5 January 2017
The Jewish Chronicle
When Jewish parents have a baby daughter they have a dilemma. Do they hold a ceremony to name her?
Picking a baby’s name is a tricky business. There are the grandparents that need to be honoured, family traditions and the double whammy of choosing a middle name and a Hebrew name.
But there was another decision to be made when our baby daughter was born recently: how best, Jewishly, to mark the birth and naming of our daughter?
As the first grandchild for both families, this was a big moment. If we’d had a boy, the route would have been easy to plot — bris and pidyon haben, the ceremony for the redemption of the first born son. We’d have had the events planned and the exact dates picked. With a girl, however, it’s slightly different. It’s the bat-/barmitzvah debate 12 years earlier than anticipated.
Should my husband just slip into shul one day to announce her name? Should we hold a kiddush? Should we opt for something grander and with a more “religious” feeling?
This is not something I spent too much time thinking about in the run-up to the birth, having had no experience of girl baby naming ceremonies. It wasn’t until a colleague recalled her experience of taking her newborn baby daughter up on to the bimah to be named and blessed that I decided to research what options were available and I discovered there were more choices than I had realised.
Every community I spoke to made it clear that they welcomed the opportunity to celebrate a new family member, usually by offering one or both parents an aliyah. How this is done varies from movement to movement and shul to shul.
Rabbi Moshe Freedman from the US New West End Synagogue in Bayswater, says: “We always view the birth of a baby as a simchah; although we celebrate them differently there is no preference [between a girl and a boy].”
Although the United Synagogue has the most traditional approach, usually centred on a father being called up to the bimah on Shabbat or a naming ceremony or zeved habat (also known as a Simchat Bat), Rabbi Freedman says there is “a lot of flexibility” for girl baby-naming ceremonies.
“Some people are very happy with the traditional set-up,” he tells me, “but some people want to do things differently.” He recalls a naming ceremony he conducted for the boy/girl twins of a single mother. Because there was no father to make the aliyah on Shabbat or to name the children after, he called the grandfather to the bimah and named the babies after their mother.
Although the mother can’t be called up to the bimah during a United Synagogue Shabbat service— as they can in Liberal, Reform and some Masorti shuls — a way can be found to include her. “I often do a ceremony at the kiddush,” Rabbi Freedman says, “with both parents together to give a blessing and sing songs. That offers more of a ceremony for the mother. Ultimately, we want people to be happy.”
Claire Mandel, executive director at the Masorti New North London Synagogue told me that each Masorti shul is autonomous — this goes for all traditions, not just baby naming ceremonies — but that “there are choices within the differences”. If you are a member of New North London Synagogue and have a baby girl you can choose to honour her birth at either a traditional or an egalitarian ceremony. The traditional option closely resembles that offered by the United Synagogue. In the egalitarian services, the mother can also have an aliyah, both parents separately or both together and the mother can bench gomel, the Blessing of Thanksgiving.
According to Jewish law, a child should be given a name as soon as possible. For boys, there is the obvious eight-day limit but there isn’t the same halachic time pressure for girls. Rabbi Freedman says that parents sometimes approach him “months after the baby is born”, while Mandel says that the Masorti movement recognises that women may not necessarily want or be able to attend to shul straight after giving birth.
“[Parents can] choose an occasion [for her aliyah] when the mother feels ready to go to shul,” Mandel explains, “regardless if that’s the Shabbat of the baby blessing.”
The Liberal movement have gone one step further, creating ceremonies for girls that seek to be equivalent to those offered to boys, often called a “Brit-Bat”. Rabbi Charley Baginsky, Liberal Judaism’s Director of Strategy and Partnerships, stresses both the importance of welcoming a girl into the covenant and the desire among new parents to do something meaningful to celebrate and mark the birth of their daughter.
“There’s a consciousness that with a bris you have opted to do something practical to instruct [your baby] into the covenant; there’s a clear message of intent. For girls, it isn’t the same. There are naming ceremonies but these don’t initiate her into the covenant.”
As such, she has seen “a big move towards more concrete liturgy for naming ceremonies for both boys and girls,” with parents “wanting to do something a bit special.” She attributes this in part to influences from the secular world. “Like Chrismakah and the rise of godparents, parents are seeing ceremonial and celebratory naming ceremonies and wanting to replicate this for their children in the context of their Judaism.
“Something special happens at a bris,” Rabbi Baginsky says. “It’s a very special moment because of the intimate environment; we try to replicate that for girls.”
This idea of recreating the special atmosphere of a bris is something Rabbi Jackie Tabick, Convenor of the Reform Beth Din echoes. She has also performed a number of Pidyon Habat ceremonies. “The first baby is the one that changes the dynamic of the family forever and it’s an incredible blessing. Some families want to mark that with a Pidyon.”
Interestingly, Rabbi Baginsky — a mother of three — believes that Liberal Judaism’s focus on creating equivalent ceremonies for girls and boys is linked closely to the ‘liberal’ aspect of their practice. “There’s no question that having female rabbis within a movement has to have an impact.
“Having mothers that are rabbis has led to a shift; wanting to create meaningful liturgy for our daughters.”
Rabbi Freedman would contest this however, insisting to me that “my gender doesn’t make a difference” and that every branch of Judaism contains meaningful liturgy for female congregants.
“If you look in the Chief Rabbi’s siddur, you’ll find a naming ceremony for a girl. The liturgy itself is tailored towards the girl and the family.”
Rabbi Tabick says that, for Reform Jews, “there have been services for baby girls for so long, it’s just natural”. These can take the form of a more traditional prayer, such as the zeved habat, or a “brit” ceremony for girls which also takes place at around eight days, and uses candles in the blessing, although — and Rabbi Tabick is very careful to stress this — “there’s a notion of equality but it doesn’t take equality too far; there’s obviously not going to be a circumcision for girls.”
These ceremonies can take place whenever and wherever.
“We prefer that both parents turn up to do this. It may be months later when mum is able,” Rabbi Tabick, who recalls a baby blessing she oversaw this summer in the family’s garden, adds.
In the end, we have decided to attend the annual group baby blessing organised by our shul for all the babies born in the last year. There’s an element of “parental involvement” according to the invitation we received (I’m not sure what that entails but I’ve chosen to gloss over that for now and focus on how lovely it will be to celebrate this new generation with a group of proud — and sleep-deprived — mums and dads).
Everyone can do with a few extra blessings in their life and I’m looking forward to officially introducing my daughter to her Judaism.
And of course her name was announced on the JC’s Social and Personal page. It doesn’t get any more prestigious or official than that, does it?
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