Jewish Feminism’s impact on ritual reaches far beyond “feminist ritual” or “Jewish women’s rituals.” In addition to the innovations represented by new ceremonies and celebrations, Jewish feminism has substantially influenced longer-standing practices. Arguably, the entire terrain of contemporary Jewish ritual life has been in one way or another reshaped by Jewish women and men grappling with the encounter between pre-feminist traditional Judaism and Jewish feminism.
Nowhere is this impact more surprising — or more necessary — than in the case of brit milahLit. Covenant of circumcision. As a sign of the covenant, God commanded Abraham to circumcise himself and his descendants. An infant boy is circumcised on the eighth day of his life, often at home or in synagogue. A festive meal follows., the ceremony and ritual of circumcision on the eighth day of a baby boy’s life. Circumcision might seem like an odd launching pad for a discussion of feminist ritual. But given that it is performed on nearly 50 percent of the Jewish population and involves parents and family, circumcision competes with the PassoverPassover is a major Jewish holiday that commemorates the Jewish people's liberation from slavery and Exodus from Egypt. Its Hebrew name is Pesakh. Its name derives from the tenth plague, in which God "passed over" the homes of the Jewish firstborn, slaying only the Egyptian firstborn. Passover is celebrated for a week, and many diaspora Jews celebrate for eight days. The holiday begins at home at a seder meal and ritual the first (and sometimes second) night. Jews tell the story of the Exodus using a text called the haggadah, and eat specific food (matzah, maror, haroset, etc). sederLit. Order. The festive meal conducted on Passover night, in a specific order with specific rituals to symbolize aspects of the Exodus from Egypt. It is conducted following the haggadah, a book for this purpose. The mystics of Sefat also created a seder for Tu B'shvat, the new year of the trees. — the holiday ritual that has drawn a waterfall of feminist attention and innovation — as the most universal Jewish practice.
The increasingly frequent simchat batLit. "Joy of a daughter" A contemporary naming ceremony for a new baby girl. Also called Brit Bat, Zeved Habat. ceremony that welcomes a baby girl (a phenomenon that began in earnest in the early 1970s, notwithstanding some earlier traditions in both AshkenaziJew of Eastern European descent. The term also refers to the practices and customs associated with this community, often in contrast to Sephardic (Southern European) traditions. and SephardiJews of Spanish descent; sometimes used to describe Jews of North-African and Middle-Eastern descent. The term also describes the customs and practices of these Jews, often in comparison to those of Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews. communities), has influenced the conceptualization and performance of britLit. 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. milah itself — arguably the most inherently non-feminist (if not anti-feminist) of rituals.
Three general categories of change in Jewish life and practice grow out of or respond to Jewish feminism; all three are reflected in the feminist impact on brit milah:
- Parallelism — the emergence of rituals, practices, and even institutions for women that mirror those traditionally for men (e.g. simchat bat, tallitot made for women, women’s yeshivotSchool of traditional Jewish study. Although historically only for men, today there are some yeshivot (plural) that are for women, and there are progressive yeshivot which are coed.)
- Access and integration — the full and complete involvement of women in every aspect of Jewish life (e.g. female rabbis, women reading 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. and leading services)
- Transformation — the reshaping and revisioning of Jewish practice and thought, by both women and men, due to women’s involvement and in light of Jewish feminism (e.g. feminist midrashA rabbinic method of interpreting text, often through the telling of stories., female or gender-neutral God language)
These categories, of course, are not discrete. In the realm of ritual, for example, the emergence of the “parallel” ceremony of simchat bat has itself significantly affected the ongoing transformation of brit milah.
As simchat bat ceremonies were developed and as they flourished, their sheer (and necessary) level of creativity spilled over to — and benefited — the evolution of brit milah. While it is possible for parents to call the mohelRitual circumciser. The person who performs the brit milah for a baby boy. when their son is born and simply let him execute a traditional ceremony, many parents add readings and other new forms of participation to a son’s brit milah. In large part because of the new ceremonies for girls, they have come to expect the opportunity to make contemporary additions to this most ancient of lifecycle rituals. Brit milah celebrations have also felt the impact of Jewish feminism in more revolutionary ways, both in the realms of access and integration and of transformation.
How have women made our way into this quintessentially male ritual?
The Reform and Conservative movements have trained mohalot, female ritual circumcisers. When a mohelet presides over and facilitates a brit milah, and makes the cut, she pushes her way into a line of men and boys dating back to the household of the biblical 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.; her presence announces that brit milah is not an exclusively male realm. One or more women may hold the baby during key moments, a role highly symbolic of the chain of tradition and one until recently only filled by men. More and more often, mothers along with fathers say the blessing “…who commanded us to bring [our son] into the covenant of Abraham our father” — and sometimes, because the covenant could only continue through her child, “and SarahThe first matriarch, wife of Abraham, and mother of Isaac, whom she birthed at the age of 90. Sarah, in Rabbinic tradition, is considered holy, beautiful, and hospitable. Many prayers, particularly the Amidah (the central silent prayer), refer to God as Magen Avraham – protector of Abraham. Many Jews now add: pokehd or ezrat Sarah – guardian or helper of Sarah. our mother” — and stay close while their sons are circumcised rather than retreating to another room.
How are Jewish feminism and contemporary Jewish feminist ritual actually transforming brit milah itself?
Female God language has appeared in some brit milah ceremonies — a female God commanding circumcision — shaking up the way we view circumcision in a Jewish context. Some mothers now recite special “mother’s prayers” — contemporary in their origin, often ancient in their resonance — ritualizing their connection to this event, or offer a d’var torah (sometimes expressing deep ambivalence toward the brit milah, giving both the mother’s reservations and participation full visibility). Like the introduction of God’s femaleness into the liturgy of brit milah, positioning the mother along with the father as an actor in the ritual space of this ceremony splits open its unquestioned maleness.
Some feminists engage deeply with the question of whether to circumcise at all, reflecting both a desire to avoid inflicting unwarranted pain on their children and, on the other hand, a belief that there may be irreducible and unjustified male bias and privilege reflected in the institution of ritual circumcision. Reinterpretation of brit milah, especially if it is made manifest in the performance space of the ritual itself, changes not just what brit milah means, but what it looks like. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein provides one example:
“Since we have seen how blood offers expiation throughout the Torah, can those few drops of covenantal blood be seen as atonement for male control? As cleansing of violence in a patriarchal world?…The Jewish world has the potential to be a safe world…if it becomes a world of male sexuality defined by holiness, commitment, and responsibility. Each of my sons’ ceremonies included an acknowledgment of this new symbolism. Each baby was blessed by all the women present, holding my 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. high over him.” (From ReVisions: Seeing Torah Through a Feminist Lens, 1998)
Still, as Goldstein points out, “We need [still more] feminist midrashim, and serious feminist discussion, to lift both the ceremony and the participants above the masculinist suppositions, male exclusivity, and simple pain, that it contains.”
One final way in which Jewish feminism has made this ancient rite a contemporary ritual: Many families choose to have the circumcision part of the covenantal ceremony, the milah part of the brit, done privately, without public fanfare, decentering circumcision itself — and then welcome their baby boys publicly in a ceremony that could be used equally for boys and girls. In this way, feminist ritual comes full circle — adding simchat bat ceremonies, adding to brit milah ceremonies, transforming those ceremonies, and removing milah from the center. In the last case, public covenantal ceremonies for babies (a formal entry into a life of contemporary Jewish ritual) become — like bar and bat mitzvahLit. Commandment. It is traditionally held that there are 613 mitzvot (plural) in Judaism, both postive commandments (mandating actions) and negative commandments (prohibiting actions). Mitzvah has also become colloquially assumed to mean the idea of a “good deed." — uniformly appropriate for boys and girls.
Feminist Judaism’s reshaping and transformation of brit milah is merely one sign of the depth and breadth of feminism’s impact on Jewish ritual at large.
Along with the end of Yom KippurThe holiest day of the Jewish year and the culmination of a season of self-reflection. Jews fast, abstain from other worldly pleasures, and gather in prayers that last throughout the day. Following Ne'ilah, the final prayers, during which Jews envision the Gates of Repentance closing, the shofar is sounded in one long blast to conclude the holy day. It is customary to begin building one's sukkah as soon as the day ends. and the end of 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. (during which many contemporary Jews sing of MiriamMiriam is the sister of Moses and Aaron. As Moses' and Aaron's sister she, according to midrash, prophesies Moses' role and helps secure it by watching over the young baby, seeing to it that Pharaoh's daughter takes him and that the baby is returned to his mother for nursing. During the Israelites' trek through the desert, a magical well given on her behalf travels with the Israelites, providing water, healing, and sustenance. haneviah along with EliyahuElijah is a biblical prophet who is said never to have died. There are therefore many legends associated with Elijah. In the Talmud, unresolved arguments will be resolved when Elijah comes. He will herald the coming of the messiah. In Jewish ritual, Elijah is a liminal figure, arriving at moments of danger and transition – at a brit milah, a chair is put out for him, a cup is poured for Elijah at the Passover seder, and he is invoked at havdalah. His Hebrew name is Eliyahu. hanavi), 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. and a Passover seder are the times in Jewish ritual life that are associated with the coming of a messianic era (and at which ElijahElijah is a biblical prophet who is said never to have died. There are therefore many legends associated with Elijah. In the Talmud, unresolved arguments will be resolved when Elijah comes. He will herald the coming of the messiah. In Jewish ritual, Elijah is a liminal figure, arriving at moments of danger and transition – at a brit milah, a chair is put out for him, a cup is poured for Elijah at the Passover seder, and he is invoked at havdalah. His Hebrew name is Eliyahu. himself is said to appear). We are brought closer to this perfected world as we deepen, expand, and transform ancient and powerful practices at the center of Jewish life.
Used with permission from Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility March 2005. For additional essays on new rituals, visit www.shma.com.