Women and the Covenant

How women figure into the male-oriented covenant that begins with Abraham and circumcision.

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The Foot Washing Ceremony

One covenant ceremony for girls is a simple foot washing ritual often referred to as B'rit R'chitzah (the Covenant of Washing) or B'rit N'tilat Raglayim (the Covenant of Washing Feet). This ritual was first imagined into being by a small group of female rabbis and rabbinical students I participated in, at a retreat in Princeton in 1981. Eventually, this group crafted a ritual that continues to be used by individuals and communities in the United States, Israel, and other countries.

This idea--of washing a baby girl's feet to welcome her into the covenant between the Jewish people and God--grew out of our reading of Genesis 17-18. Immediately after the covenant in Genesis 17, when Abraham is circumcised, Abraham invites three visitors passing by for a meal (18:1-15). He washes their feet, a sign of welcome in his own day. Abraham's guests, who prove to be God's messengers, announce the future birth of Isaac.

Abraham's act of washing his guests' feet, as a sign of welcome, therefore, is closely associated with the original establishment of the b'rit in Genesis 17. Washing the baby's feet allows us to introduce water into the ritual, and to make the association with Miriam's Well, mikveh (ritual bath), and the healing, nurturing power of its mayim chayim (fresh water, literally "living waters"). The ritual includes readings and music that bring out these motifs and involves the parents as well. Usually the formal naming of the baby follows, with blessings over wine, as at a male circumcision. This ritual, simple and gentle, lends itself to individual adaptation and creativity (see "The Covenant of Washing: A Ceremony to Welcome Girls Into the Covenant of Israel," Menorah, IV/3-4 May 1983).

Was Sarah part of the covenant? For centuries, Jews have looked to Sarah as the first of our foremothers, women's tekhines (petitionary prayers) have called upon the God of Sarah, and pleaded in Sarah's name on women's behalf. As the covenant continues to be fulfilled by the commitment of every new generation of Jews, the impassioned voices of Jewish women bring forth Sarah's voice in our own time, with new clarity. Today we can celebrate a rediscovered Sarah the mother of the covenant we the Jewish people share with God.

Even if b'rit bat rituals have not always been part of Jewish tradition, they are so today. Mothers who were welcomed into the covenant with such ceremonies now perform these same rituals with their own babies. Generations from now, Jews may be surprised to learn that baby girls were not always welcomed into the covenant with a ritual b'rit bat. As contemporary men and women today, we can look forward to seeing such rituals flourish and evolve in the years ahead.

The product of fourteen years of work and the contributions of more than 100 scholars, theologians, poets, and rabbis—all of them women—The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is a landmark achievement in biblical scholarship and an essential resource for the study of the Bible. For more information or to order a copy, visit URJBooksandMusic.com.

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Rabbi Ruth H. Sohn is the director of the Leona Aronoff Rabbinic Mentoring Program and Rabbi of the Beit Midrash at Hebrew Union College in LA. She also teaches adults in a variety of venues in Los Angeles.