Kickstarter Judaism: A Book Review of Celebrating Brit Shalom
Reading Lisa Braver Moss and Rebecca Wald’s new book, Celebrating Brit Shalom, feels a little like stepping into the future. Depending on how you feel about ritual Jewish circumcision, this future will either come across as utopian or dystopian. I certainly fall into the former category and in the interests of full disclosure, I both contributed to the Kickstarter campaign that made this publication possible and consulted on an early draft of the book. Nevertheless, I had a number of lingering questions when the finished product arrived at my doorstep. What is this book? Who is it meant for? And most importantly, did they pull it off?
Celebrating Brit Shalom is a work that glides effortlessly from how-to guide to new liturgy, to political statement and back again. It is written with a light touch that hides a profound and deliberate engagement with the Jewish tradition. Braver Moss and Wald offer three possible ceremonies for parents who oppose infant circumcision, but still wish to conduct a Jewish welcoming ritual for their newborn.
The first is called the “Peace and Wholeness Ceremony.” This is the closest of the three to the traditional Brit Milah liturgy, but the language of wholeness comes directly from the world of intactivism. Both of the authors are leaders in the intactivist (or anti-circumcision) movement which frequently urges parents to bring their babies home “whole,” i.e. uncircumcised, from the hospital. But even as Braver Moss and Wald borrow language from the contemporary anti-circumcision movement, they justify their appropriation with what is easily the most daring and beautiful interpretation contained within this slender volume.
The presence of Phineas in the traditional Brit Milah liturgy has long been a source of bewilderment for traditional commentators. Recall that Phineas was the priest who, in an act of religious zealotry, drove a spear through an Israelite prince and a Midianite princess while they were in flagrante delicto. Why is this Biblical character mentioned in the lead up to a circumcision? Some commentators say that Phineas and Elijah the prophet shared the same soul. (According to the tradition, Elijah appears at every circumcision.) Others argue that it is an object lesson for how a man ought to use his sexuality (beware illicit sexual relations with Midianite princesses). Braver Moss and Wald draw our attention to the fact that there is a covenant mentioned in the Phineas story. Shortly after his double homicide, God makes a covenant of peace, or a brit shalom, with Phineas to protect him from vigilantes.
“God gives the covenant of peace to the prince Phineas after he commits a violent act in God’s name. In this section, the scribes intentionally break the letter vav within the word shalom, making it readable as either shalom or shaleim…. The broken vav in the story of brit shalom is there to remind us of the profound relationship between peace, shalom, and wholeness, shaleim [sic]. In the absence of one, the other cannot fully exist.”
What I love about this passage is how bold and Midrashic it is. At a single stroke, Braver Moss and Wald subvert the original meaning of the Biblical text, explain what Phineas is doing at a Bris in the first place, and justify the contemporary theme and language of their first ritual.
The second ritual is called the “Faith and Trust Ceremony.” The subtext of the title and indeed the general thrust of this liturgy is a not-so-subtle critique of traditional circumcision, by way of contrast.
“May this child develop and grow like a flourishing garden. May his trust in his parents and community remain unbroken. As he is protected in childhood by those who cherish him, may he be known in adulthood as one who protects others−a defender of the weak and a champion of righteousness. May he live to old age as a model of wisdom and trustworthiness.”
The Biblical figure discussed in this ceremony is Abraham, the very individual who, according to the Jewish tradition, received the commandment of Brit Milah in the first place. The impulse to reexamine the complex character of Abraham with circumcision in mind is excellent. Unfortunately, Braver Moss and Wald stumble here a bit by emphasizing the wrong part of his story.
“Abraham puts his faith in God, and God follows through on the promise to secure the continuation of the Jewish people…. The newborn infant with nothing but trust in his heart is as Abraham was in the presence of God.”
Surely the episode of the Abraham story that ought to be referenced at a Brit Shalom ceremony is that of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, where Abraham questions God’s judgment. When Abraham says, “Will the judge of all the earth not perform justice?” he is establishing the possibility that human beings can question the divine will based on independent ethical considerations. Is this not the very exercise that Jewish parents who eschew traditional circumcision are engaging in?
The third and final ritual presented here is called the “Celebrating Equality Ceremony.” Unlike the first two, this one is written in gender-neutral language and so can be used to welcome both boys and girls. The implicit critique here is one that liberal Jews have struggled with for many years. Namely, that traditional Jewish circumcision is inherently sexist. And you don’t need Lawrence Hoffman’s theory of male and female blood in the Rabbinic imagination to see this. The more one emphasizes the importance of circumcision to Jewish observance and identity, the more problematic it becomes that the mitzvah is only applicable to male Jews. One of the decisive advantages of Brit Shalom over Brit Milah is that this sexism and the inevitable accompanying social bias toward male birth is eliminated. By not cutting boys, the playing field is leveled and all are welcomed equally. Another Brit Shalom advantage explicitly referenced in the Celebrating Equality Ceremony is the ability to say the shehecheyanu blessing.
“During ritual circumcision, the shehecheyanu is not recited because of the pain experienced by the newborn. Today, in observing brit shalom, we can say this blessing because we delight in having arrived at this wonderful day…. Blessed are You Adonai Eloheinu, creator of time and space, who has supported us, protected us, and brought us to this moment.”
All three of the ceremonies in Celebrating Brit Shalom end in a ritual cutting of a pomegranate. The authors point out that this fruit has a rich significance in the Jewish tradition and particular relevance to the covenant God made with Abraham.
“Since the covenant reenacted during the bris speaks directly to the ongoing fertility of the Jewish people and their land, there is perhaps no better symbol.”
In addition to the three ceremonies, Braver Moss and Wald teamed up with Reuben Moss and Jason page to record some original music to accompany the rituals. The music is available for purchase from the iTunes store, but it also appears as musical notation and lyrics at the back of the book. The tracks are well-produced and have a bit of a classic rock feeling to them. Musical taste is very subjective, but I enjoyed the tracks and appreciate that instrumental versions of all the songs were provided as well.
So who is this book for? The cynic in me wonders whether Celebrating Brit Shalom even has an audience. After all, if you are religious enough to care about having a welcoming ceremony with Jewish content, chances are that you’re going to want to have a traditional Brit Milah. And if you’re not so religious, chances are that the Jewish content here won’t appeal to you. But the Jew in me believes that this book is for everyone. Without asking anyone’s permission, Braver Moss and Wald have crafted a beautiful series of alternative welcoming ceremonies that are in deep conversation with the Jewish tradition. The fact that Celebrating Brit Shalom exists is a testament to both the ingenuity of its creators and the vitality of the Jewish tradition. Even if its audience is limited today, Celebrating Brit Shalom will inspire many to reimagine what being Jewish in the 21st century can mean. And in this way, its influence will extend well beyond the circumcision debate. Welcome to Kickstarter Judaism, where committed, textually savvy Jews make an end-run around the institutions that have failed them and take back their tradition. We live in an exciting time and if Celebrating Brit Shalom is any indication, the future looks bright.