The Life Spiral of a Jew
In Judaism, we start not with birth but before birth and appropriately with the murky mists of myth. We are taught that before we are born we are taught all the secrets of life, the universe and everything. Then, just after our soul is poured into the fetus, we are touched just under the nose which forms the philtrum under the nose and we forget. That might be the first of our life spiral ceremonies.
You ask why I call it a life spiral instead of a life cycle? The answer is a matter of perspective. If one looks down upon a spiral one sees a circle for all of the cycles are one on top of the other hiding the one beneath the one above. If one looks at that same spiral from the side, one sees a line and no circles at all. Life is all about perspective. Let us look first down upon the spiral and see a circle a cycle of life.
In Judaism we celebrate moments along the cycle of life. We start with birth, that joyous moment of beginnings. It is the original ‘coming out ceremony.’ The first born, that is the first to come out of the womb is given a special ceremony called Pidyon HaBen or Peter Rehem, the opening of the womb. We attach this newness to an ancient custom. Money is given to a Cohen one of those whose ancestors served in the Temple of old. This custom serves as a memory peg, a dowel that glues us to our past as we begin our future in this moment.
The next ceremony takes place in eight days if the child is male and 28 days (a moon cycle) if the child is female. The former is a very ancient and lovely if barbaric ceremony while the latter is a new attachment to the parade of life cycle ceremonies. A boy who survives a week is brought into the covenant of Judaism with a Brit Milah, literally a ‘contract of circumcision.’ The foreskin of the boy is removed with great ceremony and a drop of blood. Many reasons are offered for this tradition but they all pale, as do some of the guests and parents at the ceremony, compared to the stark reality that it is an ancient ceremony of bringing our sons into the contract, indeed cutting the contract with G, the Jewish tribe and this boy. It is a fact of ancient history that there was no ceremony in ancient times for female children. I will not go through the mental gymnastics of justification. It did not exist, but now it does. In ancient times we acted much as ancient people did, this is no surprise. Now we have added a meaningful moment for women children. It is called by many different names, Brit Bat, the covenant of women is most accepted, but in my opinion the best name is Brit Levanah, the covenant of the moon. Based on the Midrash that women were given the moon festivals by G for their act of faith at the shameful time of the Golden Calf incident. Connected to that is, of course, the relationship between the monthly cycle of women and the cycle of the moon. This ceremony offers the parents and planners more creativity for gathering than does the ceremony for boys and this is fitting. Women in Judaism are the creative ones, who perforate tradition and gather in as the term for female, Nekavah implies. Men are the ‘rememberers’ as the term for male, Zachar means.
For some of our tribe there is a ceremony when a boy gets his first haircut. For some there is a ceremony when a child begins to study, to read Jewish texts and stories. This involves sweets in one form or another accompanied by the words: “It is sweet to study the words of Torah!”
The next ceremony that is familiar to all is the Bar or Bat Mitzvah at age 13 for a boy, and 12 for a girl (for as any woman will tell you, girls mature faster than boys). Again this originated with a son (Bar) coming to the age of responsibility (Mitzvah). In this century with the liberal movements within our tribe, a daughter (Bat) was acknowledged as having come into an age of responsibility (Mitzvah) as well. Originally (and one must be careful using that word as what was original may be lost in the ancient time) a boy was brought to the Bimah (that elevated place in the Synagogue where Torah was read) to give a blessing before and after the reading of Torah. This was the announcement that he was of age to be called upon to help the tribe in religious and communal activities. Over time this ceremony has gained in pomp and circumstance so that now, in many cases and in every congregation where I have been the Rabbi, the Bar Mitzvah, leads the entire service in our ancient spirit language of Hebrew. He reads and translates or chants and translates Torah for the congregation. And of equal importance, he give us a teaching on Torah that is original to him. A Bat Mitzvah follows a similar pattern in the liberal movements of Judaism. In Orthodoxy the Bat Mitzvah will not lead the congregation in worship, as that is not a Mitzvah for women according to them. She might give a teaching after services in the tradition of the Maid of Ludmir (Hanna Rachel Werbermacher; 1805-1892), who was a learned scholar and teacher. In many cases, the Bar or Bat Mitzvah is followed by a large party that unfortunately overshadows the power of the teachings.
In liberal circles the next step in the cycle of life is confirmation. This is a direct take off of the Christian custom and is a way to encourage Jewish children to stay in religious school. There is a ceremony at the end of one or two years of study in which the group leads services for the congregation.
The next in the cycle is a ceremony of joining, the wedding ceremony. A couple is joined together by contract filled with promise, called a Ketubah. There ceremony is held under a Hupah or canopy that represents their new life together. They break a glass as if to say, ‘into every life some rain must fall’ and the friends and family respond “Mazal Tov,” which is a mixture of congratulations and wishes for G’s good fortune upon them. They spend some time alone, which in ancient times was for consummation of the wedding, while today it is a private moment for them to catch their breath and nosh before the festivities.
In some cases there is the unfortunate need for the ceremony of divorce. This is the process of a Gett. A Gett is a writ of divorce. Guys give Getts, gals get Getts. In a Gett the man frees the woman from the contract of marriage. Again as we have grown as a tribe, liberals have added an aspect to the ceremony. Now gals give Getts as well and guys get Getts too. They free each other. In some cases, if the couple is wise they will seek ‘Gett councilling,’ so that they may soften the pain of the dissolution.
The last formal ceremony of this cycle of Life is death and burial and bereavement. I do not know of any culture, tribe, or faith that frames this process in such a compassionate and psychologically sound manner. From the moment of death, there are rituals to guide those who have lost a loved one. When the passing comes, the body is immediately removed from the bed and placed on something other than the furniture of the living. The body is bathed and prepared by friends with appropriate prayers and words of comfort for the ones who are doing the preparation as well as to the body of the one who has passed. The funeral takes place as fast as possible allowing for all who may attend to be in attendance. Even in this day and age, in most traditional burials, the people in attendance at the funeral do the actual burying. Shovel after shovel of earth is poured down upon the coffin (where allowed, no coffin is used so that the body may return to the earth as soon as possible). In liberal circles everyone places at least some dirt into the grave. The sound of the dirt hitting the coffin has the effect of jolting us into the reality of that which we would rather not accept. The first week is called Shiva meaning seven. During that time the mourner mourns. Traditionally s/he does not bathe or wear perfumes nor sits on comfortable furniture. People do not knock on the door nor greet, they simply enter and do what they can for the people mourning. After the week is up, coverings for the mirrors are removed, mourners go back to work but do not involve themselves in merrymaking for a month. After a month they begin to put their normal lives back together while refraining from major events such as getting married or celebrating a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. At the end of a year, the headstone is set on the grave. Kaddish, a special prayer of praise for G, which has been said daily, will no longer be said except on the anniversary of the passing. The official mourning process is at an end. This is a guide for the mourner to allow all feelings of loss to move from being central in the mourners’ every moment to a place deep in their hearts where memory can bring laughter and joy rather than just pain and sorrow.
This is the cycle of Jewish life. But it does not end there. For our tradition speaks of an afterlife of which we know nothing. It is all a matter of faith. Some in our tribe speak of a form of reincarnation. In all aspects of our tribe, an afterlife is discussed, referred to as the Olam HaBah, the World To Come. In any event, it is a tribal belief that there is life after death and that the circle of life never ends. A newborn child is often given the name of an ancestor who has passed and the Spiral of Life continues.