham to circumcise himself as a sign of a covenant between Him and Abraham's descendents (Genesis 17). God nearly kills Moses for failing to circumcise his son (Exodus 4), and later ordains that only circumcised Jewish men can partake of the Paschal sacrifice, whose blood identified Israelite houses and protected the Jewish people from the plague of the firstborn (Exodus 12). Indeed, circumcision and Pessah rituals are the only two positive commandments for which the Torah punishes deliberate non-performance with karet (spiritual excision from the Jewish people), signifying the powerful role these commandments play in ingraining Jewish identity, even until this day. As such, male converts must get circumcised. Midrashic lore further portrayed covenantal blood as a quasi-sacrifice and protection from hell. Early medieval sages, including R. Nahshon Gaon (ninth century), concluded that one must name and remove the foreskin of dead newborns to assure their place in the afterlife, and while many medieval authorities opposed this post-mortem rite, it became normative practice (YD 263:5). While, biologically, women were excluded from this ritual (Judaism has never advocated the abhorrent female genital mutilation found in other cultures), ancient (Avoda Zara 27a) and medieval (Ra'avyah 1:279) sources indicate that women occasionally served as both surgeons and sandakim (now known as godfathers) for this ritual. Yet given the central role circumcision plays in Jewish identity, the absence of an equivalent physical sign of the covenant for women raised uncomfortable questions about their status. As Prof. Shaye Cohen has documented in a recent book, some of the earliest writers to raise this question were Christian theologians. Paul, Justin Martyr, and others argued that believers did not need to physically circumcise themselves, since God only desires the "spiritual circumcision of the heart." They claimed that since women believers were not circumcised, this ritual must not be essential. Ironically - and unknowingly - early Reform Jews who advocated abolishing "barbaric" circumcisions similarly contended that uncircumcised baby boys should still be registered as Jews, like their "uncircumcised" sisters. More traditional respondents offered a number of different explanations for the absence of a "feminine brit mila." Maimonides (12th century, Spain) famously asserted that circumcision reduces men's excessive sexual drive by weakening the organ (Guide 3:49). While the first century philosopher Philo interpreted the ritual to symbolically teach this message, Maimonides, following Aristotle, contended that all sensual pleasure - including eating and drinking, along with sex - was harmful to the soul, and removing the foreskin reduced this enjoyment. Maimonides also claimed all monotheistic followers of Abraham share this obligation, ruling that Muslims as well must circumcise themselves, a claim which drew ire from scholars who understood this covenant to exclusively bond the Jewish people with God (Pit'hei Teshuva YD 263:14). The theme of reducing excessive male sexual desire was taken in alternative and conflicting directions by readers of Maimonides. R. Jacob Anatoli (13th century, Naples), for example, controversially argued that women were subservient to their husband's orders, and therefore had no need for the additional discipline provided by circumcision. R. Samson R. Hirsch (19th century, Germany) on the other hand, venerated women as more pious than men, leaving it unnecessary for any bodily symbols to remind them of their spiritual and moral duties. A different approach was taken by the 12th century biblical commentator R. Joseph Bekhor Shor. He creatively argued that menstrual blood functions as the female equivalent to the blood of circumcision. The blood itself, it seems, becomes covenantal through its use in the laws of family purity. Perhaps, however, the most simple and elegant answer was offered by an anti-Christian polemicist from Central Europe, R. Yom Tov Lippman Muhlhausen (d. 1421). He contended that circumcision represents one of many commandments that only some segments of the population can perform. Just as priests, Levites and Israelites exclusively perform certain mitzvot, so too men and women have different commandments. While men perform brit mila, for example, only women offer sacrifices after childbirth (Leviticus 12). Observing the Torah is a communal enterprise, and only as a united organism do we fulfill - and embody - our covenantal responsibilities. The writer, editor of, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University.