When She Arrives

How can creativity and a sense of commandedness be combined when confronting new ritual needs?

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Finding Resources to Innovate

Thus, when there is no ritual waiting for us to arrive, we find the resources within the tradition to satisfy the obligation as best we can. But each of us may see that obligation differently, and each may have distinct criteria for its fulfillment. Ritual models may proliferate, and that proliferation threatens to undermine the satisfaction of the obligation. As we survey the efforts of others, the absence of an established practice threatens to deny us the heteronomy that contributes meaning to ceremony. Nothing is waiting for us when she arrives.

And so, when our first child arrived, a daughter, Emily and I assembled a ritual to fulfill our obligation. Within broad halakhic parameters, we asked ourselves what seemed right, knowing well that the very question is an uncomfortable one to ask about religious practice. We crafted our simchat ha-bat out of a variety of liturgical elements, borrowed from Tehillim [Psalms] and various Sephardic traditions, picking and choosing and creating.

But we felt the need for a meaningful structure for these elements, a framework that would make sense of the whole. So we turned to the traditional liturgical configuration [of three kinds of blessings]: shevah, praise; followed by bakasha, petition; concluding with hoda'ah, thanksgiving. These three themes captured our feelings: wonder and amazement, powerlessness but hope, joy with gratitude.

But these themes were about our experience, the experience of new parents amazed and overwhelmed and feeling an obligation to express that experience publicly. They were not about this newborn. We wanted, as well, to acknowledge our daughter through ritual, to mark her acceptance into the covenantal community. We surveyed the efforts of others--but we found no comfortable way to do so.

A Life of Its Own

And yet, when the day arrived, we found that the newly created ceremony seemed to take on a life of its own. As we performed the script that we ourselves had crafted, the ceremony, which we had worried was so artificial, became genuine. The reliance upon traditional liturgical structures, which had seemed so wooden, became meaningful. And significantly, the tefillah be-tzibbur [the act of communal prayer] itself, the gathering together of friends to hear and join our words of prayer, became the ritual element we feared was missing.

W. B. Yeats' poem "A Prayer for My Daughter" (1919) opens with the feeling of powerlessness that all parents know too intimately, as the poet watches his daughter sleep on a stormy night: "I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour/ And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower…"  But the poet overcomes that powerlessness in the very act of composing his poem, articulating his dreams for his daughter: "Imagining in excited reverie/ That the future years had come…" 

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Jon A. Levisohn

Jon A. Levisohn is Assistant Professor of Jewish Education at Brandeis University.