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 brisLit. Covenant. Judaism is defined by the covenant - the contract between the Jewish people and God. God promises to make us abundant and to give us the land of Israel; we promise to obey God's commandments. This covenant begins with Abraham and is reiterated throughout the Torah. A brit milah, literally a covenant of circumcision, is often simply called a brit or 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 TorahThe Five Books of Moses, and the foundation of all of Jewish life and lore. The Torah is considered the heart and soul of the Jewish people, and study of the Torah is a high mitzvah. The Torah itself a scroll that is hand lettered on parchment, elaborately dressed and decorated, and stored in a decorative ark. It is chanted aloud on Mondays, Thursdays, and Shabbat, according to a yearly cycle. Sometimes "Torah" is used as a colloquial term for Jewish learning and narrative in general. 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 IsraelLit. ''the one who struggles with God.'' Israel means many things. It is first used with reference to Jacob, whose name is changed to Israel (Genesis 32:29), the one who struggles with God. Jacob's children, the Jewish people, become B'nai Israel, the children of Israel. The name also refers to the land of Israel and the State 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 ShabbatShabbat is the Sabbath day, the Day of Rest, and is observed from Friday night through Saturday night. Is set aside from the rest of the week both in honor of the fact that God rested on the seventh day after creating the world. On Shabbat, many Jews observe prohibitions from various activities designated as work. Shabbat is traditionally observed with festive meals, wine, challah, prayers, the reading and studying of Torah, conjugal relations, family time, and time with friends. candles, wrapping the baby in a tallitA four-cornered garment to which ritual fringes (tzitzit/tzitzi'ot) are affixed. The knots in the fringes represent the name of God and remind us of God's commandments. The tallit is worn during prayer and can also be drawn about oneself or around the bride and groom to symbolize divine protection., 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 AbrahamAbraham is the first patriarch and the father of the Jewish people. He is the husband of Sarah and the father of Isaac and Ishmael. God's covenant - that we will be a great people and inherit the land of Israel - begins with Abraham and is marked by his circumcision, the first in Jewish history. His Hebrew name is Avraham. (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 midrashA rabbinic method of interpreting text, often through the telling of stories. 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.