Gendering at Birth: the Bris and the Baby Naming
I consider myself fortunate to take Gender Studies as my English literature class during my final semester of high school. Our first reading was a thesis Night to his Day: The Social Construction of Gender by Judith Lorber. As can probably be inferred by the clever title, the piece is about the feminine being defined in terms of the masculine rather than in its own separate language and the subsequent skewing of the gender binary.
Seeing as I am constantly looking for new assaults to/praises for Jewish feminism to blog about, I was thrilled when Lorber referenced circumcision in the context of Judaism. She wrote, Many cultures go beyond clothing, gestures, and demeanor in gendering children. They inscribe gender directly into bodies.Jewish fathers circumcise their infant sons to show their covenant with God. Needless to say, I eagerly annotated these sentences with post on circumcision!!!
A brit milah (bris) is exactly what Lorber defines it as: covenant of circumcision. It is a supposed covenant with God, marking the baby boy as not only holy, but as a possible messiah. The baby boy is blessed through sacred ritual (that may or may not be medically important), but what about a baby girl?
Truth be told, this post was birthed (pun intended) after I read from a very different text. This text was chick-lit extraordinaire and bona-fide Jewish feminist Jennifer Weiners' debut novel, Good in Bed. In writing about what I refer to as coming to gender ceremonies, Weiner articulates,
The good thing about naming ceremonies for Jewish baby girls is that theyre not tied to a specific time. With a boy, you've got to do the bris within seven days. A girl, you can do it in six weeks, three months, whenever. Its a newer service, a little bit free-form, and the rabbis that do namings tend to be accommodating, New Age-ish types.
This says a lot. The only ritual that defined a Jewish baby girl as a child of faith was a lack of one. For centuries, Jewish girls had no marker, no covenant, no ritual be it a baby naming, Bat Mitzvah, or confirmation they could claim as their own. In the world of ritual, they were invisible, the rituals involving gender unseen outside of the mikveh, which is considered by many to be a ridding of the impurities of menstruation, a ritual to hide femininity rather than embrace it.
Now it is different. Boys have a bris and girls have a baby naming. It is not equal and I am not saying it should be, but there is a gendering that goes on at birth. There is an assumption that is reinforced through ritual that biological sex is the same as gender. Jewish girls have now been given their own rituals. The next step is to have them be recognized as equally valid as, say, the physical branding of skin.
Shira Engel is a New York City high school student and Jewish feminist who blogs at from the rib.
How to cite this page
Engel, Shira. "Gendering at Birth: the Bris and the Baby Naming." 25 February 2010. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 21, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/gendering-at-birth>.