Can a woman serve as a Mohel?

Q. One of my congregants asked me a wonderful question. In Orthodox Judaism can a woman perform Brit Milah (ritual circumcision)?

I wrote back,

“ You have asked a great question! There is a controversy in tractate Avodah Zarah 27a regarding this very issue between Daru bar Papa who cites in the name of Rav and Rabbi Yochanan. Here is the substance of the argument. Daru b. Papa held that only someone who is obligated to observe the precept of circumcision can act as Mohel for others, whereas R. Yochanan felt that a woman can act as a Mohelet as indicated in the story of Tziporah (see Exodus 4:24‑26 for details). You could say she was a Moyhel of a goy’ol (pardon the pun!).”

In practical terms, R. Yosef Caro, the Halacha follows R. Yochanan and a woman may act as Mohelet (Yoreh Deah 264:1) but Maimonides adds one stipulation: this only applies in the event that a male Mohel is not available (MT, Hilchot Milah 2:1). However, Rema cites authorities who differ on this matter.

From a psychological perspective, the reluctance utilize a female Mohelet may have something to do with Freud’s theory of the castration complex. Freud theorized that castration anxiety is based on a deep‑seated fear or anxiety in boys and men said to originate during the genital stage of sexual development; Freud asserts that boys, when seeing a girl’s genitalia, falsely presumes that the girl had her penis removed probably as punishment for some misbehavior. The young boy then becomes anxious lest the same happen to him.

It is worth noting that in some cultures, notably 19th century Europe, it was not unheard of for parents to threaten their children with castration, or to otherwise threaten their genitals, a phenomenon Freud documents several times. Freud’s controversial theory also may help explain why some Halachic authorities are reluctant to go along with a female Mohelet.

Nevertheless, Jewish history does have examples where women functioned in this capacity. For example, in Yaffa Eliach’s moving, Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust, she mentions a remarkable story that illustrates this point.  She describes an incident that occurred at the Janowska concentration camp where, Jewish children were brought (apparently by their parents) from the surrounding areas to be killed.

One of the great rabbinic heroes of the concentration camps, Rabbi Israel Sira, a survivor, relates an incident: “I heard the voice of a woman. “Jews have mercy upon me and give me a knife”. In front of us was standing a woman, pale as a sheet. Only her eyes were burning with a strange fire. I thought that she wanted to commit suicide. … “Give me that pocket knife !” she ordered the German [guard standing by] in a commanding voice. The German, taken by surprise, handed the knife to the woman … With a steady hand she opened the pocket knife and circumcised the baby. … “God of the Universe, you have given me a healthy child. I am returning to you a kosher child.” She walked over to the German, gave him back his blood-stained knife, and handed him her baby on his snow-white pillow. Amidst a veil of tears, I said to myself that this mother’s circumcision will probably shake the foundations of heaven and earth.” (Eliach, Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, p. 151.)

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