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. 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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!