What Does “Brit” Mean to Liberal Jews in the 21st Century?

In 2015, my husband and I welcomed our 8-day-old daughter into a covenant with God.  We had a brit ceremony, using the Hebrew word for covenant. It was, for us, the way to bring her into sacred relationship with God and community. We created a special ritual to acknowledge her place in the Jewish people across time and space. But when I referred to this ritual as a “bris” for our daughter, even the most Hebrew-literate Jews reacted with shock. Of course, we had no intention of performing a milah (the Hebrew for circumcision) on our newborn girl, but I was not willing to surrender the concept of “bris” to an exclusively male realm.  Instead, this was an opportunity to expand meaning, something to which I am especially committed, as I am the Director of the Brit Milah Program of Reform Judaism.

I’m equally unwilling to surrender the bris – the covenant with God – to an exclusively traditional understanding of what a relationship with God looks like.  The exclusivity and specific style of religious observance that many liberal Jews believe is implied in the word “covenant” creates its own feeling of discomfort.  Many of our friends’ babies (and some of our own) have been welcomed into a covenant with God by a mohel that looked and sounded foreign to their own experience with and expression of religion.  Some experience the bris of their baby as alienating because the ceremony lacks the careful explanations and thoughtful inclusion of our values as liberal Jews.  Why would we want our babies to be brought into a sacred relationship with God and the Jewish people using language and ideology strange (and sometimes offensive) to our sensibilities?

My colleague, Rabbi Karen Thomashow (the Rabbinic chair of the Brit Milah Board of Reform Judaism and NOAM, the National Organization of American Mohalim) and I will be at this year’s CCAR conference in Cincinnati replete with stories from the mohalim we train.  From them we have learned that there is an alternative.  More than 50% of the families our mohalim encounter are as of yet unaffiliated.  And because interfaith couples today have little trouble finding a rabbi to perform their wedding, the choices made following the birth of a baby boy are now the first religious choices that many couples face.  It is more important than ever that we, as Reform Rabbis, seek to partner with Reform mohalim to be sure that families can embrace the bris– the covenant with God – in language and with ritual that feels both sacred and in line with their most deeply held values.

Egalitarianism, inclusivity, and diversity should all play a role in the first ritual encountered by a new Jewish family.  Just as we reclaimed b’nei mitzvah for our children as a ritual and imbued it with renewed meaning, we now need to reclaim the bris as a way to sanctify and celebrate the arrival of a new soul to the Jewish people.

At my daughter’s bris, much like that of her older brother two years prior, we invoked the language of covenant in its fullness – not just the covenant of circumcision – but rather many of the references to covenant in the Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic literature. We offered blessings in Hebrew and English; explained the ritual to be certain that all of our guests understood and felt part of the sacred space; and, like the generations before us, we lit candles.  We found ways to include grandmothers as well as grandfathers, siblings, care-givers, and our child’s pediatrician as partners who would, with God’s help, support us as we raised our children in a Jewish context. We found ways to both innovate and hold tightly to our tradition.  

This is the legacy we want to leave for the next generation of Jews: to know that our Jewish community embraces them, in the fullness of their being.  Ours is a God that creates a covenantal relationship with Jews of all races, nationalities, sexualities, gender identities, and family constellations. The mohalim we engage as partners must share these values and help us to impart the sacred nature of the brit to those we serve.

Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler is the Director of the Brit Milah Program of Reform Judaism and NOAM, the National Organization of American Mohalim.  She also serves as the rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in DeKalb, IL, which is located near the campus of Northern Illinois University.  

2 replies on “What Does “Brit” Mean to Liberal Jews in the 21st Century?”

In 1983, I published an article in the Washington Jewish Week regarding the brit ceremony my husband and I celebrated that May for our 8-day-old daughter. A number of people were surprised then by our use of the word “brit”, thinking it meant “circumcision” (“brit”, of course, means “covenant”; and we were not planning any comparable physical act for our daughter, although some people we knew did foot-washings and ear piercing, neither of which ever really caught on!). Two years later, we performed the identical ceremony for our 8-day old son, just adding on a ritual circumcision by a mohel. So this has been going on for a long time!

I think that the Reform Mohel program has been a wonderful addition to our movement. Two problems remain nevertheless, in my mind, with the issue of “entering the covenant”. For boys,many families still decide to have the physical circumcision performed by a doctor in the hospital, followed either by no Jewish ceremony at all, or a naming ceremony at home or in the synagogue (certainly preferable to having no ceremony at all, yet in effect “hiding” the physical circumcision). I have no statistics on this matter, but my guess is that this is an especially common option among interfaith families.

For girls, the problem is different. I’ve officiated at many girl “brit” (or “naming”) ceremonies in my 39 years as a Rabbi, and as meaningful as they are, we’ve never quite come up with a comparable symbol to match circumcision. I don’t have an answer to this problem, but I think we need one. At the very least, we should always use ceremonies which are as identical as possible for boys and girls (e.g. having the ceremony on the 8th day), and as Rabbi Pelc Adler suggests, including our Reform/progressive values in our Brit ceremonies. I’d certainly be interested in other people’s thoughts on this matter.

Rabbi Mindy Portnoy

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