On this page, we present essays profound or timely culled from the CLAL literary archive. Most of the articles that appear here appeared originally in the pages of Sh'ma A Journal of Jewish Responsibility, which was founded by Eugene Borowitz in 1970 and published by CLAL from 1994-1998.
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(from Shma 14/264, December 23, 1983)
The Symbolism in Innovative Rituals
By Judith Bleich
Preoccupation and concern with the development of meaningful rituals and liturgical materials often reflect a sincere, at times passionate, desire to give expression to deeply-rooted religious feelings. Perhaps some attempts to create new ceremonies and liturgical forms may be viewed as a manifestation of this spirit. However, all too frequently, the suggested rituals raise basic theological questions and, ironically, despite the sincerity of their authors, prove to be embarrassingly inappropriate when presented as a new link in the chain of authentic Jewish tradition.
entering into the issue of whether or not it is permissible to formulate new blessings (a
question which from the perspective of halachah [Jewish
law] would clearly be answered in the negative), a fundamental observation should be made
with regard to any newly-evolved ritual. It is unlikely that proponents of any
intellectual or religious trend within the contemporary Jewish community would seek to
foster the adoption of a religious ceremonial associated with non-Jewish traditions. Such
practices are proscribed by virtue of the biblical admonition: "And you shall not
walk in their statutes" (Leviticus 18:3). In any event, a conscious aping of
non-Jewish tradition would presumably be repugnant to adherents of any branch of Judaism
in our day.
Bearing this point in mind, it is instructive to examine two recent suggestions for ceremonials with which to celebrate the birth of a baby girl which, it may be argued -- one to a greater degree, one to a lesser degree -- do not commend themselves as suitable rituals for any Jewish group.
Immersion is an Unacceptable Ritual
In a quest
to provide a substitute ceremony for the brit
milah (circumcision ritual) for parents of baby girls, some individuals have advocated
a new rite -- an observance which was given a measure of publicity by its inclusion in the
second volume of the popular Jewish Catalog. The
ceremony involves the bodily immersion in water of the infant girl. Ostensibly, the ritual
is patterned on the concept of immersion in a mikveh
(ritual bath), a ritual closely associated with women in Jewish law and lore.
Objections to this suggestion have been raised on the grounds that it is an incongruous
rite when introduced at the time of birth and one which is more relevant to puberty than
to infancy. Astonishingly, a far more basic objection has not been articulated: immersion
of infants is not a new ritual. It is one which has been practiced for centuries. It is
simply a matter of identifying the ritual by proper nomenclature. This particular ritual
is known as baptism, not as mikveh. Baptism is
regarded as a hallowed practice among Christians. Surely, however, there could be no
ritual less befitting to mark the birth of a Jewish baby girl.
A somewhat less objectionable, but nonetheless anomalous, proposal for a novel ceremony to mark the birth of a baby girl was presented by a group of nine women in the April-May 1983 issue of Menorah. This ceremony is a rite of passage called Covenant of Washing or Brit Rehitzah. The ceremony involves the washing of the baby girl's feet in a small bowl followed by recitation of prayers and blessings. It is suggested that washing of the feet is a meaningful symbolic ritual of welcome for the newly-born Jewish girl for two reasons. In the first place, it is emphasized, the Bible speaks of a covenant made with Noah after the flood in addition to the covenant with Abraham. "Surely we would want to welcome the baby girl into that [Noah's] covenant as well, a covenant that potentially involves all of humanity." In the second place, feet washing is seen as reminiscent of an incident described in the Bible. "Someone remembered," the authors note, "that when Abraham was recovering from his circumcision, he was visited by three angels of the Lord. Abraham greeted these strangers with the gracious Middle Eastern sign of hospitality -- he gave them water to wash their feet. What better way, then, for us to welcome new members in the family of people and the family of Jews?"
Washing Feet and Idolators
These remarks prompt two responses: "Someone remembered" the biblical narrative, and, apparently, someone perused the sources and selected for use in the liturgy a remark from the Midrash, Bereshit Rabba 48:10, regarding Abraham's reward. Did no one, however, remember the exegetical comments of Rashi, ad locum? Bashi notes that Abraham offered the visitors water to wash their feet because Abraham "thought that they were Arabs who bow down to the dust of their feet, and he was meticulous not to bring idol-worship into his house." According to Rashi's exegesis, Abraham, not yet aware of the visitors' true identity, thought they were idol worshippers and therefore insisted that they wash their feet immediately in order scrupulously to avoid bringing anything connected with idolatry into his house. By contrast, Lot, Rashi adds, was not particular in this regard and, unlike Abraham, offered his guests lodging before mentioning washing of the feet (see Genesis 19:2). Rashi's comments, as well as the similar midrashic observation, Yalkut Shim'oni (Genesis 18), are obviously based upon the talmudic passage (cited verbatim in the Midrash), Baba Metzia 86b: "They said to him, `Do you suspect us of being like Arabs who worship the dust on their feet? In light of these sources, washing of the feet hardly appears to be a suitable manner in which to welcome a new member of the family of Jews. Kli Yakor, commenting on Gen. 18:4, voices astonishment at Rashi's interpretation and notes that it is strange to assume that dust is forbidden because of the foolish notions of idolators. Just as idolators cannot render the sun forbidden, Kli Yakor argues, they cannot render the dust off bounds. Kli Yakor accordingly interprets Abraham's request homiletically and asserts that water is symbolic of purity and thus Abraham was attempting to influence the idolators to repent by giving them waters of purification. According to this latter interpretation as well, the water is offered to idolators. However, in the opinion of Kli Yakor, the purpose is not to wash away the physical evidence of idolatry but to symbolize the need for purification.
It should be noted that one does find mention of feet washing as a Jewish ritual in entirely different contexts. The kohanim washed both hands and feet prior to performing the divine service (see Exodus 30:19-21). In later times there is reference (Shabbat 50b and Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Tefillah 4:3) to the practice of washing the feet prior to the shaharit prayers. Normative Jewish law does not posit this requirement.
Which Covenant Takes Precedence?
It is indeed true that Judaism posits the existence of a covenant made with Noah after the flood and embracing all of humanity -- the children of Noah. Judaism teaches that the Noachide Code binds all mankind to observance of fundamental ethical and religious norms. However, in the case of the people of Israel, the covenant of Noah is superceded by the covenant of Sinai. Jews are not known as "children of Noah," but as "children of the covenant -- b'nai brit," individuals bound by the Sinaitic Code. Should, then, Jewish girls be singled out and relegated to participation in the more minimal covenant of Noah, even though this covenant does indeed potentially involve all of humanity? It would appear to be far more proper to welcome Jewish infant girls into the particularistic covenant of Judaism and to join their fate with that of a people which prides itself on its distinction: "For He has not assigned our portion like theirs, nor our lot like all their multitude."
Liturgical creativity requires vigilance on the part of all who wish to avoid the pitfalls of alien concepts and foreign traditions. The concern with ritual and the desire to give expression to religious aspirations are laudatory. But, as committed Jews, when we call out, "My soul yearns, yea pines for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy unto the living God," we must strive to assure that our prayers and our ceremonies are appropriate expressions for Jews, suitable for those "who dwell in Your house" and befitting for Jews who long to "appear before God in Zion" (Psalms 84:3, 5 and 8).
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