Jewish Passages / Edition 1

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American or Middle Eastern, Ashkenazi or Sephardi, insular or immersed in modern life—however diverse their situations or circumstances, Jews draw on common traditions and texts when they mark life's momentous events and rites of passage. The interplay of past and present, of individual practice and collective identity, emerges as a central fact of contemporary Jewish experience in Harvey E. Goldberg's multifaceted account of how Jews celebrate and observe the cycles of life. A leading anthropologist of Jewish culture, Goldberg draws on his own experience as well as classic sources and the latest research to create a nuanced portrait of Jewish rituals and customs that balances the reality of "ordinary Jews" with the authority of tradition.

Looking at classic rites of passage such as circumcision and marriage, along with emerging life-milestone practices like pilgrimage and identity-seeking tourism, Jewish Passages aptly reflects the remarkable cultural and religious diversity within Judaism. This work offers a new view of Jewish culture and history with the individual firmly situated at their center by blending anecdote and historical vignettes with rabbinic, midrashic, and anthropological insights; by exploring Sephardi and Ashkenazi traditions as well as modern ideologies; and by bringing into sharp relief the activities of women and relations with Gentile neighbors. As such, this book provides a unique window on the particulars—and the significance—of personal and communal acts of identification among Jews past, present, and future.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this often fascinating book, Hebrew University anthropologist Goldberg uses his discipline to shed light on the tremendous diversity within Judaism regarding various passages of life. Drawing on ancient and modern texts and rituals, he examines the stages along life's way from its beginnings (birth, circumcision and naming) to its center (marriage, pilgrimage and the creation of identity), and its end (death, mourning and remembering). For example, Goldberg traces circumcision to its most ancient meanings in biblical times and then examines the ways that various Jewish communities through history have retained the meaning of circumcision while adapting the practices associated with it to their own cultural milieu. For example, Goldberg writes that circumcision among Libyan Sephardim is an elaborate ritual in which the infant boy's eyes are made up with cosmetics, like a girl's, but a rigid gender separation is otherwise preserved. In his comments on birth ceremonies and rituals, he restores the role of women to a central place within the Jewish community by looking at how those ceremonies connect with other aspects of Jewish life. Goldberg concludes that passages and rituals along the way of the Jewish life cycle not only mark individual identity but also tie that identity closely to a community. Four appendices contain an outline for a circumcision ceremony, a ceremony for naming a daughter, a commentary on the tefillin and the shma' [the Shema; Deuteronomy 6:4-9] and elements of the marriage service and blessing. Despite a sometimes dense academic tone, Goldberg's richly detailed book offers a marvelous tour of the markers of Jewish life and community. (Oct.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Goldberg (anthropology, Hebrew Univ.; The Life of Judaism) adds his voice to the discussion about Jewish life cycle ceremonies (see also Ari Goldman's recent Living a Year of Kaddish), writing from his own experiences and from a sociological point of view. Along with birth, marriage, and death, he writes about education, pilgrimage, and communal and individual life in the United States and in Israel. Bringing together biblical, historical, and current practice, Goldberg provides an anthropological study that ponders Judaism's worldview and lifestyle rather than doles out advice for leading that lifestyle. His purpose is to discuss and portray religious events that draw people into a community. Consequently, this is recommended for libraries that serve serious students of Jewish religious observance. (Illustrations and index not seen.)-Naomi Hafter, Baltimore, MD Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Harvey E. Goldberg is Professor of Anthropology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the editor of The Life of Judaism (California, 2001). He is the author of Jewish Life in Muslim Libya: Rivals and Relatives (1990), and Cave Dwellers and Citrus Growers: A Jewish Community in Libya and Israel (1972).

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Read an Excerpt

Jewish Passages

Cycles of Jewish Life
By Harvey E. Goldberg

University of California

Copyright © 2003 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-20693-2

Chapter One


On several occasions I have been asked to be a witness at a wedding, to sign my name on a wedding contract, or ketubba. One memorable instance was in the United States in the late 1970s. A colleague was getting married, and after the wedding, she and her husband were planning to spend a year in Israel. The officiating rabbi was a well-known figure in American Jewish life. Otherwise, upon arrival, I knew almost no one among the guests. Soon, however, I heard my name called; I was being summoned to play a role in the ceremony.

The rabbi, knowledgeable about life in Israel, was concerned that the marriage be recognized there if a question ever arose among the Israeli rabbinic authorities. The couple had some thoughts about living in Israel and, as a Conservative rabbi, he envisioned the possibility that his credentials or the version of the ketubba he used might be questioned. Israeli law did not give the rabbinate the power to challenge the personal status of Jews married abroad, but the rabbi wanted the contract to be as free of objections as possible. He therefore sought two male witnesses who could sign in Hebrew and be identifiable to Israeli authorities. Apparently, I was the only one present aside from himself fitting this description, and I was called to a small room to be the second witness on the document.

After affixing my signature to the ketubba, the rabbi asked me to stand next to him under the huppah (wedding canopy) so as to be an eyewitness to the part of the ceremony in which the bride accepts a ring from the groom and he declares her to be consecrated to him "according to the law of Moses and Israel." According to the Mishna, the transfer of something of monetary value is one of the ways in which a man "acquires" a woman. In order to witness this transaction, I found myself walking down the aisle with the rabbi, with my thoughts turning to the ceremony about to unfold.

A traditional wedding contains various features, in addition to the "acquisition" of the bride by the groom, which reflect a society in which a woman's position was weaker than a man's. This hardly fit the two people in question, both of whom were educated professionals. In fact, the year they were about to spend together in Israel constituted a step forward in her career, rather than his. At the same time, other aspects of the ceremony struck me as uncannily contemporary. The last of the seven wedding blessings praises God for creating "joy and gladness, bridegroom and bride, mirth and exultation, pleasure and delight, love, brotherhood, peace and fellowship." I realized that wedding rituals are very complex and even contradictory constructions, bringing together not only a man and a woman but other differences and opposites as well. They merge ancient practices and attitudes with present social concerns, attachments to tradition with hopes for a future, and ideal visions of human relationships with a recognition of the problems arising in everyday marital life. A consideration of wedding rituals entails all these subjects and more.

It has been remarked that marriage is "the most elaborate ceremony in Judaism," but the salience and intricacy of weddings are features of all traditional societies. The Jewishness of a wedding celebration intermingles with many panhuman features. Marriages permanently change the personal situation of individuals, set the social stage for biological reproduction, constitute occasions for the movement of wealth, and also call upon the representatives of religious authority. While often relying upon the legitimacy offered by ancient traditions, people expect marriage rituals to speak to current notions and sensibilities. These various facets of Jewish weddings, and how ancient rites, customs, and texts have been interpreted to make sense in new situations, are the subject of this chapter.

Marriage, Women, and Menstruation: Ideals and Reality

Marriages create a special social bond for both women and for men, but often weddings are viewed as the celebration in the lives of women. As discussed earlier, giving birth itself was only minimally marked in traditional Jewish societies, and not in a way that linked it to the learned culture. Similarly, the fact that girls were only occasionally provided with a Torah education, and then only as a result of the initiative of individual families, meant that there was no communal recognition of their advancement through life's early phases. From this perspective, marriage was a woman's first and central ceremonial appearance in a publicly valued status. Detailed accounts of marriage celebrations figure prominently in the life stories of Jewish women from Mediterranean countries.

The centrality of women in marriage also stems, of course, from their indispensable part in procreation. The fourth of the seven blessings recited at a wedding (see below) praises God for making man in God's image, and for building out of him a mechanism for perpetuating himself ("hitqin lo mimenu binyan {ay}adei {ay}ad"). This refers to sexual reproduction in the human species. The use of the term "build," which appears in the creation account in Genesis 2:22, is one aspect of that reference.

Given the fact that procreation depends on women and has been a major value in rabbinic culture, it is puzzling that Jewish tradition pays almost no attention to the onset of menarche. A contemporary effort to compose a prayer appropriate to the occasion cites no precedents, and minimal attention is paid to the topic in the ethnography of Jewish communities. A portrait of the Polish shtetl states that when a girl reports the appearance of blood to her mother, "she will be roundly slapped on both cheeks." It will later "be explained that this is in order to make her rosy and beautiful." Esther Schely-Newman reports that in some Tunisian communities, there was a ritual use of oil when a girl first noticed vaginal blood: it was smeared on her face, or she was made to look at her face in a bowl of oil. In both instances, positive comments were attached to the gesture: "so things will always be smooth," or that the girl "will always be shiny and good-looking as she was at that time." In Yemen, according to Alana Suskin, a mother took melted butter and poured it on the hands of a newly menstruant daughter. The explanation was that "blessing will flow from her hands." None of the gestures or statements cited connects to traditional texts or to formal normative practice. In all cases, other parts of the girl's body become the focus, perhaps directing attention away from the perplexing genitalia and providing reassurance at what might appear as a troublesome juncture. Ambivalence over menstruation on the occasion of menarche also appears within the world of men. A remedy for epilepsy that entails ingesting the blood of a first-time menstruant has made its way into the writings of rabbis.

Menstruation, of course, has not been "unnoticed" in Jewish tradition. A tractate of the Mishna, Niddah, is devoted to the subject, focusing on identifying the situations that constitute menstrual flow and specifying the rules leading to purification and the resumption of sexual contact between a man and his wife. The topic of niddah has been open to differing interpretations. Some recent views contrast the devalued blood of menstruation, which may symbolically invoke death, with the valued blood of circumcision, which in rabbinic writings brings salvation and life. It should also be noted, however, that menstrual impurity is not a permanent state; it always comes to an end. This leads to a restoration of purity and the ability to procreate, which should figure into an overall understanding of the topic as well. Moshe Idel, for example, discusses a rabbinic idea in which sexual relations between a couple in purity have a positive impact on the Divine Presence. In general, one rabbinic tendency is to highlight the implications of niddah for the relations between a man and wife, rather than to link it to woman's "essence" or general status in society. A variety of messages, which sometimes compete with one another, may be drawn out of time-honored texts.

In many cultures there are symbolic associations linking women and the moon. The perceived likeness between lunar cycles and women is evident in the term menses. This association was elaborated later in Jewish history in the special attachment of women to New Moon observance, which became a minor festival for them. A symbolic connection between women and the moon may be hinted at in the Bible. In the creation story, the sun is called "the great luminary" and the moon "the small luminary" (Gen. 1:16), probably to avoid the standard names of these heavenly bodies, which pointed to the polytheistic mythologies of surrounding cultures. Nevertheless, former mythological symbols of gods and goddesses may resurface in mundane guise in biblical literature and be utilized for the Bible's purposes.

In Genesis 1:16-18, the two heavenly luminaries are given "dominion over" the day and the night respectively. The word "dominion" here is a translation of the Hebrew stem mashol. That stem reappears twice in subsequent narratives in the beginning of Genesis, and a third time in the story of Joseph. After woman disobeys God by leading Adam to eat from the forbidden tree, both are punished; part of her punishment is that "your desire will be towards your Man, and he will have dominion over you" (Gen. 3:16). Almost identical wording appears soon thereafter in the story of Cain and Abel. There, in a phrase that grabbed the imagination of John Steinbeck in East of Eden, Cain is told that he may have dominion over sin (Gen. 4:7). Despite this warning, he murders his brother.

Later in Genesis (37:8), the stem mashol appears in Joseph's dreams that suggest that he will have dominion over the members of his family. In the second dream, his mother and father are explicitly compared to the moon and the sun. The dissimilarity between the sun and moon is thus linked to several themes: human beings' rule over one another, disobedience to God, the shedding of blood, and the difference between men and women. The texts struggle to project a vision of an ideal humanity while recognizing the reality of how the world seems to operate under "normal" conditions. Later generations envisioned the messianic era as entailing the expansion of the moon so that it is equal in brightness to the sun (Isa. 30:26).

In considering laws related to menstruation, or any other topic seen as indicative of the status of women, it is possible to focus on ideal formulations of rabbinic culture, or on actual historical trends, to the extent that they are known. To anthropologists seeking to understand a religion and its ideals in concrete contexts, both are important. In the absence of direct historical or ethnographic evidence, comparative examples are often cited. With regard to menstruation, Nissan Rubin states that understanding the religious rules of antiquity should take into account the biological and demographic realities of the era, as suggested by studies in parts of the world where patterns of family life in peasant societies have been observed. On the basis of this comparison, it is possible that because of long periods of nursing, which suppresses menstruation, and because of the tendency to become pregnant again soon after a child is weaned and lactation ceases, women in talmudic times did not experience menstrual bleeding as frequently as we might imagine. If this is correct, the rabbis' interest in the topic might relate to the symbolic features of the elaborate laws of niddah, as much as to their concrete regulatory functions in daily life.

In the Mishna and Talmud, one finds strict demands for the separation of "a niddah," along with opinions that restrain those demands. An example is the expectation that women be confined to a special room or hut during periods of menstrual impurity. This practice was not incorporated into rabbinic norms, but the physical separation of menstruants from normal domestic routines is found in groups on the margins of Jewish life. For example, Ethiopian Jewish women moved to a menstrual hut, where they were provided with food and visited by female friends. Their migration to Israel entailed a major reorientation with regard to this institution. Among the Samaritans in Nablus, a menstruant refrains from preparing food or engaging in other domestic work, including touching her own children. Her tasks are taken over by her mother-in-law or sisters-in-law. This is only possible because of the extended-family structure characteristic of the group. At the same time, the menstruant-avoidance rule makes it indispensable to Samaritan life for related nuclear families to reside in the same household. Jews in Kurdistan in the middle of the nineteenth century also provided a hut for menstruants, but no further information is available about this.

Other local practices developed in connection with niddah. Mordecai Ha-Cohen reports, with regard to the Jews of the Nefusa mountains in Libya, that the men "are very careful to keep their distance from a woman during her menstrual period. A man may not even step on the straw mat that she has walked on, nor may he look upon her face." It is not clear whether this reflects a very strict separation of men and women in other realms, because the same author notes that the women of the region opposed rabbis in the city of Tripoli who wanted to impose greater seclusion on them generally. This may be a case of differing perspectives on the part of men and women with regard to menstruation.

Ha-Cohen entertains the possibility that the Nefusa customs derive from Karaite influence, as Karaites are known to have stricter rules of menstrual avoidance than rabbinic Jews. He then rejects his own hypothesis, but the comparison with Karaite rules is illuminating. Karaite women do not enter a synagogue while menstruating. This custom arose among Jews in some regions in the Middle Ages, but many rabbinic authorities did not accept it and ruled that women may touch a Torah scroll while in a state of niddah. On the other hand, menstruating women in a Tunisian community separated themselves from the preparation of matzot before Passover, while within the popular North African practice of visiting the graves of a sainted rabbi, the norm was that menstruating woman could not enter the tomb of a tzaddik. In Baghdad, there was a custom of women wearing special garments during their menstrual periods.

This scattered information on actual practice shows that the theoretical understanding of rabbinic literature must be placed side by side with specific historical developments.


Excerpted from Jewish Passages by Harvey E. Goldberg Copyright © 2003 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations

1. Being Jewish
2. Beginnings: Birth, Circumcision, and Naming
3. Rituals of Education
4. Marriage
5. Pilgrimage and Creating Identities
6. Death, Mourning, and Remembering
7. Bonds of Community and
Individual Lives

Appendix 1. Outline of a Circumcision Ceremony (Brit Milah)
Appendix 2. Ceremony for Naming a Daughter (Zeved Ha-bat)
Appendix 3. Tefillin and the Shma
Appendix 4. Elements of the Marriage Service and Blessings


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