Looking at a baby girl and feeling the joy of celebrating who she is and who she will become are wonderful experiences. A welcoming foot washing ceremony is one way of concretizing that joy.
In 1980 (or maybe ‘81?) a group of women rabbis and rabbinical students gathered together in Princeton, NJ. (Women rabbis were a relatively new phenomenon and there were so few of us that most of us could fit in one room.) Our discussion was about a problem we were all facing: how to welcome baby girls into the Jewish community. It was clear that a bris, a covenantal circumcision, was the way to welcome a baby boy, but it was unclear what we should do to celebrate a baby girl. Until this point, it was common for parents of daughters to be called to the Torah for a special naming blessing, but this didn’t feel like the basis for a ceremony. We were suddenly receiving questions from parents who desired to welcome a baby girl as fully as they would welcome a boy.
We started with questions: Should a girl be welcomed in a way that was similar to a boy (circumcision excluded!)? Could there be a ceremony that felt as powerful as a bris if it was newly created and not centuries old? Did we need to include a physical connection to the baby to give the ceremony power? (If so, what could that be?) Should a girl’s parents schedule a welcome for a girl on the eighth day of her life? Should we draw on symbols that reflected the history and culture of women? How could we celebrate everything that felt special about a girl without scripting her life by our very ceremony?
To start to find answers, we looked at he bris. A bris consists of two parts—a covenantal ceremony and a naming. This felt right to us. The covenantal relationship of God and the people of Israel is complicated, but significant. We wanted to expand the definition so that each parent’s understanding of it could be honored, but we wanted it to be the heart of our ceremony. We considered many possibilities (lighting Shabbat candles, wrapping the baby in a tallit, immersing the baby in water …) but, eventually, we decided that foot washing felt right.
Not only is water a universal women’s symbol, but it taps into the tradition of Miriam’s well that supplied water to the Israelites while they wandered. Foot washing has been practiced as a welcoming custom in the desert since the time of Abraham (and likely earlier). The story of Noah and the flood ends with a rainbow—a symbol of the covenant between God and the world that, in the future, water will be sustaining and life-giving, instead of destructive. We imagined rainbow towels, wrote new blessings, and created midrash for a ceremony that included the covenant and touched the baby, but in a much gentler way than the bris. The foot washing was followed by the naming, which proceeded much like the naming of a boy.
Since that day in Princeton, this ritual foot washing has been performed many times. Some have expanded the ritual to include other ways of celebrating the baby: wrapping her in a tallit, lighting candles or planting a tree in her honor. Some have gone in other directions: welcoming the baby as part of a service in an expanded Torah blessing or celebrating the baby’s newly emerging senses (with a taste of something good, a gentle hug for a touch, a song for hearing, candle light for sight, and sweet spices to smell). So many beautiful ceremonies have emerged in the last 30 years! But for me, that first ceremony and the thrill we felt as we created it will always have a special place in my heart. Looking at a baby girl and feeling the joy of celebrating who she is and who she will become are wonderful experiences. I like to think that our ceremony was the first of many ways of concretizing that joy.
Rabbi Linda Holtzman is the senior rabbi at Mishkan Shalom and an adjunct instructor at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.