Monday, January 5, 2015

Brit Shalom – a Covenant of Peace

Yesterday, I officiated my first Brit Shalom for Tzvi[1], son of Melinda and Chris in Allen, Texas.  Brit Shalom is a new innovation. As Dr. Mark Reiss explains on his website, “Brit Shalom is a naming ceremony for Jewish families opting out of circumcision.” Dr. Reiss is passionate about helping such families, and so he has assembled a list of 213 celebrants in the USA, who are willing to officiate such ceremonies, 158 of which are listed on his website.

I am a little distressed that I am the only one listed for Texas and Oklahoma, who will officiate for any family! After all, as Dr. Reiss explains, “Not all the celebrants listed are opposed to Brit Milah. However, they are all committed to providing service to families unwilling to circumcise their sons, by officiating at Brit Shalom ceremonies.” I, personally, am not opposed to circumcision, nor am I a supporter of this ancient practice. I find each side’s arguments quite legitimate. As all three of my boys were born while we were still Orthodox, I have the luxury of not having to decide, as a non-Orthodox Jew, in practice, what I would do. I just ask myself, if I were opposed to circumcision, would I not want a rabbi to welcome the opportunity to celebrate my child’s birth with me? Therefore, I sincerely hope other rabbis will join me, eventually.   

The term Brit Shalom is an interesting one. The Book of Ezekiel, written from the point of view of the 6th Century B.C.E. in Babylon, references the historical covenantal relationship between the Yahweh and the Judahites, which other prophets and authors had spoken about at length. As monolatrists[2], the destruction of Judah and the exile of the Judahites to Babylon, implied to many that the covenant had been broken. Ezekiel counters this, and reassures the Judahites that the covenant will be renewed in the future, as a covenant of peace, literally Brit Shalom.

Here are the remarks I shared Sunday night with Melinda, Chris and their extended family, which all gathered at their home in Allen, Texas:

One of the most fascinating things about the Jewish tradition is that a Jewish scholar, be he the greatest scholar of his generation, is referred to as a wise student. That is because Judaism so values the idea of life long learning. So, whatever like-cycle event I officiate, I try to see it as a teachable moment. 

Actually, it is this very point that stands out about Melinda and Chris. Most people just go with the flow. Most people's answer to why they do or don't do something is I don't know, or whatever, or because other people do. The liberal Jewish tradition does not view this type of approach favorably. It embraces the idea of learning that traditional Judaism does. It calls upon the individual, through this learning process, to seek out those traditions that enhance one's life, and practice those. Equally as important, it calls upon the individual, through the very same learning process, to figure out which traditions do not enhance one's life and discard those. Finally, it calls upon the individual, through this learning process to find traditions that with modification, can enhance one's life, and embrace those in their new form. This is exactly what Melinda and Chris have done in seeking out the rituals we practice today.

Now, note that I refer to the individual on purpose. Liberal Judaism calls upon every individual to work through this process. It recognizes that different people will come to different conclusions, and sees that as a good thing. So what is right for Melinda and Chris may not be right for the next couple. How wonderful this diversity is!

Finally, Liberal Judaism calls upon us to engage in dialogue, to argue our cases, and stand by our convictions, allowing the facts to guide us towards the conclusions that are right for us. It also calls upon us to use only the truth, as our guiding light. This means that one needs to listen to the other person's position, carefully evaluate it, be willing to accept that it could be right, and if it is, discard one's own position. This approach is the very approach that Melinda and Chris took in arriving at the conclusion that the type of celebration we observe here today is the right one for them.

So, Melinda and Chris, young Tzvi, is ahead if the pack already, since you will raise him in the very environment that brought about his first life cycle celebration. May you continue to inculcate him with this tremendously healthy approach.

[1] This is the Hebrew name mom and dad gave him Sunday night. In any type of baby naming ceremony, I always reference the English name too. It is omitted here to protect the young man’s privacy.
[2] This is the concept of believing in the existence of many gods, but swearing allegiance to only one. This is quite different from monotheism, where one believes in the existence of only one god. Most scholars today agree that the Yahweh Alone party, the small group of priests in the 7th Century B.C.E., who wrote the core parts of the Torah and Prophets, were monolatrists, not monotheists, and the straightforward reading of the Hebrew Bible really always pointed in that direction. 

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