A woman's touch

Dr. Rochelle Schwartz performs ritual circumcision in Jerusalem, but will other women follow the trend?

Mohelet 298 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Mohelet 298 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Dr. Rochelle Schwartz was asked by her Jewish patients to perform the ceremonial brit mila on their newborn sons, she would explain that she wasn't a certified mohel and therefore could not perform the ritual circumcision. However, she always felt that she could bring a personal touch to the brit mila that no other mohel could - a woman's touch. 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." Schwartz's cousin from Israel recently asked her to perform a brit on her newborn grandson. She was thrilled. "I know it took a lot of courage and guts to veer away from asking a traditional Orthodox mohel. 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." The mother of the newborn, Limor Wolf Mariash, 30, was delighted when her mother told her Schwartz had accepted their invitation to come to Israel. "We decided to fly in Rochelle to perform the brit on Rotem, our son, because it was something special and out of the ordinary. When I told my friends and extended family about the idea, they were all surprised and didn't know that it was even permitted halachically for a woman to perform a brit mila. Because Rochelle is also a doctor, we felt much more relaxed with the idea. She even came a few days before to instruct us of what will happen and what we will all need to do throughout the ceremony. "The ceremony was so different from the one performed by a mohel for my three-year-old son a few years ago," remembers Mariash. "Rochelle made the whole ceremony so special, explaining to everyone why we do a brit and cited psukim [verses] from the Torah to explain where it all comes from. She gave every family member a specific role in the ceremony. My sister carried the baby and gave him to my brother-in-law, who then proceeded to give Rotem to my husband who finally gave him to Rochelle. It was very emotional and the fact that every member of the family was involved in some way made it all the more unique." ACCORDING TO the Reform movement, the brit Schwartz performed on her cousin's son made her the only mohelet who practises in Jerusalem. 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. Since her recent visit, Schwartz has offered to help train both men and women to perform brit mila in Israel and indicated this in a fax she sent earlier this year to the director of the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. "It was the highlight of my career," she wrote, "and I would be more than happy to help you train mohalim and mohalot in Israel if you would require assistance." Other Israeli couples have since made contact with Rochelle and expressed interest in having her return to perform a brit on their sons, expected to be born this year. Rochelle says that in the Reform movement of North America, it is unilaterally accepted that women as well as men perform a brit mila. The movement trains women the same as men, since the Reform movement is egalitarian and does not differentiate between the sexes. Rabbi Yehoram Mazor, head of the Rabbinical Court of the Reform movement and a practicing rabbi in the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, agrees. "In my opinion, anything that a Jewish male can do to express Jewish tradition, ritualistically speaking, may also be done by a woman and there is no reason why a woman shouldn't be able to do what a man does." The Torah tells us that Abraham performed the circumcision on himself as well as on his own son Ishmael, but according to the Book of Exodus, "Tzippora took a sharp stone and circumcised the foreskin of her son." (4:25). Mazor explains that Moses' wife Tzippora circumcised their son on his eighth day of life since Moses did not take the time himself to circumcise him. Tzippora, who became known as the "bridegroom of blood," became the first mohelet in Jewish history when she performed the act. "Here," says Mazor, "we obviously can conclude that there is direct halachic consent from the Torah for women to perform the ceremony of circumcision." Orthodoxy, however, 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. It states that the father is to circumcise his son on the eighth day and if he cannot, he is to appoint an agent, which over time became known as the mohel. Traditionally, because the father is male, the tradition is that the mohel is also male. However, it states very clearly that "all are fit to perform a brit, even a minor, a slave and a woman." "The Shulhan Aruch is divided into two books," Farber clarifies. "The Sephardi book says that all are able to circumcise, even a slave, a woman and a minor, yet the Ashkenazi [section] notes that it shouldn't be done." "The halachic debate dates back to the medieval period," says Rabbi Farber. He mentions the Tosafots position, the 12th-century French Talmudic commentary, which strongly discourages women from serving as mohalot. Tosafot points out that the interpretation of the passage describing Abraham's circumcision of his son Isaac "as God had commanded him" excludes women and therefore should be followed. Yet Maimonides, also writing in the 12th century in Egypt, argued that women in fact can function as mohalot. Historically, the source of brit mila is God's commandment to Abraham to circumcise his son Isaac, stated in Genesis 18. The commandment of circumcision was incumbent not only upon Isaac, but upon all male descendants throughout the generations. The Torah recounts several other cases of brit mila, including Abraham's circumcision of himself and of Ishmael and as previously mentioned, Tzippora circumcising her son. Farber believes that the Jewish community is relatively comfortable with the status quo, which plays a role in terms of standard halachic practice. However, in cases where a community does not have a mohel and a female who is certified to perform the procedure is present, then he supports a woman fulfilling the mitzva of brit mila. "The Orthodox communities are not going to push this idea," says Farber. "Few see it as an issue that needs to be advanced today." According to Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, regarding mohalot, "The answer is not yes or no." "On one hand it's interesting, because Tzippora was a mohelet, and in Halacha [the Shulhan Aruch] there is that point, but on the other hand, this idea of a mohelet has come from Reform Judaism. Among Reform Jews there is 90 percent assimilation. Their path is a disaster for the Jewish nation." ULTIMATELY, THE procedure is to be performed by a person who has mastered the set of Jewish laws regarding circumcision and has received extensive practical training. A brit, which comes from the word covenant, affirms one's personal commitment to God, by fulfilling the command given by God to Abraham of teaching his descendants to serve him with perfect devotion. The actual circumcision is a sign of that covenant; a "membership badge," so to speak, of officially belonging to the Jewish community. "I try to make my service as egalitarian as possible and include the women of the family in every aspect of the ceremony," says Schwartz. "It isn't just the father who is bringing the baby into the covenant of Abraham and the Jewish people, but also the mother who gave birth to the child." She believes that this recent trend is in fact a North American phenomenon, with approximately 30 known practicing female mohalot in the US. "This has traditionally been an exclusively male dominated profession, and it's quite exciting to be one of a very small and exclusive group of female mohalot." But is this really a phenomenon that we are witnessing? An Orthodox female by choice and a professor at the Reform Hebrew Union College by profession, (teaching the origins of Halacha and Midrash), Chana Safrai says that women have finally managed to gain a foothold into this male-dominated profession. "It could be viewed as one more infiltration into the male halahic sphere," says Safrai, who is also actively involved in Kolech, an Orthodox women's institution. Safrai encourages women to do anything that empowers them in their religious life without any reservation. "There is also no question that the issue of Tzippora from the Torah is a clear-cut business," points out Safrai. However, she does mention that Jewish tradition isn't very supportive of this. "Every revolution, be it political, religious or the like that begins to become institutionalized immediately begins to push women aside." Referring back to Tzippora, Safrai says that it was necessary to complete the circumcision on Moses' son, be it done by a man or a woman. "I strongly encourage every action that encourages women to take an active role, assume responsibility and express their own religiosity." She feels that Halacha is functioning within a rigid social structure, which breeds a reluctance to give up positions of power and introduce new thoughts that would imply a loosening of authority. Safrai supports every inclusion of women in traditionally male-oriented responsibilities, including performing circumcisions. "This approach is frequently being revisited," says Safrai. She would like to see more participation of women in the Jewish world in spheres such as the Supreme Rabbinical Court, synagogues, and other religious institutions. Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem and Kashav, a new egalitarian synagogue recently introduced in Jerusalem has begun the process, and she believes women should naturally be a part of the game. "There is a general tendency that has become a trend, so do speak, to exclude women in Jewish traditional practices," she explains. She believes that although there haven't been any Orthodox mohalot practicing circumcisions, she wouldn't discourage it. "Halachically, there is no real reason to not encourage it," she says. Safrai explains that Halacha doesn't exclude the possibility of female mohalot since Tzippora became the first woman to do so in the Torah. As long as circumcision is a religious act of Jewish identity, Safrai would strongly encourage women to empower themselves by becoming involved in their own religious life. "The problem unfortunately is not solved," she continues. "However, more and more women and men feel that it's high time for women to embrace their understanding of Jewish life and play an active role in it." "I welcome anything that opens new venues for female participation, because they are definitely few and far between," laughs Safrai. "The feminist Jewish woman wants to be an equal member in her Jewish life and take more of an active, responsible role." Schwartz says, "The reason I feel strongly about being a female mohelet is because I feel that I offer something unique and special to Judaism and my people and culture. I have a good mentor... Tzippora, Moses' wife, and I feel I would like to carry on with her legacy as a strong and important woman in Judaism. Throughout the ages, women have played an integral part in the shaping of the Jewish people and our heritage; however, unlike their male counterparts in the Bible, they are not as often recognized as they should be. I hope that by becoming a mohelet in Israel and changing the course of history, this will also change the course of the roles of women in Judaism and teach and encourage young Jewish women that they are capable of doing anything they put their minds to and strive for in their lives."