By Cantor Philip L. Sherman, Mohel
The New York Times has published another article about ritual circumcision. This article focuses on women doctors who have become mohels, floats the idea that women doctor mohels are more compassionate and sensitive than their traditional male counterparts by virtue of their gender, and implies that the practice of Brit Milah is largely financially driven.
First, it should be said that this article has created an unfortunate opening for the anti-circumcision movement, and for anti-Semites in general, by reinforcing negative stereotypes about Orthodox Jews, men in particular. As a proud Orthodox Jewish male, I take umbrage at being characterized as the article portrays. I also object to an ancient and sacred Jewish ritual being reduced to an "entrepreneurial opportunity." Serving the community as a mohel is a religious calling, albeit one that can become a full-time career for those who are most in demand. Whether one is a full-time or part-time professionally trained mohel, however, it is never about the money; it is about the mitzvah, about that holy moment of transition when a Jewish male is entered into the Covenant of Abraham.
A circumcision, by itself, is a medical procedure. The Brit Milah ceremony, by contrast, is a meaningful Jewish life cycle event that incorporates a circumcision performed by a religiously observant super-specialist, one who is knowledgeable in the intricate laws and customs of Brit Milah, and has undergone rigorous training through dedicated apprenticeship in that ancient ritual. Each bris is meant to be a warm, inclusive and meaningful event so that all who are present to witness it, whether male or female, Jewish or non-Jewish, will feel welcome, comfortable and included. While there may be exceptions that prove the rule, most of the traditional Orthodox mohels that I know go to great lengths to ensure that everyone involved in the bris, from the baby first and foremost, to the great-grandparents, and everyone in between, is treated with utmost kindness, tenderness, compassion and respect. Dismissing male mohels as insensitive based on one mohel's tasteless license plate, as a woman quoted in the article does, is tacitly unfair. Male mohels are no less empathetic than women mohels. Appreciating women should not require devaluing men; and neither gender has exclusive access to the qualities of compassion and caring.
The trend towards using doctor mohels, whether male or female, over traditional rabbi or cantor mohels is another matter, and one that the Times article does not adequately address. In its eagerness to embrace women becoming mohels, the article overlooks the fact that these women mohels are doctors first, which can be problematic for reasons having nothing to do with gender. Just because one knows how to perform a circumcision does not make him or her a qualified mohel. Doctor mohels are not educated in Jewish legal complexities, nor in the long and rich history of customs and traditions surrounding the practice of Brit Milah. Medical degree or no, taking a mini-course in circumcision or undergoing a brief "ceremonial training" with an individual rabbi is no substitute for the extensive training and decades of hands-on experience and knowledge possessed by a traditional qualified rabbi or cantor mohel. Doctor mohels also have been known to take liberties with Jewish law, either because they don't know it, or because the demands of their profession as doctors compel them to schedule brisses at times that are forbidden according to Jewish law, such as at nighttime, or before the eighth day. There is also a very important prohibition relating to the bris in Jewish law called "tza'ar liyuneka," which is an ancient Aramaic term meaning "pain to the baby." Anything that, G-d forbid, increases pain or discomfort to the infant being circumcised is expressly forbidden by Jewish law, and the mohel is supposed to perform the bris as quickly and painlessly as possible. A bris by a skilled traditional mohel typically is completed within fifteen to twenty seconds, with almost no preparation necessary beforehand. Usually the baby is given a gauze pad soaked in sugar water to suck on before the bris, and a gauze pad soaked in kosher sweet wine or grape juice after the bris. Within minutes, the baby typically is resting calmly and comfortably in his mother's arms.
By contrast, modern doctors do not use the same swift and compassionate technique that traditional mohels have used for centuries. Instead, they often resort to a medical arsenal of restraining boards, multiple injections and a clamp left on for much longer than in a traditional brit milah. Most of this "prep" is done ahead of time, conveniently out of sight of the family and assembled guests. These practices naturally add to the baby's distress, and are therefore forbidden by Jewish law. In emphasizing the sensitivity and compassion of doctor mohels, it should be noted that the article neglects to mention any of these techniques or methods used by doctors.
Parents often ask me about pain relief for the baby in the form of topical anesthetics. I tell them that topical anesthetics are not approved, formulated or designed for use on eight-day-old infants. They can cause much more bleeding and significant swelling, not to mention potential allergic reactions. I have been to many brisses over the years where the parents had chosen to apply a topical anesthetic to their baby before the bris, and the area became so swollen and distorted, the bris could not be performed.
Although beyond the scope of this discussion, there are also certain trespasses that doctor mohels potentially commit against Jewish law. Whether ignoring the prohibition against "hasagat g'vul" or "crossing a boundary" into someone else's profession, the ethically questionable practice of submitting health insurance claims for what is essentially a religious ceremony, and sometimes improperly accepting the fee from both the family and their insurance company for the same procedure, engaging doctors as mohels can open the door to problems that are best avoided.
In sum, I encourage families seeking a bris for their son to use only certified, religiously observant rabbi or cantor mohels. The bris will be performed gently, quickly, compassionately, and properly according to traditional Jewish law and custom. Parents should have all of the necessary information before their son is born so they can make a fully informed decision.