Sharon Siegel rethinks the first lifecycle event for newborn girls, presenting a ceremony — and the research and halachic thought behind it — for the eighth day of life.
Her new book, “A Jewish Ceremony for Newborn Girls: The Torah’s Covenant Affirmed” (Brandeis University Press), is not a how-to book, but a cultural and religious history that delves into classic Jewish texts and presents a contemporary view as well, including a ritual that can be personalized and used.
In a well-constructed narrative, Siegel, a lawyer and author in Teaneck, New Jersey, shows how classical sources document women’s membership in the covenant binding God and the Jewish people. She distinguishes between the covenant and male circumcision, and parallels the covenantal themes of the brit in her ceremony, celebrating newborn girls as rightful members of the covenant. She also suggests giving the child her name at this ceremony, as boys are given their names at the brit.
Siegel first started thinking about the subject when she was pregnant with her first child, who is now 11. She and her husband chose not to know the baby’s sex, so Siegel, who is the kind of person who always likes to be prepared, did a lot of reading and research and put together two pamphlets, one on pink paper and the other on blue, for the service they hoped to have, eight days after the baby was born. She was determined to have a meaningful and traditional ceremony, whether the newborn was a boy or girl. They used the pink one, and welcomed their daughter into the covenant and announced her name in their apartment in Washington, D.C., where they were then living.
Her interest in the subject was heightened and she continued to do research, and decided to write a short article on the subject of rituals for newborn girls. As she continued to think critically, drawing on her legal training and Jewish education, she consulted with rabbis and other professionals. Over the course of her research, she and her husband celebrated the births of two more children, a girl and a boy, and used the ceremonies she had created during her first pregnancy.
When Siegel finally finished the article, it turned out to be lengthy, and when she shared it with a friend, he helped her to realize that what she was working on was really a book. So she kept researching and writing, and finished the manuscript before completing a proposal to submit to publishers. Through the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, she found a welcoming publisher at Brandeis University Press, and signed a contract six weeks after the birth of her youngest child, a daughter. Again, she and her husband celebrated her birth with the ceremony she had developed.
Now, after more than 11 years of thinking about this subject, she’s still full of passion. In an interview, Siegel says she understands that the topic is very emotional and very personal — “there’s nothing closer to people’s hearts.” The book’s epilogue includes notes written on the day of her youngest daughter’s brit bat. (She prefers the term brit bat, or covenant of the daughter, rather than the more commonly used simchat bat, or celebration of the daughter.)
“As the ceremony begins, I think about how the covenant encapsulates the essence of Jewish existence and the eternal relationship between God and the Jewish people. I reflect on how the covenant embodies the Jewish people’s acceptance of God’s commandments and God’s promise to love the Jewish people in perpetuity, grant them a homeland, and multiply their numbers to match those of the stars. The ceremony also evokes for me the covenant’s chain of generations,” she writes.
The ceremony, at the back of the book, incorporates the ideas Siegel analyzes and discusses; it includes welcoming the child (as she is carried in by an honored participant), holding the child in a special seat called the “chair of Elijah,” and swaddling the baby in a tallit to symbolize her entry into the covenant. The parents say, “May the tallit spread its wings over her and protect her ‘like an eagle stirring up its nest, hovering over its young.’” (Deuteronomy 32:11) There are also blessings to be recited throughout, as well as optional additional blessings.
The book steers clear of denominational distinctions. She explains, “I took great pains to educate myself about areas I might not have known about — and to make the book speak to as broad an audience as possible. That is my ultimate hope.”
About similar ritual practices in Israel, Siegel is reluctant to make generalizations, but finds that in Israel the Sephardic influences are much stronger; many there do what they call a Zevad HaBat, or gift of a daughter, which includes traditional liturgy recited in a synagogue with an aliyah to the Torah, or a ceremony at home. Among the various Sephardic communities in Israel, there are distinctions, with recitations of different psalms, passages from the Song of Songs and piyutim, or lyrical poems. In the Bukharan tradition, for example, the father recites poetic texts before his aliyah in synagogue, and then he is showered with candy.
Siegel traces rituals for newborn girls to the ’70s, when they first developed alongside the Jewish feminist and chavurah movements. The book is particularly interesting in its historical perspective on those times. She mentions a highly charged discourse in the pages of the journal Sh’ma in 1983, about creative new rituals, and the tension between innovation and halachic conservatism. She gives much credit to those who created innovative rituals.
Siegel, who is 41, acknowledges just how much has happened over her own lifetime, how the ritual has evolved considerably over these last four decades. Now that her oldest daughter it nearing the age of bat mitzvah, Siegel may be turning her attention to that ritual. ✦