Welcoming girls to the covenant

Welcoming girls to the covenant

Local woman's book takes detailed look at history and advocates future for ceremonies for female newborn Jews

Daughters Dafna and Nurit look on as their parents begin the brit
milah for their son, Yakir, who is held by his grandfather, Marshall Siegel.

A little more than a decade ago, Sharon Siegel of Teaneck was pregnant with her first child.

She and her husband, Dan Schlosberg, decided not to learn the baby’s gender, but Ms. Siegel, a lawyer by trade and training and an academic by nurture and instinct, knew that she had to prepare for the ceremony that would welcome their newborn to the Jewish world.

If it was a boy, fine. She knew – or as she later learned, she thought she knew – the basic outlines of the brit milah – the ceremony of ritual circumcision – although she was hazy on the details.

But if it was a girl? What then?

She decided to find out, beginning with the easier ceremony, the brit milah. “I opened my siddur to the back, to see what the liturgy was,” she said.

Ten years, countless hours in libraries, many hundreds of footnotes, three daughters, and a son later – and with the loving and entirely necessary support of her husband and her parents – Ms. Siegel also has delivered a book, “A Jewish Ceremony for Newborn Girls: The Torah’s Covenant Affirmed,” published as part of the HBI Series on Jewish Women by Brandeis University press.

The book has taken Ms. Siegel in many directions: she investigates ceremonies for baby girls; devotes a great deal of thought to the meaning of covenant; studies ritual as it changes; thinks broadly about halacha, liturgy, and change; and finally advocates for a systematic way to welcome brand new female Jews to the covenant.

Ah. Covenant. What does that mean?

“We almost universally connect the Jewish covenant with circumcision,” Ms. Siegel said. “I started from the very beginning, with the parshiot that had to do with Abraham, and how we became a people, and I realized that was the chapter that introduced circumcision.”

To learn about it, she had to start from the beginning. It’s not that she didn’t know the basics – originally from Fair Lawn, Ms. Siegel had graduated first from the Yavneh Academy and then the Frisch School before going on to Columbia as an undergraduate and then to law school there. “I of course was very clear on the ritual, but I didn’t know what the surrounding liturgy was,” she said.

“I learned that like all our liturgy, it evolved, actually changed substantially over time.” For example, “in the early medieval time, there were a couple of centuries where blood had developed a spirituality to it.” That was in response to the Dark Age Christianity that surrounded the Jews.

That points out one of her themes. “Nothing is stagnant,” Ms. Siegel said. “That of course is obvious, but when you are researching a specific or narrow area, it’s easier for that to come into focus.” In her book, she writes less about halacha itself than “about customs in the halachic system – how integral they are, and how as customs change the whole sensibility of our practices changes. It’s a very gradual, very slow change.

She puts ceremonies for baby girls into that framework.

“Customs are so fluid,” she continued. “They are messy. They sometimes conflict with normative halacha, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they become halacha, and sometimes they are virulently rejected by halachic authorities. There is so much give and take because there is a deference to halacha.

“What is amazing to me about customs is that they come from the people,” she continued. Customs go down-up, not top-down. Today, when we think about Jewish practice and about halacha, we think more in terms of the top-down model, but really we are a people who have been going down-up for a long time.

“The two go hand in hand.”

Using that understanding, “I was able to think broadly about it, and then take a step back and say okay, how does my stuff fit into this? And it does.”

The question of how to bring babies into the Jewish people is always emotionally fraught, she said. “Everyone has such a personal perspective, because there is nothing more intimate than a baby who is brand new to the world,” but the ceremony itself is public. “It is such an emotionally laden time. It was almost shocking to me, how strong the emotions were.

Before the 1970s “the modern ceremonies did not exist,” she said. Well before then, a few remote corners of the Sephardi and Mizrachi world had developed welcoming rituals for baby girls. Ashkenazim had not.

“The ceremonies that developed in the 1970s in a whirl of creativity are a genre unto themselves,” Ms. Siegel said. “There is no precedent. There have been efforts to connect it to more traditional forms of welcoming baby girls, to earlier traditional folk practices, but they are not connected.

“That fact is important because it is true. It is also important because the ceremonies are no different from the many customs that have developed throughout our entire existence.

“It’s not good or bad. It just is. It is a statement of fact.

“New customs have been evolving all the time.”

The ceremonies caught on very quickly in the liberal Jewish world, clearly filling a gaping need. Eventually, they even started establishing a foothold among the modern Orthodox.

“Of course it is very important for rituals to be evocative and meaningful, and at the same time it is very important to connect them with thousands of years of tradition,” Ms. Siegel said.

To learn what kind of ceremonies are being done now, Ms. Siegel cold-called rabbis across the denominational spectrum from around the country. She was struck by the ad-hoc nature of some of them. “One rabbi said ‘We have the parents come up to the bimah and we kind of say a few things…’ I got off the phone, and then it struck me. How could he have said that?

“It was so … cute. There should be nothing cute about it.

“These ceremonies should be commemorative, not celebratory. They are not an excuse to have a party. Neither is a circumcision. Parties are fun, and you can have a party afterward, but that is not the reason. This is the initiative of a newborn baby into the covenant.

“That is not cute. It is deadly serious stuff.”

Even as they clear the Scylla of the cutesy, ceremonies also must stay away from the Charybdis of the excessively wordy. “I talked to a Conservative rabbi who said that sometimes he gets the feeling that people are using words to fill the void that the circumcision is for boys.

“To me the key is having a central ritual,” she continued. “Words can be beautiful, but there has to be something active to parallel circumcision.” There also must be standardization. That is not something that can be forced; it must happen slowly, one baby at a time.

Her research eventually took her to the heart of her book, the chapter that “goes through the different courses and discusses the fundamental question of whether women are part of the covenant. I come out on the side of yes.”

The reason the question demands to be asked is the conflation of the abstract idea of the covenant with the very physical brit milah, the circumcision. The word brit means covenant – the ceremony is often simply called a bris, the Ashkenazi pronunciation calling attention to the fact that the act itself has come to be synonymous with the covenant.

“That is erroneous,” Ms. Siegel said. “And that erroneous belief has unwittingly excluded women from the Jewish covenant.” The covenant is meant to include all Jews. “It is the raison d’etre of the Jewish people. It is why we exist, it is for what we exist. It is the whole shebang. It is the primary theme in the Tanach. It is everything; the pillar of Jewish belief and Jewish culture.

“And it is all of ours.”

Circumcision certainly is a symbol of covenant, she said, an intimate symbol, but it is far from the only symbol. It is physical; covenant is metaphysical.

“It is crucial that every single Jew is embraced into the covenant,” she said. If they are born into the Jewish world, it should be done when they are newborn. Becoming bat mitzvah means becoming a mature member of the covenant; how can you do that if you have been kept outside it?

In her book, Ms. Siegel details how circumcision and covenant became synonymous; it is a fascinating if gory story, a look into how the Greco-Roman disparagement of the practice led the rabbis to develop some very physical ways to counter that push.

The one question that stumps Ms. Siegel is why baby girls have not been publicly welcomed into the Jewish community. She simply does not know why; the old apologetics seem inadequate but she does not have new ones. “I am not in the business of perpetuating apologies,” she said. “I look at how things are now, how they came to be, and how to make these rituals as meaningful and powerful as they can be and should be.”

Or, as she wrote in the introduction to her book, tacking the mantra of tradition and change, the balance that so many Jews from across the movements seek, albeit differently: “The balance between tradition and change is very delicate, and the all-important question is where to place the fulcrum at any given moment.”

This book not only looks at ways to welcome baby girls into the covenant, and more broadly at the covenant itself, it also gives us a chance to examine that fulcrum.

read more: