Monday, November 21, 2011

Including Women in the Ceremony

At a recent bris, some members of the family approached me afterwards to ask why (in that particular case) women are not included in the ceremony. The circumstances were, for me, far less than ideal, because I usually have a chance to talk with people in advance, to discuss with the baby's parents how they would like to have their ceremony. In this case, I was called in the late evening on the day before the bris, because the family found themselves without a mohel. The baby's grandfather called and made the arrangements.

I was not privy to any conversations they had with the mohel who cancelled on them, so I don't know what transpired - except in the end, the ceremony included the baby's uncle and his two grandfathers, and no one else.

Here are my thoughts on the subject - please read all before rushing to conclusions or judging.
1. There is no single rule that will work for everyone. For example, some mothers want to be up front during the bris, some want to be with friends or family in the middle or back of the room, and some don't even want to be in the room at all.
2. There are different protocols and sensitivities which must be adhered to depending on the venue where the bris is taking place. The rules of a synagogue, for example, are different than rules of one's private home.
3. Until relatively recently, women did not usually come to the bris.
4. In recent times, the sensitivity to be more inclusive of all grandparents in the ceremony has become a predominant concern for a significant number of people.
5. The Sandak (who holds the baby during the bris) must be male.

I could be chauvinistic and say that the bris is a mitzvah observed on a particularly male anatomical feature, and therefore the ceremony should involve males. [There is such a passage in the Talmud regarding who serves as the mohel. Since Avraham was told המול ימול - it is derived that המל ימול, that one who is circumcised will circumcise...]
On the other hand, I could say "Yeah? Well without women, there would not be any baby?!"

If you are looking for a traditional answer, the answer is that the kvatter is the traditional honor in which women are included.

If you are looking for a modern answer, the answer is that women should absolutely be involved when the protocol of the bris venue allows for it. In a traditional synagogue sanctuary (especially right after the morning services), you'd be out of luck. But in an egalitarian institution, and certainly in a neutral catering facility or at home, things would be different. I have been to and presided over brisses in which a grandmother either placed the baby on the chair of Elijah the Prophet or held the baby after the bris - sometimes alone or sometimes together with her husband. I've even done "hatafat dam" while the baby's mother held him.

In short, I don't think the right attitude is to say "NO." I personally go for the traditionalist viewpoint, but I also live in the real world. Some people feel very strongly about these things, while others are more open to seeing a different side. [Though I do think that claiming a "bris ceremony is paternalistic" is a little insensitive in the other direction - Would you want men to be involved in a ceremony that celebrates something related to female anatomy? I wouldn't!]

Bottom line: I think a conversation is in order. I think the baby's parents should have the final say as far as what they want their ceremony to look like.

And I think that all the relatives and friends who get offended by others' choices need to look at the bigger picture. Not being involved in the five minutes of the ceremony is, in the grand scheme of things, not that big of a deal. You can take all the pictures you want before and afterwards, and you can cherish the new baby in your family every waking minute you have the chance to be with him. Giving a guilt trip to those who "excluded you" (even though they meant no offense in it) will only strain a relationship, and is entirely not worth it. Remember that the new parents are going through a lot (especially with a first baby), and may not be thinking of every permutation. Cut them a little slack, cut the mohel a little slack, and just enjoy the day.

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