Excerpted from "Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter" with permission from Jewish Lights Publishing.
The brit milah ceremony for boys is a single ritual of prayers, blessings, and the physical act of cutting the foreskin, which is universally practiced. It is fundamentally the same whether the ritual is being performed at the hands of a Chasidic rabbi in Brooklyn or a Reform mohelet (female circumciser) in Georgia. We have no such single practice for our girls. It is too new a ceremony, still being tried on and shaped by every pair of parents that welcomes their daughter this way. That means there is no set liturgy, that each time the responsibility for what we are to do is in our hands. That is our challenge and our opportunity.
But these ceremonies work best, too, when they are rooted not simply in modern poems and songs, reflections of the popular culture of the moment in which we are living, but in what have become elements of classical Jewish liturgy. The religious evolution reflected in the popularity of welcoming ceremonies for Jewish girls does not mean a break with the past. Instead, it means an adaptation of tradition and continuity, bringing some of the same precepts that we apply to the ritual welcoming our sons into consonance with our contemporary sensibilities.
I found, in reviewing the hundreds of ceremonies sent to me from Jewish communities around the world, that there has already been a process of organic codification, that certain prayers and poems and rituals are emerging in many, though far from all, of the ceremonies as the elements that seem right to most of the parents. So while there has been no rabbinic seal of approval designating a single ceremony as the only suitable one, there has been, in fact, a process turning experiment into accepted liturgy all the same.
The first contemporary welcoming ceremonies for Jewish daughters were held in the early 1970s by people involved in the then-nascent havurah movement, whose goal it was to take the power of Judaism out of the sole purview of the rabbinate. They wanted to empower the laity and create a renewed sense of intimacy and community in Jewish life.
One of the earliest published daughter's welcoming ceremonies was that created by Rabbi Michael and Sharon Strassfeld for their daughter Kayla in 1973. They were central figures in the movement now known as Jewish Renewal and edited the groundbreaking Jewish Catalog series of books, which put do-it-yourself Judaism literally into people's own 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, in an egalitarian parallel to the traditional pidyon ha-ben, or ceremonial redemption of a one-month firstborn son from service in Jerusalem's holy Temple.
The very notion of welcoming daughters in a religiously significant way is rooted in an egalitarian concept of what Judaism should be: different, perhaps, for females and males, but equal nonetheless. It is an idea born out of feminism and the then-astonishing idea that women have a voice within Judaism that deserves, and needs, to be heard. But welcoming ceremonies have also grown beyond the ideological confines of what feminism may be. Today they are embraced, as one modern Orthodox woman wrote in her own daughter's welcoming ceremony, as "women's Torah."
Today we've mastered how to put together a ceremony, though the details and approach are still being worked out, as one family at a time creates the ritual that best reflects its personality and perspective on Judaism. Unlike with the brit milah, there will probably not be a sole core welcoming ceremony for girls employed by Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews in our lifetimes. There will probably always be a great range of variation, reflecting the attitudes and interests of people approaching Judaism in many different ways, each, perhaps, an aspect of the 70 faces of Torah described by our ancient sages.
We are now at the time that borders the end of the first generation of feminist Jewish women and men who created the very idea of a contemporary ritual with which to welcome their daughters, and the beginning of the next. The very first girls who were welcomed by their parents in inventive contemporary rituals are becoming old enough to welcome their own daughters. As we move forward with our daughters' celebrations today, it's important to anchor our rituals in as much of Jewish tradition as we can. The notion that we should welcome our daughters with a serious Jewish ritual was a revolutionary idea when the first parents did it. But by basing their daughters' ceremonies on traditional sources and forms of prayer, they acknowledged a truth we should continue to keep in mind today: The most effective ritual is evolutionary, rather than broken off from its roots. Drawing on our own tradition links us to the generations who went before, as we welcome the generation that will succeed us.
The other view is that girls, like boys, must go through a ritual transition in order to be entered fully into the covenant. Though Jewish tradition reserves milah (circumcision)--the commanded physical manifestation of the covenant--for males, those who share this attitude believe that all Jews must actively enter into the covenant. They generally integrate it into a ritual of transition, often using a small representation of a mikvah (ritual bath), footwashing, or a tallit.
Welcoming ceremonies for our daughters are rituals in their purest sense. Communal rituals capture in symbols the emotions that go with an important life transition. They enhance our lives psychologically, socially, and spiritually, and help us appreciate our connection to our religious culture and heritage. Rituals also mark the liminal experience of moving from one spiritual state of being into another, of crossing thresholds. For some people, holding a welcoming ceremony for their daughter marks the transition from individual baby into covenanted Jew. For others it denotes the transition from her being the new baby in one particular family into her being a member of the larger family of Jews. The ritual marks the transition from individuals into parents and child, and the moment of crossing the boundary between one stage of our lives into the next--a stage full of joy, trepidation, and hope as we are charged with the responsibility of raising this new life.
Our contemporary welcoming ceremonies are also a midrash, a commentary, on this moment in time. For this is an age in which the power to make of our Jewish futures what we wish is in our hands, and our hands alone. The power is within us: to learn, to integrate, to claim a Jewish future as our own. And what better time to begin, or confirm, that commitment than by ritually marking the birth of our daughters, for whom all things are possible.