Since Sharon and Michael Strassfeld are two of the editors of The Jewish Catalog, a do-it-yourself kit for updating traditional ways of doing things, it was only natural that they wanted their first child—girl or boy—to have all the traditional specialness of being welcomed into Judaism associated with a bris.
When Kayla Judith was born in New York City July 9, the Strassfelds had already thought out an alternative to the circumcision ceremony. Kayla was immersed in a tiny, more or less kosher mikvah, with special prayers said by parents, relatives and friends, followed by wine for everyone including Kayla. The “mikvah” was a ceramic container, large enough for Kayla to be dipped completely under the water. The container was decorated with the Hebrew words “Mikvah Yisrael Adonai” (God is the hope/mikvah of Israel) on one side and Kayla’s name and date of birth on the other side.
Although Kayla was not immersed in “living water” (a natural body of water or water collected only through the force of gravity), a traditional requirement, the little mikvah was filled with bottled spring water. For other alternatives, the Strassfelds recommended a book on building your own mikvah, The Secret of the Jew by David Miller.
We have spent much time thinking about an equivalent ceremony to circumcision (brit milah) for girls. To us, the essential part of circumcision is that it marks the entering into the covenant of Israel—for males in a physical ritual involving the sexual organs. And it is this symbol of procreation that serves as a covenantal reminder of that person’s role in continuing the chain of generations of Israel.
The Talmud teaches us that the Israelites in the desert entered the covenant by the performance of three rituals: 1) circumcision 2) bringing a sacrifice and 3) ritual immersion (mikvah). Because of this, converts (who are like the newly born) traditionally require circumcision and immersion to become members of Israel. It would seem to us then that an appropriate brit ceremony for a female child would be ritual immersion. The mikvah has become a symbol for women’s sexuality—for the mikvah is a sign of the womb, of the periodicity of woman, of the future menstrual blood . . . mikvah and niddah (the laws of menstruation) should be seen in a new light of renewal rather than tum’ah (ritual impurity)—marking the ebb and flow of time and of life.
Male sexuality is of a different nature and so is marked in a different way—as a permanent mark on the sexual organ. The woman’s “mark” is both less and more permanent; less since it is not always “there,” more since there is a real remembrance on a periodic basis. Thus there seems good basis for use of the mikvah as a ceremony for entering the covenant, since the connection between the mikvah and women’s sensuality is also clear. It is not surprising then that the Meiri (a medieval commentator) quotes an opinion that when Abraham was circumcised and thus entered the covenant (Abraham’s circumcision is, significantly the source of milah for men), Sarah was ritually immersed to enter the covenant. It seems time to follow Sarah’s example.
At first God created many worlds but destroyed them when He saw their imperfections. Finally God created a world with human beings but though they tried they constantly failed in their attempts to get closer to heaven. After a while they grew tired and ceased struggling. So God created Death and killed every living thing and created everything anew. But God grew tired always starting at the beginning again, seeing mankind do exactly the same thing, struggling with no memory, no inherited wisdom—a Tower of Babel of generations for none spoke to one another. God looked and saw the world was too imperfect and God decided to create birth, the womb, generations, parents and children, progress and history. But first God created a flood to come upon the earth to make a new beginning, and He caused life to enter the ark/womb by twos——X and Y, male and female. And the ark was surrounded by water and darkness. And behold after nine months (277 days) the waters dropped and the ark sent forth life into the world and it did not return and the umbilical cord between life and the ark was broken. Life left a state of rest and became alive. And God made a promise that though Death should remain, Life would never cease, and so God took part of the line called Horizon which marks the sacred place where the earth meets heaven. And God bent it and placed it in the sky and called it Rainbow. And God said: “This rainbow shall be a sign of the ever-renewal of life and whenever one sees a straight line swelling, like a pregnant woman, like a dough filled with yeast or like this rainbow, you shall know that I will keep my covenant.” And thus, when people will see these things, they will know that life is ever renewing and they will feel enclosed and secure once more in the womb of God, the Mother of all creation, and they will say:
Holy Wholly Holy is the Creator of Hosts The whole earth is pregnant-full of God’s glory.
The grandmothers carry in the baby as all say:
Blessed be she that comes
How fair are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel!
Like palm-groves that stretch out,
Like gardens beside a river,
Like aloes planted by the Lord,
Like cedars beside the water;
Water shall flow from his branches,
And his seed shall be in many waters;
Blessed is the person that trusts in the
And whose trust the Lord is.
For he shall be as a tree planted by the
And that spreads out its roots by the
And shall not see when heat comes,
But its foliage shall be luxuriant;
And shall not be anxious in the year of
Neither shall cease from yielding fruit.
Then the water is poured, preferably spring or rain water as the following is said:
Behold, God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid;
For God the Lord is my strength and song;
Therefore with joy shall you draw water
Out of the wells of salvation.
And in that day shall you say:
Give thanks unto the Lord, proclaim
Declare His doings among the peoples,
Make mention that His name is exalted.
Sing unto the Lord; for He hath done gloriously;
This is made known in all the earth.
Cry aloud and shout, thou inhabitant of Zion;
for great is the Holy One of Israel in the midst of you.
The following blessing is said before immersion:
Blessed are you, O Lord our God,
King of the Universe, who has sanctified us through His commandements, and commanded us concerning Immersion.
The Lord is the mikvah/hope of Israel!
All who forsake You shall be put to shame,
Those in the land who turn from You
Shall be doomed men
For they forsaken the Lord,
The Fount of living waters.
The parents then say:
Blessed are you, O Lord
and commanded us to enter our daughters into the covenant of Sarah our mother.
(Those present respond:)
Even as this child has entered into the covenant, so may she enter into the Torah, the nuptial canopy, and into good deeds.
(The parents say:)
Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.
Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who did sanctify the well-beloved from the womb, and established this covenant with your people people Israel, as it is written: “And I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean . . . And new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you . . . (Ez. 36:25-27).
That every immersion shall be a remembrance of this day, and a sign of future generations. On this account, O living God our Rock, give command to deliver from destruction your beloved people, for the sake of the covenant of mikvah for which we have immersed our children. Blessed are you O Lord our God, who establishes the covenant.
(The girl is named in this prayer:)
Our God, and God of our mothers, preserve this child to her mother and to her father, and let her name be called in Israel Kayla Judith the daughter of Sharon and Michael. Let the father rejoice in his offspring, and the mother be glad with the fruit of her body; as it is written, Let your father and your mother rejoice and let her that bare you be glad (Prv. 23:25). For this child have I prayed and God gave me my request which I asked for him (I Sam, 1:27). Support her and strengthen her with the Tree of Life, bring her close to Your Torah, teach her Your commandments, show her Your ways, incline her heart to be in love and to be in awe of Your name. O give thanks to the Lord for He is good, for His loving kindness endures forever. This little child Kayla Judith, may she become great. Even as she has enterd into the covenant, so may she enter into the Torah, the nuptial canopy, and into good deeds.
The parents say:
Blessed are you, O Lord our God who has kept us alive and preserved us and enabled us to reach this season:
Blessed are you, O Lord our God . . . who makes parents rejoice with their children.