WALNUT CREEK, Calif. Jewish law does not prohibit a woman from serving as mohel, although it seems to be discouraged.
Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of Kehillat Yavneh in Los Angeles points to Yoreh De’ah ’64:1 in the Shulchan Aruch.
"Two opinions are brought," he says, one that says a brit milah done by a woman is kosher, and one that says it’s not.
"But both agree that whenever a Jewish male is available, a woman should not be used," he concludes.
That preference for a male has, over time, become custom that assumed the force of law. It’s the way things are done: In Orthodox circles, a brit milah takes place in the presence of a minyan, or group of 10 Jewish men. Women often stay in a separate room during the ceremony, or in a part of the main room separated by a mechitza, and join the men afterwards.
Throughout history, however, when a male mohel was not available women have stepped in. One prominent Orthodox rabbi, who declined to be named, spoke of an Orthodox woman physician who circumcised boys while visiting the former Soviet Union, and of a nurse who performed ritual circumcisions in post-World War II Europe. There are many other such cases, he added.
Mohels are accepted by the community, not by admission into any professional organization.
"First, you apprentice with a mohel and learn the practice and all the laws," explains Rabbi Moshe Krupka, programming director for the Orthodox Union. "Then you conduct milah under the supervision of an accepted mohel."
Naturally, the first job is the hardest to get, he notes. Who wants their kid to be a young mohel’s first effort?
The community acceptance involved in becoming a mohel effectively has kept women out of the business. But there is biblical precedent for women mohels in the story of Moses’ wife, Zipporah, who circumcised their son.
Whether or not Zipporah actually completed the act, or had a male relative take over, as some Orthodox commentaries suggest, the fact that she took it upon herself to make sure the mitzvah was fulfilled is used as compelling support for the position that women may act as mohels.
Dr. Emily Blake, a female mohel in Nyack, N.Y., who belongs to the Reconstructionist minyan at the Germantown Jewish Center in Philadelphia, says many people ask whether it’s all right for a woman to perform their baby’s brit milah.
"I tell them there are just two instances in the Torah that mention it, Abraham and Zipporah," she says. One involves a male mohel, the other a woman.
"So the way I look at it, 50 percent of mohelim should be women," she says.