Birth and Redemption

The following post is by Rabbi (and new mom) Ilana Garber of Beth El Temple in West Hartford, CT. Rabbi Garber’s expertise extends to both the young and the young-at-heart, with experience leading Tot Shabbat services, singing in nursing homes, and more. She is passionate about mikveh resurgence, creating new rituals, learning with others, music of all kinds, and cheering for the Red Sox. You can follow her on Twitter at both @ilanagarber and @bethelwh.

I was sure I was having a girl, and throughout the pregnancy I connected to my unborn fetus in a mother-daughter sort of way. It's a boy!I was so sure, in fact, that when the doctor exclaimed, “it’s a boy!” I shot back with, “it’s a WHAT?!?!?!” And with that, my beautiful baby boy was welcomed into this world.

My husband and I had always planned to welcome our daughter – I mean our child – into this world with many Jewish rituals. Before the birth we had created templates for our welcoming/naming ceremony, most likely a Simchat Bat, a celebration at the birth of a daughter. Yes, we had planned for a bris as well, and either way we intended to have the welcoming-into-the-Jewish-covenant ceremony on the 8th day of the baby’s life (so as to be egalitarian – boy or girl).

The bris happened, of course, and was fine. Well, I’ll admit that the night before the bris I whispered to my tiny, helpless son that I was sorry we were Jewish! Yes, and I’m a rabbi. My motherly instincts took over and I was just so sad for the pain he was about to endure. Everyone assured me it would be quick and easy, and it was, even for my son. The day passed and we all lived to tell the tale. As I saw it, our next Jewish ritual task would be to plan our son’s bar mitzvah (in 2022 – save the date!).

But what I hadn’t anticipated in relation to Jewish rituals came in the form of a plane reservation made by my Modern Orthodox in-laws. “We’re coming for the Pidyon HaBen,” they announced, just hours after the mohel had completed his task. A Pidyon HaBen, literally the redeeming of the (first born) son, is a symbolic ceremony held on the baby boy’s 31st day of life. Based on our experience in Egypt, when the firstborn sons of the Egyptians were killed but those of the Israelites were saved and consecrated to God, God commanded that when we arrived in the land of Canaan, we would “redeem every firstborn male among your children” (Exodus 13:13). Jews have been doing this ever since, and now, apparently, it was our turn.

I immediately objected to this idea – actually, I freaked out. Here’s why:

  1. A Pidyon HaBen is only for a boy, so by holding this ceremony we would be implying that a boy is in some way superior to a girl. As a feminist, I just could not stomach that.
  2. The ceremony necessitates a kohen, someone descended from the Jewish priestly class. But I don’t believe that anyone actually knows if they are a kohen (forgive me if you think you are one), so how does one person claiming to be a kohen make him (yes, in this case, him) superior to anyone else? As someone who believes in egalitarianism, I couldn’t handle this.
  3. The Pidyon HaBen is about the (hopeful) future restoration of the Temple, as in THE Temple, in Jerusalem, and the idea that if we redeem our son he would not have to serve in the Temple. I do not think that restoring the Temple would be good for the Jewish people as a whole, and so even considering my son for that kind of experience (even symbolically) was too much for me. Plus, I joked to my husband, as a pulpit rabbi, I am committed to a lifetime of temple service – why should my son be free from this?
  4. Since a Pidyon HaBen is only for the firstborn son of a woman who has delivered vaginally and has had no other issue of the womb (no daughters, but also no miscarriages or abortions), I felt that my celebrating such “luck” was insensitive to all of the women who are struggling with fertility challenges.

My husband and I did a lot of soul-searching, and we tried to make the best parenting decision we could, one that was consistent with our values and also in the best interest of our son. Ultimately we realized that it would be best if we held the Pidyon HaBen ceremony, quietly, without a lot of people and not making such a big deal, so that there would never be a question in our son’s mind as to whether he was redeemed. We decided that it was important to fulfill the ritual and to uphold our tradition, even though we struggled with some of the implications of the ceremony. Looking back, I’m glad we did it, and I loved the moment the kohen handed our son back to us and declared, “he’s your boy!” This time I just smiled and said, “yes, he is!”

Now, on to the bar mitzvah!

30 Responses to “Birth and Redemption”

  1. My husband and I had always planned to welcome our daughter – I mean our child – into this world with many Jewish rituals. Before the birth we had created templates for our welcoming/naming ceremony, most likely a Simchat Bat, a celebration at the birth of a daughter. Yes, we had planned for a bris as well, and either way we intended to have the welcoming-into-the-Jewish-covenant ceremony on the 8th day of the baby’s life (so as to be egalitarian – boy or girl).

    There is nothing “egalitarian” about MGM. A simchat bat does not eliminate the pain or physical destruction that is being inflicted on the boy.

    Jewish feminists need to look closer. This is really crazy stuff to eliminate the most obvious, glaring problems in all the birth ritual deconstructions.


    DK · February 10th, 2010 at 10:55 am
  2. Yeah, I have to say I’m glad my wife is a bat levi so we don’t have to worry about this dilemma.


    BZ · February 10th, 2010 at 10:56 am
  3. Judaism mandates things that (shockingly) don’t conform to the current leftist zeitgeist. What’s a poor leftist rabbi to do? Agonize.

    “There is nothing “egalitarian” about MGM. A simchat bat does not eliminate the pain or physical destruction that is being inflicted on the boy. Jewish feminists need to look closer…”

    If brit mila really inflicts “pain and physical destruction” on boys, feminists shouldn’t be that upset.


    Eric · February 10th, 2010 at 2:03 pm
  4. Eric, the issue is calling it “egalitarian.” That is nonsense.

    How about…”duplicitous”?

    As in, “Yes, we had planned for a bris as well, and either way we intended to have the welcoming-into-the-Jewish-covenant ceremony on the 8th day of the baby’s life (so as to be DUPLICITOUS – boy or girl).”

    Doesn’t that make a lot more sense?


    DK · February 10th, 2010 at 2:49 pm
  5. I was actually just having a conversation about this with a colleague recently. It’s fascinating to me that the ritual of circumcision holds fast, across the Jewish spectrum, and even among people (not that this rabbi is one) who are mindful of almost no other Jewish rituals. Particularly when it’s one that only half the population can ever participate in, to the degree that being born both Jewish and male constitutes participation.

    I wonder how we might understand the perseverance of circumcision among American Jews. Any ideas?


    miri · February 10th, 2010 at 4:01 pm
  6. I wonder how we might understand the perseverance of circumcision among American Jews. Any ideas?

    Among other things, it is also practiced by most American non-Jews.


    BZ · February 10th, 2010 at 4:07 pm
  7. Right, that would be my top guess for why it persists – but are Jewish circumcision rates lower in Europe, where the general circumcision rate is lower? I could look this up, but I’m feeling lazy.


    miri · February 10th, 2010 at 4:31 pm
  8. I wonder how we might understand the perseverance of circumcision among American Jews. Any ideas?

    It’s real simple, despite essay after essay pretending it is a big mystery.

    Answer: The kid has no choice. That is why circumcision has been kept, and all other chukim have decreased in observance.


    DK · February 10th, 2010 at 4:48 pm
  9. But the kid has no choice in pidyon haben either!


    BZ · February 10th, 2010 at 4:49 pm
  10. But the kid has no choice in pidyon haben either!

    Let’s leave aside that many – -even most — males don’t require a pidyon haben by Jewish law, and that it was therefore not ever looked upon the same way, and skip right to the part that for some of us, there are far greater questions raised in terms of basic children’s rights when it comes to slicing off genitalia as opposed to giving a priest a few shekels.

    Glad most on this site is so much more concerned with the latter. You call that “egalitarian,” right?


    DK · February 10th, 2010 at 4:55 pm
  11. The kid has no choice

    How is this the obvious answer? The kid has no choice in anything, but circumcision is the only thing that persists. I think the relatively high circumcision rate among Americans in general seems like a more plausible explanation.


    miri · February 10th, 2010 at 4:59 pm
  12. miri, all else being equal, if any human has a choice in being circumcised or not being circumcised, they are going to choose not to be circumcised.

    That is why it is done when they are children in most cultures. It takes tremendous pressure to get adults to allow you to start slicing off parts of their genitals. It’s a very normal response to say, “No thanks.”

    In terms of the American neonatal circ rate, it is a sad reality that Jews are salient and biased in the medical debate, and anyone who calls them out on their cultural bias is of course labeled an anti-semite.

    www.circumcisionandhiv.com/2009/07/israeli-and-operation-abraham-proposes-campaign-to-circumcise-american-hispanics-and-african-american.html


    DK · February 10th, 2010 at 5:06 pm
  13. all else being equal, if any human has a choice in being circumcised or not being circumcised, they are going to choose not to be circumcised. That is why it is done when they are children in most cultures. It takes tremendous pressure to get adults to allow you to start slicing off parts of their genitals. It’s a very normal response to say, “No thanks.”

    I don’t think anyone is disputing this point. But this doesn’t explain why it persists to an extent that no other practice does. Almost no one who gives birth to their first son does a pidyon haben, and most people, even many who do something like a Shabbat dinner, don’t do the blessing of the children.

    So, given the painful and intrusive nature of the bris, plus the fact that it’s totally non-egalitarian, plus the fact that most of the people who do it don’t feel invested in almost any other ritual for themselves OR their children, why do they keep doing this? What’s the attraction?


    miri · February 10th, 2010 at 6:23 pm
  14. So do the stats say that most American Jews (including those who don’t do any other Jewish rituals) do brit milah (as a ritual), or just that they do circumcision (in the hospital or wherever)? (Similarly, most American Jews don’t go to work on Saturday nowadays.)


    BZ · February 10th, 2010 at 7:34 pm
  15. miri and BZ,

    I certainly concede that brit is ties into narratives of Jewish supremacism. Giving up circumcision is also giving up our special relationship with God. Most branches and denominations of Judaism still preach Jewish supremacism to some degree. We call it being chosen.

    When Jews face a blatant choice between choosing supremacism or egalitarianism, they overwhelmingly choose supremacism if they can justify it.

    For most Jews, whether it is done in the hospital or ritually makes little difference. It’s the same thing from their perspective. They aren’t worried about halacha, they are conveniently conflating health and narrative. That is why their circ rate is clearly well above the national average. They aren’t stupid. They aren’t really convinced by the bogus health arguments. But the health arguments are an excuse to not ask difficult questions, and ask what are we taking away from the child.

    Discussing health “benefits” of circumcision–often in a blithe, rapid fire, shotgun method, including even the most dubious and disproven assertions– help to preempt the question of, “what is the function of the foreskin?” Same with Simchat Bat. It reframes the question by focusing on girls, again away from “What is being removed?” by male circumcision.


    DK · February 10th, 2010 at 8:04 pm
  16. miri, I think it has something to do with the importance that a lot of otherwise non-practicing Jews place on doing the important ‘life-cycle’ events in Jewish ways – such as marriages and funerals. Birth is another one of these.

    I’d also say that having one’s son circumcised is more about the parents affirming their Jewishness and their connection to a tradition of Judaism (which they might not value in all respects, but do in some), than it is about doing something ‘to’ the child: it’s a moment in the life-cycle of the parents, not just in the life of the child. In this sense, the bris is about the involvement of both parents in marking their (male) child’s body as Jewish.


    tobybee · February 10th, 2010 at 9:13 pm
  17. “I wonder how we might understand the perseverance of circumcision among American Jews. Any ideas?”

    It’s the first and most critical statement of every Jewish male’s membership in the Jewish people. It endures because it’s a single and irreplaceable act of identity and lifelong significance.


    Eric · February 11th, 2010 at 12:34 am
  18. There is the issue that most Jewish fathers and mothers are inclined to have their sons look like their fathers.

    Also, most Jewish men that I know don’t feel regret for being circumcised. If Jewish fathers felt resentment, they would be less likely to do it to their sons.

    And there is a distinction between being unique and being supreme. It is a little strange for people who feel no strong connection with being Jewish, but for the rest of us, there is no question.


    Jeff · February 11th, 2010 at 2:13 am
  19. “There is the issue that most Jewish fathers and mothers are inclined to have their sons look like their fathers.”

    That may be a stealth Jewish way of promoting “continuity.” Plenty of men have decided that is not necessary in the U.S. Just not Jewish men.

    “And there is a distinction between being unique and being supreme.”

    Sure, but not for Jews. They believe they are spiritually supreme. This is subverted by focusing on victimology.


    DK · February 11th, 2010 at 10:34 am
  20. all else being equal, if any human has a choice in being circumcised or not being circumcised, they are going to choose not to be circumcised

    I was circumcised at the age of 25, by choice. Any man dreading undergoing circumcision need not. Local anesthesia, followed by discomfort for another day, two weeks of bandages, a little itchy until the stitches dissipate… stubbed toes hurt more. The most uncomfortable part of the whole thing was that two female nurses practically insisted to hold my hands through it. Having two moderately attractive women look on in pity as you undergo a penultimate moment of Jewish manhood… eek!

    Back to my point, my brother at the age of 15, by choice. My friend, at the age of 23. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews were circumcised well into their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s… after the fall of the Soviet Union. I’ve even heard of someone in their 80s going under the knife.

    Why do European Jews circumcise less? As Eric stated, circumcision is an irrevocable act of Jewish affiliation. In lands where anti-Semitism is woven into the fabric of society, where every time you pull down your pants – whether in a locker room, hospital or your girlfriend’s bed) – your lack of foreskin identifies you as foreign, different, a Jew, and where this identification can have enormous consequences on your private and professional life, there are Jewish parents who do not wish to limit their children’s ability to advance in the world. Being a Jew in America is easy. Being a Jew, openly, in Europe, even today, is less so.

    This is why my parents didn’t circumcise me as a child, though my father is sticking to the story that hospitals were just not that sanitary back then.

    One particular story I know well: after the Soviet Union fell, hundreds of Russian Jews in Moscow visited the private home of a Jewish doctor, where after taking a shot of vodka they would lie back on a table and have their foreskin removed, without anasthesia, dozens at a time. Many did this just hours before boarding a plane to Israel.


    Anonymouse · February 11th, 2010 at 9:18 pm
  21. Penultimate?


    BZ · February 11th, 2010 at 9:30 pm
  22. identifies you as foreign, different,

    a larger soul? not an animal like the goyim?

    superior?


    DK · February 11th, 2010 at 9:37 pm
  23. No, DK. As in, get the fuck out of my bed, you dirty zhid.


    Anonymouse · February 11th, 2010 at 9:39 pm
  24. I can say it in Russian, if you like.

    Poshel nahui, zhid.

    This whole “Jewish supremacy” thing you’re chomping at the bit on doesn’t translate so well to Soviet Jewry. Trust me, Russians didn’t stamp “Yevrei” in your passport to highlight how very special you are. Or maybe they did.


    Anonymouse · February 11th, 2010 at 9:50 pm
  25. @Anonymouse

    Your comment makes me count my blessings for having been born in the USA.


    Jonathan1 · February 11th, 2010 at 10:05 pm
  26. Here’s a call for egalitarianism: www.mass.gov/legis/bills/senate/186/st01/st01777.htm


    DK · February 12th, 2010 at 2:10 am
  27. That’s no call, it’s a rifle butt.


    Anonymouse · February 12th, 2010 at 12:30 pm
  28. Back on the original question of Pidyon HaBen… I was asked to officiate for one for the first time in 15 years of the Reform rabbinate. The parents and I shared many of the concerns you expressed. It was brought up because a kohen in our community had never gotten to do one and wanted to.

    I ended up using the traditional ceremony but expanded it and recasting it as an entrance into the world of Tzedakah and Tikkun Olam. We gave dollar coins to every kohen in the room… man, woman and child and asked them to choose their favorite Tzedakah recipient.

    In redeeming the child, we charged him and the community with free choices to designate our tzedakah recipients and freedom to engage in these sacred tasks.

    And, since we’ve added Simchat Bat to modern birth ritual, I think it would be possible to create equivalent ceremony for any and every child to be redeemed from priestly service into free engagement in the world of mitzvah.

    I appreciate the honesty in your original piece. Wrestling with tradition continually earns us our name of Yisrael… wrestlers with the divine.


    Rabbi Rick · February 15th, 2010 at 1:37 pm
  29. Thanks, Rabbi Rick, for your comments. At one point, my husband and I actually toyed with almost exactly that idea – to honor 5 people (perhaps instead of kohanim) by making a donation to a tzedakah of their choice as inspiration for our son to make this obligation his own. I also just read a fantastic senior sermon by a JTS rabbinical student (perhaps he’ll share his thoughts here) about pidyon haben where he suggests we “redeem the ritual” (I love it!) and make the ceremony on the 31st day of any child’s life about parenthood and welcoming the family into the community. Fantastic. We didn’t go that route, but as a congregational rabbi who struggles with the families who come to us for brit/naming ceremonies and then don’t “need” us until their kid is 5, I’m thinking more and more about how we might use this kind of creative ritual to engage more families.


    Ilana Garber · February 16th, 2010 at 9:57 pm
  30. Egal! www.yle.fi/uutiset/news/2010/02/parents_ordered_to_pay_circumcised_son_1500_euros_1479554.html


    DK · February 24th, 2010 at 7:02 pm

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