How Not To Create A Custom

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imageby R. Gil Student

Who Creates Jewish Customs?

I have a vague recollection from my early years in Solomon Schechter of being taught by a guest teacher how to write a midrash. I do not know precisely what the teacher intended but my perception was that midrash is man-made so any person can make one. If the rabbis of the Talmudic era could weave complex legends surrounding the biblical narrative, so can we.

There is a basic logical fallacy in this thinking. It ignores the expertise of the midrashic writer. The greatest rabbis of ancient generations, steeped in piety and learning, explored the depths of Jewish texts and thought through midrash. I was both literally and figuratively a child in comparison, and will remain the latter throughout my life. Just because a great rabbi could write a midrash does not mean that I can. Socrates was a philosopher. Socrates was a man. Not all men are philosophers.

This came to my mind as I read the learned, passionate book, A Jewish Ceremony for Newborn Girls: The Torah’s Covenant Affirmed, by my old friend, Sharon Siegel. A Jewish Ceremony for Newborn Girls represents the ideal to which feminist Jewish writings should aspire. Siegel researched her topic expertly. She pored through texts and manuscripts, conducted interviews and picked the minds of the greatest scholars. Her history of Jewish naming practices for girls, while somewhat Germany-centric, is the authoritative work on the subject.

Women and Covenant

Additionally, Siegel’s main thesis is sound. She argues that girls are just as much a part of God’s covenant as boys. I find the view against which she argues odd, and believe she successfully knocks it down from multiple approaches. The only source I think Siegel overlooks is the comment of Tosafos (Berakhos 20b sv. nashim), quoted by the Magen Avraham (186:1), that women are not part of the bris, the covenant. But they clearly mean circumcision, bris milah, and not the general covenant. If women are not part of the covenant, why would they have to observe any commandments–including keeping kosher and Shabbos–at all?

But this conclusion takes Siegel on a strange and unnecessary path. If girls are part of the covenant, she wonders, why do they lack a bris celebration? Most people would answer that girls are not circumcised in the Jewish tradition but Siegel would frustratedly respond that bris means covenant, not circumcision.

Siegel exhaustively and authoritatively explores Jewish ceremonies for newborn girls throughout the ages and concludes that today’s celebrations are inadequate. Therefore, she proposes a bris bas ceremony for girls, held on the eighth day after birth but obviously omitting circumcision. She then proceeds to explore possible texts and rituals that are appropriate for such a ceremony, including an optional blessing similar to that recited at a circumcision. With a keen eye for traditional symbols and an understanding of Jewish liturgy, Siegel constructs an original ceremony for a girl’s bris.

The Full Cup

Judaism abhors a vacuum. Important life-cycle events will not lack a Jewish ritual for long because how else do we mark important moments if not religiously? Siegel’s mistake is that she tries to fill an already full cup. Orthodox synagogues regularly feature celebrations of the birth of girls. Everyone, with the exception of uniquely troubled people, values the birth of a daughter. It is one of the miracles of life, a universal joy that embraces parents, family and community. Of course there is already an Orthodox formula for that celebration. While local rituals vary, most communities with which I am familiar celebrate with a naming in synagogue and generally a kiddush, as well, although often on different days. [1]Orthodox legend has it that parents who fail to make a kiddush for a newborn girl risk her marriage chances through divine calculation. This is an oft-repeated bubbeh-ma’aseh that is still … Continue reading

Siegel argues that this is insufficient. Her two main points are that: 1) the current ceremony is not meaningful to parents, and 2) friends and family do not insist on attending the naming and/or kiddush. Therefore, she proposes a mandatory ceremony for girls on their eighth day in this world, replete with meaningful prayers and symbols. I sympathize with my old friend’s instincts but believe her direction is wrong (which will neither surprise nor deter her).

If our current ceremony is insufficient, an argument with which I will disagree shortly, we should not look to the future but to the past. As Siegel expertly demonstrates, current naming practices descend from the Medieval Ashkenazic welcoming of the mother and daughter into the community four weeks after the baby is born. If we are looking for a meaningful ceremony that is consistent with Jewish tradition, why not reinstate our own past customs?

Who is an Expert?

The creation of a new ceremony is religiously dangerous. Neither Siegel nor I are Socrates, so to speak. How can we dare to compose prayers and rituals, pretending that we can access the deepest meanings of Jewish symbols and texts? This is especially true when the new practice is redundant. We already have the tools in Ashkenazic tradition; we only need to take them out of the toolbox. We move forward by embracing our past. Chadeish yameinu ke-kedem.

Siegel devotes an exhaustive chapter to cataloging the various ceremonies for newborn girls that people have created since the 1970’s. This chapter highlights my concerns. Some of those listed are mitzvah observant, albeit perhaps overly bold, Orthodox Jews. Most are not Orthodox, nor are they consistently observant nor completely believing Jews. Yet the customs they create are taken as serious precedents, options to consider in making our own customs. I have argued at length that halakhah forbids tailoring customs after the actions of non-traditional Jews (link). I find it hard to take seriously the notion that those who do not believe in the Torah as traditionally understood should be deciding or creating Jewish practices. Put differently, you cannot change the system unless you are part of it. Non-believing and/or non-practicing Jews are outside the system.

How to Create a Custom

Lacking expertise ourselves, we can at most look to precedent for inspiration. In our case, we have two excellent options. The first and most obvious is the Medieval and Early Modern Ashkenazic celebrations of newborn girls, which Siegel documents so well. Reviving them would be meaningful to parents, Siegel’s first concern. However, we may not need to change anything. The current practice of making a kiddush, essentially a meal with a devar Torah, is how we celebrate Rosh Chodesh and Chanukah. Patterning the celebration of a newborn girl on other, familiar celebrations is a wonderful and meaningful way to mark the joyous occasion.

As to Siegel’s concern that family and friends are less zealous to attend a girl’s ceremony than a boy’s, this is a sociological problem, not religious. No amount of tinkering with customs can force old habits to die quickly. The way to deal with lack of courtesy is through gentle rebuke.

Siegel’s book can be divided into four main parts: 1) describing historical customs, 2) arguing that women are part of the covenant, 3) describing recent practices, and 4) advocating for a new ceremony. I found the first three to be expertly done and of lasting scholarly value. The fourth, what is clearly closest to Siegel’s heart, is where I have to take issue. A new ceremony is unnecessary, overly presumptuous and decidedly non-traditional. Our customs tie us to our personal and communal history, the memories of our youths and recent generations that have passed. In the transient society in which we find ourselves today, with weakened communities and loose affiliations, we need to strengthen, not weaken, that bond to the past.

 

Endnotes

Endnotes
1Orthodox legend has it that parents who fail to make a kiddush for a newborn girl risk her marriage chances through divine calculation. This is an oft-repeated bubbeh-ma’aseh that is still telling on many levels.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

7 comments

  1. You should reference some of the major studies of customs such as R. Daniel Sperber in Minhagei Yisrael or Yisrael Ta-Shma in Minhag Ashkenaz Hakadmon or Menachem Elon in Hamishpat Haivri. There are customs that reflect halachic decisions that have been lost and preserved only in community custom. There are others which clearly innovations which attempt to respond to the zeitgeist of the times and may reflect the values if not the practices surrounding non-Jewish culture. The unwillingness to incorporate any changes in tefilla and life-cycle customs is a feature of Orthodoxy as a way of combatting Reform and that unwillingness is what is new, not innovation of customs. Just to give one blatant example, continuing to say “V’nitrahaknu me’al admatenu” in Mussaf of Chag for those who live in Israel.

    That being said, even today new customs are innovated in even the most traditional of circles – it’s usually more a question who is suggesting the innovation and whether it’s done “organically” or “externally”.

  2. The reason that non-family doesn’t feel the need to come to the kidush (and nobody flies in for the kidush) is because the parents won’t be offended because it’s not as important to them as having guests at a b’rit mila. Which gets back to the elephant in the room. B’rit mila is a special mitsva that you don’t perform when you have a girl. Like pidyon haben (disclosure: my parents flew in for pidyon but not b’rit). I don’t even remember where we did the kidush for my daughter.

    None of this is because I love or respect (if I can have respect for a toddler) my daughter less. Or am less grateful for her. What I am loving and respecting is the mitsva that hashem gave me.

    And as I have read elsewhere, and experienced, the b’rit was hard on my wife (though she was amazing) because she just gave birth. We shouldn’t put a woman through that because of a new invented ceremony. Wait a normal amount of time (as apparently medieval ashk’nazim did).

    Anyway, the main point is that we are respecting the mitsva and that is why a b’rit mila will alway be a bigger deal no matter what ceremonies you invent. This is probably all tied in to how girls are born perfect and spiritual while men are baser and need to work on themselves more. But whatever the reason, your post is generally correct, but I think missed that major n’kuda.

    • Well then, perhaps that’s the point. We could keep the existing ritual undervalued, continue feeling a lack at this life-event, and end up crafting a new ritual. To me, more than the historicaly reluctance to new ritual, I think it’s even more ill advised at a time in our history where mimeticism (the feel of halakhah as found in culture) is particularly shaky and we suffer from a poverty of leadership. We’re still not done with the post-rupture reconstruction, do we have a solid foundation yet upon which to build anew?

      The more traditional alternative, and ritually safer as well, would be to make a bigger deal about the qiddush. Instead of pointing out that zeidi or grandma wouldn’t come in for the qiddush, ask why? Their children, the new parents, apparently need the big religious event to match the physical one, so why are we pretending the existing ceremony isn’t important, that it celebrates less gratitude to the Creator than the parents really feel?

      (Even if none of our alternatives could match simchah shel mitzvah either way.)

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