Rites of Passage: Jewish Rites

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Jewish rites of passage are diverse in their historical development and reflect the dynamic relation between social conditions, local customs, and the continued reinterpretation of classic texts. Only one rite, that of circumcision, derives explicitly from a commandment, or mitzvah (pl. mitzvot ), in the Hebrew Bible, but images from the Bible linked to marriage and death have been mobilized in the evolution of weddings and funerals. Bar mitzvah is not mentioned in the Bible, Mishnah, or Talmud, and the Bible has no ritual of conversion. In some circumstances rites of passages have been linked to other biblical-based celebrations such as festivals and pilgrimages. Jews' involvement in the wider society has shaped rites of passage from antiquity through the Middle Ages under Christianity and Islam and continuing into the contemporary world. A modern development is the explicit attention to life-passage rituals for women, and the greater place of women in ritual life in general. The notion of "life cycle" was not traditionally an explicit principle organizing rabbinic discussions of halakhah, or law concerning rituals: bar mitzvah appeared in discussions of the daily prayer routine, while weddings appeared in considerations of laws of marriage and divorce. An awareness of the life cycle appears in the early modern period in Europe and grew within both the orthodox and liberal streams of Judaism that evolved in the nineteenth century. With the personalization of religion that has characterized Western culture, much attention is now paid to the different ways life milestones may be linked to Jewish tradition.

Circumcision, Naming, and Redemption of the Firstborn

The commandment that Israelite males be circumcised is presented in Genesis 17 as part of God's evolving relationship with Abraham and his descendants. The set date of eight days is unusual in the world's cultures, where ritual operations on male genitals usually takes place closer to puberty. This very low age, coupled with the story of the great age of Abraham and Sarah when Isaac was born, emphasizes that fertility is not dependent on circumcision but on Divine will. The biblical text builds upon existing cultural associations, mobilizing them for its purposes. It turns circumcision into a sign of a covenant between God and the Abrahamid line. The notion of covenant (brit ) also emerges from the context of mundane kin relations and protective alliances, stressing that Abraham is ultimately dependent on God rather than on human patronage. The narrative assumes that the procedure of circumcision is known and stresses its Israelite meaning.

Some neighboring groups in the biblical world may have practiced circumcision, while the Philistines were marked as those who did not. In the Hellenistic period, the ritual came to symbolize Jewish particularity, and this meaning was later reinforced by Christianity. Literature from the Mishnah and Talmudic periods describes the procedure as consisting of three stages: (1) milah, the removal of the foreskin; (2) periʿah, the tearing off and folding back of the mucous membrane to expose the glans; (3) and metsitsah, the suction of the blood from the wound. The latter step probably was accepted surgical procedure of the day. A passage from Luke (1:59) indicates that circumcision was also the occasion of naming a boy.

The standard form of the circumcision ceremony took shape in the Middle Ages. Tradition views the father as being obligated to circumcise his son, but it allows him to appoint a specialist, the mohel. In the Middle Ages the synagogue became the preferred site for the occasion, typically at the end of morning prayer. Both these developments extended communal authority into family celebrations and restricted the participation of women. Auxiliary roles emerged, such as the sandaq, typically a grandfather to the child, who held the baby on his lap during the procedure. Other roles, entailing both women and men, ceremoniously brought the infant from his mother and the circle of women into the main ritual arena. A series of texts were made standard, such as the formula for praying for the health of the mother and naming the boy. Some practices lacked ancient authority, such as drinking and reciting the blessing for wine on the occasion. In medieval Europe the blood drawn in circumcision took on meanings that competed with understandings of sacramental blood in Christianity. In general, circumcisions were occasions in which popular notions coexisted with or strained against halakhic norms. During the eighth century an idea appearedthat Elijah the Biblical prophet, viewed as the protector of children, is present at every circumcision, and the practice emerged of setting aside an honorary chair for him. Later, there is evidence of an elaborate celebration or vigil taking place throughout the night preceding a circumcision, in which the presence of many people guarded the child. At first these were raucous occasions, but rabbinic influence subdued them and inserted readings from sacred texts, like the Zohar. This basic configuration was common both in European communities, where circumcision was a mark of being Jewish, and in Middle Eastern settings, where Muslims circumcised as well, but at a different age and with different theological claims.

The modern era and emancipation created new perceptions of circumcision. As Jews became citizens of European nation-states, they became subject to laws regulating the recording of births and deaths, and to laws regarding health. New concepts of disease raised the question of whether metsitsah, normally carried out by the mohel directly sucking blood from the wound, had to be maintained as part of the ceremony, but it was defended by the nineteenth-century movement of Orthodoxy. Some spokesmen for Reform, which developed at the same period, claimed that circumcision was no longer required, but the majority of Jews maintained the custom even as new hygienic procedures for carrying it out became common and new theories as to the health-based rationale of the operation became popular. These ideas became widespread among Gentiles in the United States, in comparison to Europe, and in the course of the twentieth century it became common for the training of a mohel to include both ritual and medical preparation.

Feminism, which rose in the mid-twentieth century, both critiqued the male-oriented connotations of the rituals and suggested practices whereby baby girls could "enter the covenant" and be named publicly. There had been various ways of naming girls in the past. In European (Ashkenazi) tradition, the father would be called to recite the blessings over the public reading of the Torah on a Sabbath soon after the birth. On that occasion, a prayer for the mother's convalescence was read and the baby was given a name, even if the mother were not present. An alternative or complementary practice, holekreish, took place at home after the mother was strong. The baby was raised in its cradle while surrounded by people and given a name. Girls often had Yiddish names rather than Hebrew ones, and the same ceremony might give boys a Yiddish name to complement the Hebrew one from his circumcision. Holekreish appears to stem from a local custom warding off a monster that threatened babies. A similar tradition may have existed in Spain, where rabbis established a home naming-ceremony for girls, including a liturgical component in Hebrew called zeved ha-bat, the gift of a daughter. From Spain it has spread to other areas of the Spanish-Jewish (Sephardi) world and now constitutes one model for contemporary girl-naming ceremonies.

Innovations for naming girls have appeared in all streams of Judaism. Orthodox Jews have introduced changes within the framework of halakhah, while a Hebrew neologism, britah, suggesting the feminine of brit, has emerged among secular Israelis. The timing of the ceremony has been derived from different spheres of practice, such as the Sabbath or the New Moon, which traditionally was important to women. Liturgical content has been taken from such diverse sources as circumcision or marriage. Some have introduced a physical gesture in girls' ceremonies to parallel circumcision: an example is "washing the feet," based on Abraham and Sarah welcoming harbingers of her giving birth (Gn. 18). Innovations regarding girls have influenced the way circumcisions are treated. The Reform movement now trains women to be a mohel, and discussions arise as to whether modern anesthesia should be used in circumcisions. Both contemporary circumcision and baby girl-naming reflect the contemporary diversity of Jewish life.

Another infancy rite, based on Exodus 13:1213, is the redemption of the firstborn male. The term redemption, padoh in Hebrew, refers to an exchange that moves a person or thing from one category to another, and firstborn is here defined as a male who has "opened the womb" of his mother. This definition highlights the holiness attributed to "firstness" in the Bible, because if a male baby is born after his mother has given birth to a girl, or after she has miscarried, the redemption commandment does not apply to him. A father does not apply to fetuses who are not carried to term but are lost in a miscarriage, highlighting the holiness attributed to "firstness" in the Biblical view. The father redeems his firstborn son by transferring a sum of money, "five sheqalim," to a person from the priestly Aaronid line (a kohen ), and in exchange the son is removed from the category of being holy. Rabbinic Judaism gave shape to the biblical injunction by adding texts and a formal blessing. In the Geonic period (c. seventheleventh centuries), a blessing for the mother to recite was composed but did not gain wide acceptance and disappeared from tradition. In some versions of the rite today, a mother is asked to testify that this baby is the first to "escape" her womb. Because it applies only to a fraction of children, the ceremony continues today, but it has attracted less general attention than has circumcision. Some strictly orthodox Jews seek opportunities of carrying out the redemption of firstlings of domestic animals.

Bar and Bat Mitzvah and Rituals of Education

The obligation to both obey and love God's words was expressed in Deuteronomy 6:49, where there also is a demand to write and recite them. The Deuteronomic text may represent a stage in which involvement with divine instructions and teachings, which with time collectively came to be called Torah, was being expanded beyond the priesthood and directed to all Israelites. The textual world of Torah and its evolving interpretations became a hallmark of Jewish life, and entrance into that world by male children constituted a significant passage. There are hints in the Bible, as in the beginning of 1 Samuel, that weaning was viewed as a significant transition that could thrust a youngster into a setting of education. There is no clear evidence of rituals accompanying the entrance into the realm of Torah within Talmudic literature, but such rituals are known from France and the Rhineland (Ashkenaz) in the Middle Ages. They involved:

  1. Carrying the child from his home to the synagogue;
  2. The synagogue teacher's exposing the child to Hebrew letters that he in some form ingests as sweets;
  3. Engaging in incantations intended to ward off forget-fulness;
  4. Walking to the river from the synagogue.

A difference between the French and German sources is that in France the ceremony took place whenever a child reached the appropriate age, while in the Rhineland it was prescribed for the festival of Shavuʿot, the date to which tradition assigned the revelation at Sinai. Both in textual references mobilized within the ceremony and in one illuminated manuscript depicting it, the child's entrance into the realm of instruction is portrayed as analogous to the Israelites receiving the Torah at Sinai and then traveling to the next stage on the banks of the Jordan River. Some of the illuminated material shows the child on the knee of a teacher in a manner parallel to the way the infant Jesus sits on Mary's lap in contemporary art, suggesting that there was polemic content to the ceremony as well. In the medieval European setting, the ritual was important to the whole community, for which it recapitulated its sacred history and reinforced its identity. Aspects of the ceremony, such as associating the text of the Pentateuch with sweetness, survive in customs today, but toward the end of the Middle Ages this custom declined in centrality in comparison to the growing importance of bar mitzvah.

The age of thirteen appears in some classic sources; for example, males from that age must fast on the Day of Atonement, while females fast from the age of twelve. In the late Middle Ages in Europe, with the growing sense of the individual and the cultural recognition of stages of life, this was systematized into a general rule as to when a young person was obligated to observe the mitsvot. For a male, the salient expression of reaching this stage was the donning of phylacteries, or tefillin (containing the Deuteronomic passage discussed above, and related verses), during morning prayer and being counted in a prayer quorum. In the late sixteenth century the personal and communal elements now associated with bar mitzvah coalesced into a pattern. The year before a boy's thirteenth birthday was devoted to instruction in synagogue skills, and teachers exhorted him about his new moral and religious duties. The obligation to observe all the commandments was made public in his donning tefillin and being called to recite the blessings over the reading of the Torah. Families began to celebrate the event, and rabbis considered whether the occasion was appropriate for an official mitzvah feast like those accompanying a circumcision or wedding. The practice spread throughout Europe and beyond it.

In many Sephardi regions the practice was accepted, but the details differed. The name given the occasion varied; often it included the term tefillin. In some settings the celebration had two phases: the first of donning the tefillin on a weekday, and the second on the following Sabbath, when an extensive reading of the Torah and the Prophets in the synagogue gave the initiate more opportunity to demonstrate his skills. In North Africa the idea and the celebration were accepted, but into the twentieth century it was common to stage the occasion as soon as a youngster had the ability to go through the ceremony successfully, even if this preceded his thirteenth birthday. A bar mitzvah ritual never evolved among the Jews in Yemen.

A religious majority celebration for girls, now referred to by the feminine form bat mitzvah, first arose in the nineteenth century. It is linked to the creation of the confirmation ceremony first appearing in Central Europe early in that century as a complement to bar mitzvah. This stemmed from the critique that boys went through bar mitzvah ceremonies on a rote basis without adequate knowledge or personal commitment. Confirmation was to reflect further study and took place later in the teenage years in a public setting. Youths in the synagogue were quizzed on their knowledge and beliefs in a manner parallel to catechism, after which their joining the adult community was "confirmed." Classes preparing for this event began to include girls as well as boys. Most Orthodox leaders opposed the innovation, which initially was shaped on a Christian model, but with time some accepted it as it was embellished with traditional symbolism, such as taking place on the festival of Shavuʿot. The inclusion of girls in public rituals also evolved into various and occasional forms of celebrating bat mitzvah, reported in the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century both in Europe and the Middle East. Both confirmation and bat mitzvah became regularized in Reform and Conservative synagogues in North America in the twentieth century. In Conservative synagogues, bat mitzvah celebrations were different from bar mitzhah, taking place on Friday nights rather than Saturday mornings. They featured elements traditionally associated with women, such as lighting the Sabbath candles, but also included reading from the Prophets, as with boys. Feminism influenced all streams of Judaism to expand the education of women, and bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies were identical by the start of the twenty-first century in liberal branches of Judaism. This trend also led to the training of women cantors and rabbis in non-Orthodox rabbinic seminaries. In these matters, religious leadership responded to expectations that had become accepted among contemporary Jews.

A development in the late twentieth century was organized travel among young people to supplement Jewish education. Travel to Israel is a central destination, but the purpose typically is to reinforce Jewish identity among those in the Diaspora. Travel to sites of the European Holocaust by Israeli high school students has become a standard practice in the Jewish state for reinforcing national culture. Identity-bolstering travel also is utilized for people in later stages of life.

Another ritual connected to study is the convening of a siyyum, a celebration of conclusion, when an individual or group finishes studying a sacred book, traditionally a tractate of the Talmud. An ancient theme in Jewish symbolism likens a Torah scroll or a sacred book to a person. Thus, when a sacred book is no longer usable, it is not treated as refuse but should be buried in a manner parallel to burying human beings. Different practices evolved in relation to this norm. One was to bury worn-out books on the occasion of the burial of a sage, and another took place on a set date in the year, linked to one of the festivals. The overall notion links the individual to sacred texts throughout life and even in death.


As in many societies, marriage was the occasion of the most elaborate life-cycle rituals among Jews. The biblical blessing to humankind to "be fruitful and multiply" (Gn. 1:28) was a value taken for granted, and rabbinic writings assumed that marriage was the normal state for adults. In premodern times, weddings and the accompanying celebrations were the first occasion on which a woman was central in a public celebration. In various locales, the onset of menarche was recognized by traditional gestures within the family, but these were never linked to textual traditions. By contrast, the Bible and especially rabbinic law pay close attention to menstruation with regard to married women and their husbands' access to them. In the latter, a strict set of procedures evolved in which a woman terminates menstrual impurity after two weeks with immersion in a ritual bath, or miqveh.

The Bible and rabbinic law also portray men as the active partner in initiating and terminating marriage. Feminist literature debates how to interpret these texts and the historic developments behind them. The "patriarchal period" portrayed in Genesis features men in the public sphere, but the "matriarchs" are not passive actors, even though institutions like polygamy are taken for granted.

Talmudic literature provided detailed principles regulating marriage and divorce. These are based on the notion that a man acquires rights with regard to a woman, while she agrees to his acquisition of those rights. Contemporary weddings consist of two phases that were separated in time during antiquity. The first is called kiddushin, or erusin, and the second is nisuʾin. Nisuʾin is normally translated as "marriage," while kiddushin means "engagement" in modern Hebrew. In the context of formal marriage procedures, however, kiddushin establishes a ritual and legal relationship between a woman and man who perform the act. Related to the Hebrew term kadosh, or holy, the Talmud interprets kiddushin as a woman being "set aside" for a single sacred purpose; after that, no other man may have sexual access to her. Kiddushin takes place when a man gives a women an object of defined minimum value (now typically a ring) while he declares his intention to "consecrate" her and she agrees. Once this occurs, a permanent relationship is established, and if there is a decision not to continue with the marriage, a get, or bill of divorce, must be written. In antiquity, months or more passed between kiddushin and nisuʾin, after which a woman could permanently co-reside with her husband. In eleventh-century France it became the practice to combine both phases of the ceremony, and this was widely adopted in Europe and later became common elsewhere. In several Middle Eastern communities, the separation of the phases continued until much more recent times.

The ketubba, or marriage contract, is also a post-biblical institution. It states the economic obligations of a man to a woman if the marriage relationship terminates. Its contents have varied over time and place. It might specify the dowry brought into the marriage by a woman or contain specific conditions. For example, within Sephardi tradition, where polygamy remained a theoretical option, it might stipulate that a man may take a second wife only with the permission of the first. Traditionally a ketubba is written in Aramaic and signed by two witnesses. Often, parts of it are read or explained at wedding ceremonies between the kiddushin and nisuʾin phases, but this is not required to make it binding. At various times, artistic traditions of ketubba illumination developed. Today, in liberal branches of Judaism, opportunities are offered to a couple to formulate their own mutual commitments in written form, and they may choose to place an elaborately decorated ketubba on a wall in their new home. These practices both hold on to and reinterpret aspects of an ancient halakhic pattern.

The nisuʾin phase in antiquity entailed a woman moving permanently into her husband's home. The wedding canopy, or uppa, which became common in the Ashkenazi Middle Ages, is seen as symbolizing this stage. Another pattern, still common in some Sephardi traditions, is for the groom to spread his prayer shawl over the head of the bride. Liturgically, nisuʾin is marked by the recital of seven blessings from Talmudic literature. They may be summarized as follows:

  1. A blessing over wine;
  2. Three blessings citing God's fashioning humankind with the power of procreation;
  3. A blessing over the ingathering of Jews to Jerusalem;
  4. Two blessings citing the joy of the bride and groom.

This order moves from the most inclusive category of humanity through Jewish peoplehood and then highlights the single couple. The fifth and the last blessings mention, respectively, Zion and Jerusalem, with the latter expressing the hope that the joy of weddings will soon be heard again in that city. This theme is also associated with the well-known feature of Jewish weddings of breaking a glass, which now typically concludes the ceremony. Formally, it is only a custom, but for many it marks the high point of Jewish weddings. It carries many general meanings, such as breaking the hymen, severance from the natal family, and the irreversibility of passage, which energize the now standard rabbinic gloss that it reminds people of the destroyed ancient Temple in Jerusalem. This illustrates how rabbinic rules and interpretations interlace with popular practices and understandings that traditionally featured festivities taking place during the days preceding and following the wedding itself.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, a major factor embellishing basic marriage ritual is the expectation of equality between the partners, and in liberal branches of Judaism rabbis may encourage couples to suggest their own innovations. Orthodox rabbis open to this trend have also found ways to express equality, such as including women friends among the those who hold up the uppa or having the bride give the groom a ring in addition to the formal kiddushin. A personally formulated ketubba, viewed either as the essential marriage contract in liberal ceremonies or as a supplementary document in some Orthodox instances, is another feature that is spreading.

Divorce, while discouraged in Jewish tradition, has always been a possibility and is explicitly mentioned in Deuteronomy 24:1. There is symmetry between divorce and marriage in rabbinic law; they are both actions taken by the man to which a woman acquiesces (or refuses). The necessity of having a woman agree to accept a bill of divorce was instituted by authorities in medieval Ashkenaz. A get is a short document, addressed to a woman from her husband, which releases her from her commitment to him and makes her "permissible to any man." In contrast to a ketubba, it cannot be a standard form in which the names and date are filled in, but must be prepared expressly for the divorce in question. After it is written, a get must be delivered to a woman, and it must be clear that she received and accepted it. If there are mistakes in a get, or a lack of clarity, it may be claimed that a woman is not formally divorced. If she then enters into a relationship with another man, she is committing adultery. Rabbis have always been concerned with the exactitude of the get procedure, not only with regard to the "morality" of women but with reference to potential illegitimate children (mamzerim ) issuing from an adulterous union, who themselves would be severely restricted as to whom they could marry.

This has given rise to the problem of the aguna, an "anchored" women who is no longer in an active marriage but has not received a get, making it impossible for her to remarry within a Jewish framework. Classically, this concerns women whose husbands have disappeared without proof of death. In modern times this problem has become acute in places where Jews live under civil law within a nation-state while their marital status is also subject to rabbinic law either because they are Jewish citizens of Israel or because they choose to follow halakhah. Cases exist of husbands who effectively have separated from their wives but refuse to give them a get out of indifference or hostility. This critical life-cycle issue is now discussed within organizations and networks that span the Jewish world, in the attempt to find both halakhic and practical solutions for women in the status of aguna.

Death, Mourning, and Memory

The Hebrew Bible contains only a few explicit rules concerning death and mourning, but many practices and attitudes are reflected throughout it that became models for customs and regulations that were systematized later. These include repugnance over delay in burying corpses, the rending of garments by a mourner, eulogies, a meal initiating the process of reconciliation with loss, and the expectation that friends visit and console a mourner. Part of the rabbinic liturgy during burial is a quote from the Book of Job (1:21): "The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away: blessed be the name of the Lord." Several rules separate the realms of sacrificial sanctity and of a kohen from death: a priest should not have contact with the dead except with regard to his immediate family (Lv. 21:13). A tendency in Pentateuchal law is to encourage ordinary Israelites to adopt priestlike standards, as in the prohibition against gashing one's skin when hearing news of death (Dt. 14:12). This practice, violating the prohibition, still took place in the twentieth century among women from some communities in the Middle East.

Rabbinic laws were systematized in an extra-Talmudic compilation that acquired the euphemistic name Semaot, or rejoicings. It opens by asserting that a person who is dying is to be considered alive in every respect: nothing should be done to hasten death. It also defines periods of mourning: the first intense week (shivʿah ), thirty days, and a year. During shivʿah, one should stay at home and refrain from washing, anointing oneself, wearing shoes, and sexual intercourse. Friends are obligated to visit and console a mourner during this period. The Bible and early rabbinic writings did not provide elaborate images of life after death. Some claim that such notions grew subsequent to the devastation that followed the second-century ce revolt against Roman power. Much later, beginning in the late eleventh century, the suffering associated with the Crusades in Western Europe were the context for a liturgical development that has become central in Jewish mourning and commemoration: the kaddish prayer.

Communities in Ashkenaz compiled memory books with the names of people murdered during the Crusades, including the names of women, and created ritual occasions (yizkor ), upon which these names were read aloud. This created a nexus between personal and communal memorialization. The notion also developed, based on Talmudic and extra-Talmudic sources, that a person could assist the soul of a deceased parent by bringing the community to declare, in Aramaic, "May the name of God be blessed forever and ever" (Dn. 2:20). This is the kernel of the kaddish that exists in various versions and came to fulfill various liturgical functions, but which is saliently associated with memorialization. It is recited by a mourner in daily prayer during the first year after death, on the anniversary of death, and on yizkor occasions. Some Sephardi scholars resisted the notion of an impact upon the soul of the deceased, but the idea spread throughout the Jewish world. Traditionally, it was associated with males only, but in liberal streams of Judaism women also recite kaddish.

Late medieval Ashkenaz was also the site of the evolution of the evra kaddisha, the burial society charged with dealing with sick people on their death bed and making funeral arrangements. It emerged at a time when traditional communal authority was weakening and concerned itself with many matters like collecting and distributing charity or providing funds for the dowries and weddings of orphans. Its power derived from vivid images of the afterlife of the soul that were developing with the diffusion of qabbalistic notions through wide social circles, with the evra kaddisha becoming the gatekeeper for the correct ritual transition from this world to the next. At this point, specialized manuals dealing with the soul, death, and burial began to appear and may reflect a step in the explicit recognition of "the" life cycle. Similar developments occurred elsewhere, and a professional evra kaddisha is still the main framework for dealing with death. In smaller communities in North America where there is no evra kaddisha, many funeral homes send morticians to train someone so that proper last rites are provided for local Jews. A late-twentieth-century development in such communities is that "ordinary" Jews have banded together to form a evra kaddisha on a voluntary basis.

Modern science and emancipation created some clashes between rabbinic norms regarding burial and the nation-states of which they became citizens. The traditional expectation was that a person would be buried as soon after death as possible. Late in the eighteenth century there was growing concern over the possibility of "false death"that a person would appear to be dead and mistakenly be buried alive. Rabbinic criteria of establishing death had to be coordinated with prevailing secular concepts and laws. Issues of difference and possible coordination continue to exist over matters such as "brain death," organ transplants, and mercy killing. Another example concerns the death of infants under thirty days old. Traditional halakhah does not provide for any burial ceremony, while pregnancies assisted by modern prenatal examinations often imbue an unborn fetus with individual characteristics resulting in a personal sense of loss even in the case of a prefers miscarriage. In all these areas contemporary rabbis within both liberal and orthodox streams of Judaism have forged a variety of approaches to abandoning some burial and mourning practices, maintaining and reinterpreting others, and in some cases shaping new ones.

Practices of memorialization have also accommodated to modern circumstances. The anonymous death of millions in the Nazi Holocaust meant that the date of death of close relatives often was not known. Israel's chief rabbinate selected the tenth of the Hebrew month of Tevet, a fast day marking the siege of Jerusalem in the sixth century bce, as a date appropriate for the recital of kaddish on behalf of these Holocaust victims. Individual mourning thus continues to be linked to collective definitions. Within the United States, suburban synagogues built in the second half of the twentieth century often incorporated within them memorial boards, carrying the names of deceased individuals, that had been removed from defunct synagogues in areas where Jews no longer lived. One example concerns Jews in South Africa, from which there is continued out-migration. Cremation is not permitted by halakhah, but some Jews there have requested to be cremated in order to make their remains transportable, because they realize that there will be no children nearby to visit their graves. Here is an example of one traditional pattern clashing with another in changed circumstances.


While not an inevitable phase of the life cycle, conversion ritual can be viewed as a rite of passage: the Talmud states that a proselyte is like a newborn child. The Bible envisions the possibility of foreigners joining the Israelites and participating in rituals but does not provide a single marker of that process. Exodus (12:48) insists that foreigners among the Israelites be circumcised in order to partake of the Passover sacrifice, and Deutoronomy (21:1014) specifies how a woman captured in war may become a legitimate wife. The Mishnah does not contain a tractate dealing with proselytes, or gerim, but Talmudic literature includes debates over which conversion rituals are the most critical ones: circumcision, immersion in amiqveh, or both together. One source states that a proselyte must be informed about some of the weightier mitzvot, along with some less central ones, but there is little stress on understanding the motivations of the individual proselyte. None of the sources emphasizes conversion as a personal religious transformation, but they do stress the affiliation with a new collectivity and its norms. The notion of examining the motives of a potential convert began to emerge only in the Middle Ages. For much of the medieval period, the actual likelihood of Christians or Muslims converting to Judaism was minimal, so the rabbinic legal tradition in this area was not tested by the crucible of historical experience. With emancipation in Europe, issues of intermarriage and potential conversion arose with a new poignancy.

As with other ritual issues, diverse approaches developed toward conversion. Orthodox rabbis have been hesitant to accept converts on the grounds that their motives may be extraneous, and do so only when convinced that the proselyte will lead an orthodox life. The liberal streams have been more open, but Conservative Judaism demands preparatory study, circumcision, and immersion, while Reform Judaism does not insist upon the ritual requirements. In the wake of widespread intermarriage in the United States in the late twentieth century, Reform Judaism also decided that a person can claim Jewish status through descent either from a father or a mother, while traditional halakhah sees only the mother as determinative. The small Reform movement in Israel did not encourage this innovation because the situation in that country, where the state privileges Orthodoxy, raises questions of whether ritual matters that effect personal status might create permanent splits within the Jewish population. Given the links between Israel and Jews all over the world, life-cycle events can become global political issues. On the background of growing choice in all cultural realms, questions of community and of religious authority at the beginning of the twenty-first century often appear as aspects of individual life cycles.

See Also

Conservative Judaism; Orthodox Judaism; Reconstructionist Judaism; Reform Judaism.


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