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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Are Women Not Part of the Covenant of the Bris?

A long essay on the subject. I was inspired!

I am a "Florence Melton Adult Mini School" instructor, and this week my assignment was to teach the class in "Rhythms" entitled "Birth and Berit." Sounds easy enough – doesn't seem like I need to prepare all that much.

[The Melton curriculum is officially "pluralistic." While I will engage all Jews where they are in their Jewish journey, I don't consider myself pluralistic in my approach to Judaism. With this in mind, let us continue…]

The class as formatted explains what the Covenant (Bris) of Circumcision (Milah) is, offers some rabbinic suggestions as to its purpose and why the mark of the covenant is placed on the particular part of the anatomy where it is.

It even asks important sociological questions that pertain to a society in which Jews and non-Jews are routinely circumcised, which would negate the "only Jews" element of circumcision, as well as a concern that non-traditional Jews continue to go through with the procedure on account of a connection based on conformity, as opposed to a religious or traditional conviction. Compelling conversation starters.

All this is fine with me.

But the part that bothers me is when the question is raised as to why there is no parallel ritual for girls, and why it seems women are not part of the covenant. 

I will now proceed to address the different approaches Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism have created in order to rectify this problem. I will conclude with my own explanation for why I believe all of this is a result of ignorance and a focus on a particular agenda in place of educating ourselves and our constituents as to what the real significance of Judaism's practices are all about.

I. A Big Party is Made for a Boy's Birth, But not for a Girl's Birth. Therefore we will now make a big party to celebrate the girl's birth.

Let us make one thing quite clear. All normal parents are equally joyous over the birth of their baby – regardless of gender. Some may have wanted (in their heart or mind) the other gender. But that feeling is usually wiped away one second after the baby is born. Nowadays, with many people knowing the child's gender before birth, it is a non-issue by the time the baby's mother goes into labor.

The Bris Party is not a celebration of the birth of a boy. It is a celebration of the fulfillment of this great and important mitzvah that parents (hmmm – a male and a female, and in cases of a single mother - only a female) perform on their son, to mark our commitment to the Covenant, and our connection to God through the promulgation of our continued adherence to the commitment He forged with our Forefather Abraham through circumcision.

People who wanted to celebrate their daughter's birth would often have a celebration in the synagogue on the Sabbath when their daughter was named – which was traditionally done when the Torah was being read. That this fell out of practice in less-traditional communities is a flaw in education and ritual practice -- not in the celebration of the arrival of a baby girl.

Which leads us to the next issue.

II. A Boy has a bris, but Judaism has no parallel ritual for girls. So, we will now make a parallel ritual

It is entirely appropriate to make a big deal over the birth of a baby girl. By all means, people should be invited to the synagogue when she is given her name. But, as mentioned before, the bris is not meant to be a fuss over the baby boy's arrival. We are celebrating the forging of the mark of the covenant on the baby.

Since girls obviously do not have the same anatomy as boys (they are, after all, girls), there is no need for a so-called parallel-ritual. Making a big baby-naming ceremony, complete with rituals that look more like a baptism than anything Jewish, have a connotation of a misplaced priority. I have read of rituals which include: the immersion of the child in a mikveh, the washing of her feet, a drawing of blood from her toe, assigning her first menstrual blood as her "blood of the covenant."

We must understand what we are celebrating, and put every kind of celebration in its proper context. Most mothers I have met would happily not have me do the bris on their sons were it not for the mitzvah. Who wants to have a newborn go through with such a procedure? Whenever I tell people (latter half in jest as you'll see) "Call me when your baby is born, but only if it's a boy. I don't work with girls." I always conclude the line with a hearty "THANK GOD."

We don't WANT to circumcise girls, and we certainly don't need to "compensate" for the lack of a parallel ritual by fabricating ceremonies that have no Jewish flavor.

III. We seek to change the premise that girls and women are not considered full members of the Jewish people

I have addressed here that a person is Jewish if born from a Jewish mother. This applies to male and female babies alike, and is completely unrelated to circumcision. In fact, a boy born of a Jewish mother who is, for whatever reason, uncircumcised, is still a Jew. [Depending on why he was not circumcised he may be responsible to take care of his circumcision once he reaches the age of majority, but he is never considered out of the fold, until he dies uncircumcised, in which case, we might take care of it for him anyway.]
Jewish females are not enjoined to partake in a circumcision (oy gevalt) or any parallel ritual simply because the first instruction given to Abraham was to "Walk before Me and become complete." (Genesis 17:1) In other words, with a foreskin, he is considered incomplete, requiring human intervention to perfect and complete his body. Once he no longer has a foreskin, his body is complete, and his spirit is opened (in a way it wasn't before) to become complete. The foreskin is therefore the barrier to his completeness.

Now let's look at the female. Hmmm... No foreskin… It should be obvious that the woman is created physically complete! 

Logic would follow that insinuating a so-called "parallel ritual" for females would now be an insult to women. Why would you want to "imitate" the males if such a move would first have to bring you down from the level you're at, only to then go up? If you've already "arrived" why would you want to take steps back?

IV. We will now have a ceremony on the eighth day of the girl's life.

Many mothers have told me how much they enjoy the relative ease that follows the birth of a girl. "You don't have the rush and bustle of preparing for a bris. You don't have to worry about entertaining guests. You don't have to try to fit into a dress, or worry about the fact that despite baby now being on the outside, it sometimes takes a couple of weeks for the uterus to go back down to normal 'empty' size. You don't have to subject your baby to a surgical procedure a week after she was born. You don't have to shlep her out of the house for a bris and celebration. She does not have to be present when she is given her name. I don't have to be present. And we can take our leisurely time in celebrating her arrival in the way we want, at the time we want."

The Torah even describes such a difference in a woman's status after giving birth to a girl versus after giving birth to a boy (Leviticus chapter12).

Why would you want to rush yourself to have such a celebration (beautiful as it is, but completely not mandated), when you can wait for baby's mommy to get back to herself leisurely and have her "go public" when she is ready?

Just to imitate boys?

This reminds me of the notion I have heard of having girls become "bnot mitzvah" at age 13. Traditionally, girls reach the age of Jewish majority at age 12. This is a tribute to their maturity, in mind and body, a complete year before their male counterparts. Celebrating their reaching majority at age 13, like the boys, is an insult to girls. Not a compliment.

Life is not about "trying to be like the Joneses" or "like the boys." Life is about embracing who we are, living to our potential, and filling the natural roles we are meant to fill. Saying a woman should be a father is not only ridiculous. It is nonsensical. (Just as saying a man should be a mother is ludicrous)

Saying a girl should have a celebration on the eighth day is similarly silly. If anything, following the chapter in Leviticus mentioned above, there may be room for a celebration of some kind on her 15th day. But that is pure conjecture – I have never seen any source that made such a suggestion.

V. But when we say the Grace After Meals, the text refers to our thanking God for, among other things, the "Covenant that You sealed in our flesh." It is clearly a text written by males, for males, which is meant to exclude women who do not bear such a mark in their flesh. We will change the text so it additionally thanks God "for the covenant You sealed in our hearts"

Nebich. I feel for people who can take a line like this and find offense in it. We, collectively, are thanking God for all the gifts he has given our people as a whole. We all thank God for the Covenant which happens to be marked on our (males') flesh. Just because the males bear the mark of the covenant does not mean women are not included in the covenant. I am unaware of any other reference to a "Covenant sealed in our hearts," and I believe this is a fabrication of such a notion.

Of course women are included in the covenant marked in our flesh. And here is why. 

Firstly, the covenant was made with Abraham's descendants - ALL of them. Male and female.

Secondly, if you read through Genesis 17, when Avraham is given the commandment to circumcise himself and the males in his household, taken careful note of what triggers the possibility of his being able to create this mark in the flesh.

7 I will sustain My covenant between Me and between you and your descendants after you throughout their generations, an eternal covenant; I will be a God to you and to your offspring after you. 8 To you and your offspring I will give the land where you are now living as a foreigner. The whole land of Canaan shall be [your] eternal heritage, and I will be a God to [your descendants].' 9 God [then] said to Abraham, 'As far as you are concerned, you must keep My covenant - you and your offspring throughout their generations. 10 This is My covenant between Me, and between you and your offspring that you must keep: You must circumcise every male.


15 God said to Abraham, 'Sarai your wife - do not call her by the name Sarai, for Sarah is her name. 16 I will bless her, and make her bear you a son. I will bless her so that she will be [the mother] of entire nations - kings will be her descendants.'

19 God said, 'Still, your wife Sarah will give birth to a son. You must name him Isaac. I will keep My covenant with him as an eternal treaty, for his descendants after him.

21 But I will keep My covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you this time next year.'

The reason why we can fulfill this covenant is because our wonderful women bear the Jewish children who will bear the mark of the Covenant. Without getting into intricacies of the birds and bees, obviously these children were created when the women "bore the mark of the covenant in their flesh." (sounds weird, but it is obviously true.) Without our women, born complete in body, we are helpless, hopeless, and there is no Covenant.


I am not here to deny that in some elements of Jewish history women were not accorded opportunities they are accorded today. While there may have been an element of chauvinism involved, I do think it was no different than in any other society and culture in the world. At the same time, I believe Judaism has always been far ahead of the general society when it came to the positive treatment of women, inclusion of women, and appreciation of the role of the woman and mother in the family and community.

Before educational and employment opportunities were availed to women in the way they are now (our society in general has come a long way), women were very busy in their family lives and responsibilities – many of which have been made easier by modern technology. And these changes are welcome, wonderful, and an enhancement of our society.

But saying women were excluded from the bris comes from an ignorance of Torah, an ignorance of what the Covenant is, what women are, and what it means to have male anatomy. It is very easy to say that Judaism discriminates against any person or animal who is not included in certain practices. [It discriminates against men, women, Jews, non-Jews, Kohens (who cannot participate directly in funerals), Levites, homosexuals, heterosexuals, kosher animals, non-kosher animals. The list is not exhaustive and could theoretically be endless.] I will never be a Kohen, a Levi, a woman, a mother. I will admire their roles in Judaism as an observer, and I will do my best not to be jealous of their responsibilities because I know that I fit into the tapestry that is the Jewish life in my own way.

Most women I know are very happy that they never had a "bris" (meaning 'circumcision' though as has been explained, of course they are part of the "bris" meaning 'covenant'), don't feel slighted in any which way, and never put a second thought to any notion of "inequality" in this regard.

May we all live to appreciate our gifts from God, who we are, how He created us, and find a way to live our lives filling our God-given roles as best as we possibly can. 

1 comment:

  1. The Talmud says (Avodah Zara 27a) דאשה לאו בת מילה היא, ולמ"ד המול ימול - איכא, דאשה כמאן דמהילא דמיא - that a woman is not one who IS circumcised, but is as if she is circumcised. And can, therefore, presumably, circumcise a baby were she the only one available to do so.
    Interesting discussion. Feel free to weigh in.


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