Development of Brit Bat

The past three decades have seen the development of this ceremony with ancient roots and contemporary wings.

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The profoundly spiritual, emotional, and physical transitions involved in bringing a new child into the world have been marked by Jewish women since the days when they brought animal sacrifices to the Temple in Jerusalem--40 days after the birth of a boy, and 80 after the birth of a girl.

Continuously since biblical times, we have ritually circumcised our boys with brit milah, a ritual which expresses our most visceral and spiritual feelings. Many Jewish communities have also had ways of welcoming their daughters with celebrations that date as far back as the Middle Ages, but they were more often folk custom than religious ritual per se, and rarely had the same sense of spiritual weight or importance as brit milah. And with the dispersion and destruction of most of the Diaspora communities where these were practiced, most of these welcoming traditions died out.

In America until recent decades, common practice was for fathers (in the Orthodox world) or for both parents (in the liberal Jewish community) to go to synagogue for a brief ceremony in which their new daughter is formally named, and have a blessing recited hoping that she will grow up in good health to know Torah, marry under a wedding canopy, and do good deeds.

baby girlWith the dual impact of feminism and the democratic, do-it-yourself ethic that began to transform Judaism in the early 1970s (as it did much of American life), knowledgeable Jews began wondering how they could welcome their daughters in a way that seemed as serious and rich with meaning as the way in which they welcomed their sons.

Michael and Sharon Strassfeld, central players in what is now known as the havurah movement, created the first welcoming ceremony for their daughter, Kayla, in 1973. The Strassfelds also edited the ground-breaking Jewish Catalog series of books, which put do-it-yourself Judaism literally into people’s hands.

It was about that time that two Reform rabbis published a new ritual, called kiddush peter rechem (sanctification of the womb’s opening), to mark the arrival of a first child of either sex, an egalitarian parallel to the traditional pidyon ha-ben, or ceremonial redemption of a one-month-old first-born son from service in Jerusalem’s holy Temple.

Excitement and ferment about these emerging modern welcoming rituals for girls was bubbling at the first Conference on Women and Judaism in 1973.

The following year, Mary Gendler published an article in Response magazine that prompted lots of discussion. As a parallel to circumcision, she proposed for girls ritual hymenotomy--a gentle rupturing of the hymen with a sterile instrument. It was, she acknowledges, a radical and theoretical suggestion. At a time when revolution was in the air and bras were being burned to make a statement about sexual liberation, it was never actually performed, according to Gendler and others, but it reflected the impulse to create a ritual that would, like brit milah, be profound, bodily, and connected to organs of generativity.

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Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a staff writer for The Jewish Week.