Celebrating Brit Shalom (book by Moss & Wald)

Celebrating-Brit-Shalom-coverThere are many websites, resources, and articles, by noted medical experts, rabbis and authorities on Jewish tradition and halachah (law) that set out the arguments both against brit milah (the circumcision ritual for Jewish boys), and for alternative welcoming, naming and covenant ceremonies (such as brit shalom) that do not involve cutting or drawing of blood. You will find a number of useful resources on this website, and links to other resources. If you would like me to help you plan a brit shalom (which I can do via phone, Skype and email), or for me to actually lead it as well, please contact me.

In this blog entry, I have assembled my own shorthand notes of a really important book by Lisa Braver Moss and Rebecca Wald: Celebrating Brit Shalom, (2015, Notim Press, ISBN-13: 978-0692353332). I hope what you find on this page encourages you to buy the book. It is clear and informative, short enough to read quickly, and inspiring in its fully set out scripts (English, and the few bits of Hebrew needed) of three sample ceremonies, including ideas for music. This book would be ideal as a resource for any parents who wanted to inform themselves, but also have as an authoritative and thoughtful resource they could show to family and friends to introduce them to the idea of a brit shalom. And, of course, it is extremely useful for anyone who wants to create their own ceremony to welcome someone into their Jewish family, people, and heritage. Although the authors do not mention it in the book, I can imagine the ideas here would be very useful for men converting to Judaism, but not wanting to have to be circumcised.

[By the way, the notes in square brackets are my own thoughts, rather than ideas gleaned from the book itself.]

1.    A message to parents
  • xi – Celebrate the birth; honour heritage
  • xi – brit means covenant [ie not ‘circumcision’ or ‘cutting’]
  • xii – welcome to Jewish life; giving of a Hebrew name
  • xiv – personalise your ceremony
2.    Brit Shalom families: a new reality
  • 1 “according to Jewish law, circumcision is not what makes a boy or a man Jewish”
  • 2 “Theodor Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism, left his son intact.”
  • 2 “People are becoming increasingly open to the idea that circumcision may do more harm than good. Some feel this is a choice best made when a man can weigh the pros and cons for himself.”
  • 3 Some feel that natural, non-interventionist birthing is not in tune with the interventionist act of circumcision
  • 3 Brit chayim covenant of life; brit b’li milah covenant without cutting; brit ben covenant for a son; brit shalom covenant of peace [or of wholeness]
  • 4 Synagogues welcome interfaith, LGBT, same sex couples – why not the uncircumcised? “It’s time for brit shalom families to be openly included.”
  • 4 Brit shalom families are integral to Jewish life
3.    Preparing for Brit Shalom
  • 5 can assign roles to people outside the immediate family
  • 6 symbolic alternatives to cutting: cut a pomegranate; wash the baby’s feet; bless parts of the baby’s body; honoured guests add flower to a vase; light a candle
  • 6 Warn relatives and friends what you are doing; have conversations, share this book
  • 6 assign roles and readings
  • 7 Sandek (holds the baby before blessing); kvatters (godparents); candle lighter; amidah l’brachot (holds baby during blessings and naming)
  • Music: authors have included some new possibilities as sheet music in the back of the book (and there are recordings on YouTube – see point 5)
  • 9 Choose a Hebrew name for the baby; find new Hebrew names for the parents if they don’t have them [see my article on choosing a Hebrew name.]
  • 9 Parents can explain at the ceremony the choice of name, and add other remarks
  • 9 don’t normally send formal invitations
  • 9 can happen anywhere, even the function room of a restaurant [but I think that ceremony, to have a sense of occasion, has to be thoughtfully, created, which includes making a space that sets the right tone.]
  • 10 festival table with 2 candles, matches, wine, cup, challah (bread), cloth to cover the challah
  • 10 fruit, knife, cutting board [if you are using fruit for symbolism]
  • 10 simple chair (for sandek); special chair for Elijah (kisei shel Eliyahu), plus you could also have one for Miriam (to be more egalitarian)
  • 11 Serve a meal afterwards; bury the pomegranate or save its seeds for planting later
4.    About the ceremonies
  • 15-16 Symbolism of pomegranates: scouts brought them to Moses from the promised land; served at Rosh Hashanah (new year) to represent abundance; brit represents ongoing fertility of Jewish people (and their land); legend that is has 613 seeds (number of commandments); priest’s robe embroidered with them; King Solomon’s temple had them engraved on the pillars
  • Peace and Wholeness: 16 shalom (shin-lamed-vav-mem) peace; shaleim (shin-lamed-mem) wholeness – the words share the same root
    • 17 – Num 25:12 is where the term first appears. In the story of Pinchas, he was transformed with a brit shalom, with blessing for him and his descendants. It is the only place in the Torah where the word shalom is spelt with a broken letter vav in the middle – so the word could be read as peace or wholeness. [Also prompts the thought that maybe the shocking behaviour of Pinchas (e.g. such as cutting an infant) needs to be tempered and substituted with something more gentle and tender.]
  • Faith and Trust: 18 a brit shalom is a more peaceful way for a baby to start its life, and enables it to start with trust deep in its psyche, without that being disrupted by the shock and pain in a brit milah
  • 18 The authors remind us that a mitzvah a commandment, often described as a commandment, is also a choice. We wrestle with tradition, and even the most orthodox don’t obey every commandment [e.g. stoning adulterous women to death!]
  • Celebrating Equality: 19 Include an acknowledgement of Miriam – gender equality. Also, she was as much a protector of children (protecting her brother infant Moses) as Elijah
5.    Music

[NB The authors offer new texts, and music – but there are no rules, and one could choose anything one felt appropriate. The songs listed below (lyrics by Lisa Braver Moss, and music by Reuben Moss), are not to my personal taste: the lyrics feel a bit didactic, and I would prefer more poetic, evocative lyricism in both the words and music, that would set a different kind of mood for the ceremony. However, listen to the links given below – it may prompt some fruitful thinking for you. And please contact me for other music choices; you could even commission me to compose something!]

  • Lech L’cha­ – mirroring the message to Abraham – the infant starts the journey of life
  • Shalom, Shaleim – exploring the relationship between the to words (See notes to pp.16-17)
  • ‘Miriam and Elijah’ – as protectors of children
  • Rimonin, rimonim (The Pomegranate Song)
  • Paige has recorded all four songs, along with extra ‘instruments only’ versions on ‘Songs for Celebrating Brit Shalom‘, which can be bought and downloaded at https://downinthevalley.com/UPC/872133858113/Reuben-Moss_Songs-For-Celebrating-Brit-Shalom
6.    ‘Peace and Wholeness’ Ceremony (basic sequence)
  1. Key people take up positions
  2. Music: Lech l’cha
  3. Kvatters bring baby in
  4. Baruch haba
  5. Kvatters hand baby to sandek
  6. Leader: invitation; explain meaning of ceremony
  7. Candlelighter: light 2 candles; Shehecheyanu
  8. Parents present baby; meaning of ceremony
  9. Music: Shalom, shaleim
  10. Parents: blessing on holiness of life and brit
  11. Leader: acknowledge Elijah [and Miriam?] and symbolism
  12. Music: ‘Miriam & Elijah’
  13. Parents: make blessing for brit; cut pomegranate, symbolic act to enter child into covenant
  14. Community: endorses and pledges
  15. Music: Rimonin, rimonim (Pomegranate Song)
  16. Child handed to amidah l’brachot
  17. Leader: name baby
  18. Parents: explain significance of name (if wished); words of good wishes
  19. Leader: bless wine; priestly blessing Y’varech’cha Adonai
  20. All sing: Siman tov umazal tov
  21. Amidah l’brachot returns baby to parents
  22. All: bless bread
7.    ‘Faith and Trust’ Ceremony (basic sequence)
  1. Key people take up positions
  2. Music: Lech l’cha
  3. Kvatters bring baby in
  4. Baruch haba
  5. Kvatters hand baby to sandek
  6. Leader: invitation; explain meaning of ceremony
  7. Candlelighter: light 2 candles ‘the spark of life’; Shehecheyanu; may we protect the child & may the child protect others
  8. Leader: Abraham promised children and continuity of line [Could include adopted children.] [Spare a thought for the childless and those who have lost children.] Faith that there is something bigger than us.
  9. Reader: Abraham trusted God; the infant trusts us.
  10. Music: Shalom, shaleim
  11. Parents: pledge
  12. Community: pledge
  13. Parents: Enjoy the miracle of the world and experience; make connection with the Jewish people; make blessing for brit
  14. Leader: Protection symbolised by Elijah [and Miriam?]
  15. Music: ‘Miriam & Elijah’
  16. Reader: We can replace what no longer serves (e.g. outmoded rituals like brit milah)

Continue withs steps 13-22 from ‘Peace and Wholeness Ceremony’

8.    ‘Celebrating Equality’ Ceremony (basic sequence)
  1. Key people take up positions
  2. Music: Lech l’cha
  3. Kvatters bring baby in
  4. Baruch haba
  5. Kvatters hand baby to sandek
  6. Candlelighter: explanation of candles [There’s some self-conscious self-justification in this book, a need to ‘explain’ the new rituals, almost an apology for changing translations and meanings, and for not doing a circumcision …]; light 2 candles; Shehecheyanu
  7. Adam yachid – we are all born of a single human; principle of equality across the whole human family
  8. Reader: Acknowledge the Shechinah feminine indwelling Presence of God
  9. Grandparent: Angel touches lip at birth so child loses conscious awareness of Torah; let us help the child recall their truth
  10. Parents and Leader: the newcomer infant as a welcome stranger
  11. Music: Shalom, shaleim
  12. Parents: make blessing for life
  13. Leader: symbolism of Miriam and Elijah [NB Before Miriam rescued her brother Moses, she first persuaded her parents to remarry and have children.] Parents also say something to baby about this.
  14. Music: ‘Miriam & Elijah’
  15. Reader: renew and reshape tradition
  16. Reader: Gen 22 ‘do not lay your hand on the boy’
  17. Leader: symbolism of pomegranate
  18. Parents: make blessing for brit, bringing children (not just boys) into the covenant; cut pomegranate

Continue withs steps 13-22 from ‘Peace and Wholeness Ceremony’

9.    Remaining sections of the book
  • Brit shalom checklist
  • Sheet music and lyrics
  • Glossary of terms

For further Jewish resources on objections to and alternatives to Jewish circumcision practices, see my large collection of Brit Shalom Resources

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