Baby Naming and the Covenant

A covenant ceremony welcomes a child into the community of humanity as a developing moral agent, responsible for working to perfect the world.

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Reprinted from Finding Each Other in Judaism, (c) 2001 (UAHC Press, New York).  All rights reserved. 

On the eighth day, the infant reenters this world and gains a new status through the covenant. He or she becomes a co-creator with God, a partner with God responsible to help transform the uncompleted world. We note here a significant aspect of the reality principle of Judaism: The world is created incomplete. Everything in the world calls for improvement. When asked why, if God so loved circumcision, God did not create every male child circumcised, the Sages point to the imperfection of the entire world, including people.

To be a covenanted partner with God is to help perfect it. "The mustard seed must be sweetened, the lupine must be softened, the wheat must be ground, and the human being must be perfected" (Tan­chuma, Breishit 7f, 10a).

The divine Image is no exception, for it is not born complete. It needs to be cultivated, refined, perfected. Alongside the Jewish reality principle of the imperfection of the world stands the Jewish ideality principle that assigns to the human being the task of turning the world that "is" into the world that "ought to be." The world created, while not perfect, is perfectible. We are not born holy, but we can sanctify the ways of our life.

This spiritual mandate explains why the brit, or covenant [ceremony], takes place on the eighth day even if the eighth day is the Sabbath or coincides with Yom Kippur. For after seven days, the infant has lived through the act of the creation of this world in which the child is to participate. On the eighth day, this covenanted child is more than a passive part of nature, but rather a human agent actively engaged in the development of a moral universe. The guardians of this baby are mandated to nurture this sacred life so that this potentiality may be actualized.

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Harold Schulweis is the senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California. He is the founder of Jewish Foundation for Rescuers and the author of For Those Who Can't Believe.