QUESTION: May a Gentile sister of a convert serve as a kevater or kevaterin? The tradition requires the kevater or kevaterin to present the child in the place of circumcision. Is it appropriate for a Christian to participate in this ceremony? (Rabbi Leonard Winograd, McKeesport PA)
ANSWER: Generally three individuals are honored through a special participation in the circumcision ceremony. They are the kevater, and kevaterin and the sandeq. All of these may be appropriately designated as godparents of the young lad. The usual procedure is for the kevaterin to bring the child into the place of circumcision and hand him to the kevater who in turn gives the baby to the mohel. The mohel continues with a brief prayer and then presents the child to the sandeq who may hold the child upon his knees during the circumcision or on a table (Midrash to Ps 36:10; Roqeah 109). The same procedure was used whether the circumcision was held at home or in the synagogue. The custom of having the berit milah in the synagogue may have originated in Persia in the ninth century and may reflect Muslim influence as Islam required circumcision. This custom then spread among both Karaite and Rabbinic Jews (L. Löw Die Lebensalter in der Jüdischen Literatur). Subsequently it was also followed partially among Northern European Jews. The kevater and kevaterin are not mentioned in the early sources at all. Later they play an extremely limited role in the ceremony. They also have no responsibility for any of the social aspects connected with the ceremony which frequently fell upon the sandeq. He provided a meal and other refreshments connected with the berit. In order to prevent this from becoming an unusual burden, some authorities like the Tosafists, and Peretz De Corbeil stated that an individual could serve in this capacity only once. Much later Ezekiel Landau (1713-1793) disagreed and felt that the same individual could be asked any number of times. Landau mentioned that it was the custom in Poland of his time to appoint the local rabbi as the permanent sandeq. He participated in every berit presumably without obligations for the festivities (Nodah Biyehudah I #86). This and later debates on these matters deal only with the sandeq mention no kevater or kevaterin.
Christians participated in the ceremony as sandeq in the Middle Ages. The literature also stated that it was inappropriate for a woman to be a sandeq (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 265.11) which confirmed that women filled this role. A Christian as a sandeq was reported in Castro Giovanni in Sicily in 1484 (L. Zunz Zur Geschichte und Literatur p.499). Several medieval church councils prohibited such Christian participation as for example the Council of Terracinana in 1330. Similar statements of prohibition were found in Protestant ordinances; Christians obviously acted in this capacity.
The kevater or kevaterin represented an Eastern European tradition as the words indicated and found no echo in the earlier literature. Both of these individuals are incidental to the circumcision itself. As Christians have been honored with the position of sandeq in the Middle Ages there would be no reason to prohibit a Christian from serving as kevater or kevaterin. In this instance it honors a members of a family. Furthermore, participation in the ceremony indicates recognition and acceptance of the fact that this child will be raised as a Jew.