I knew my life had gotten strange when I found myself standing in my in-laws’ living room, having recently purchased my son from a priest, as my husband threw chocolate silver coins down my hooter hider while I breastfed my son.
We were at my in-laws for my son’s pidyon haben, a ceremony where a firstborn male child who meets all sorts of criteria, such as resulting from a vaginal birth and not having a mother who is the child of a Cohen or a Levi, is redeemed from Temple service. I am pretty ambivalent about all things Temple-related so it wasn’t the top ritual to perform on my list. Breastfeeding in public while among a large group of elderly relatives was also not on the top of my list, but I had low milk supply and my son was latched on, more or less, 10 hours a day, so secluding myself entirely for months didn’t seem like a viable option.
My husband had apparently gone a bit bonkers from sleep deprivation, which was accounting for the throwing the chocolates down my hooter hider while yelling out “Fifty points! I am going to be able to win a cheap plastic toy!” Apparently the last level of sleep deprivation-induced insanity involves confusing your wife for an arcade game.
Chocolate coin throwing habits aside, my husband is a smidge more religiously traditional than I am, which is mostly expressed in ways that are pretty meaningless to our lives (i.e. we are both observant of prohibitions regarding work on Shabbat, but he won’t use sponges on Shabbat and I will). He thought it would be nice to have a pidyon haben. I had no particular objection, although I am the sort of person who would have had more fun making up some weird alternative ritual for redeeming a girl who didn’t need to be redeemed than in doing a straight-up traditional ceremony for a boy.
My husband and I are vastly more observant than either sets of our parents, all of whom think we are kind of nuts. However, they really planned an incredible party for a ritual that had very little meaning for any of us. They’d located silver coins that had been used to redeem my husband’s grandfather, as well as a silver platter (to place the baby on for the ceremony) and a Kohen (the rabbi my husband grew up with). They also provided a beautiful cake, bagels and lox, and the previously mentioned silver chocolate coins.
The way the ceremony works is that the Kohen asks which you’d prefer–the baby or the silver coins, you pick the baby (the baby had been up screaming all night prior to the ceremony, but apparently you have to pick the baby), the Kohen gets the coins, and everyone eats. Before I’d had time to wonder too much about what we were doing, or to debate if I’d regret letting my husband say all of the blessings in the ritual and not tried to reinvent it in any interesting feminist non-Temple-centric ways, we were on to the bagel-eating part of the ceremony.
I have been thinking about my son’s pidyon haben now that we’re in the three weeks, a period of mourning for the destruction of the Temple. Just as I felt no real need to redeem the baby from Temple service (since there’s no longer a Temple), I don’t want to spend a good chunk of the summer mourning a form of worship I am glad not to be part of. I know that this will be one of the ways in which the messages my husband and I give our son most clearly differ, as he observes the customs of the three weeks, and I, largely, do not.
Our third date was on the 17th of Tammuz, a fast day, and so as not to misrepresent myself I showed up eating a banana. I don’t plan on starting to hide my lack of three-week observance from my son when he gets older, and I wonder if this will confuse him.
I am sad that that people died during the course of the destruction of the Temple and siege of Jerusalem, but mourning for three weeks every summer seems excessive. I am profoundly grateful for non-Temple based Judaism. I am glad to have a religion of books and of liturgy and of discussion of law, and not one of constant animal sacrifice and service to priests. I am sure we would have gotten away from animal sacrifice anyway even if the Temple had not been destroyed, but I am grateful to have exactly what we have, and without that destruction we would have ended up with something else. It might have been great, and interesting, and spiritually compelling, but it wouldn’t be the Judaism that currently excites me, and the Judaism that I am eagerly passing on to my son.
On the other hand, so much of the Judaism that I do observe mentions the Temple or is based on the Temple service in some way–why, specifically, do the three weeks and pidyon haben ceremonies feel like they are where I want to draw the line? Why do I have no problem with parts of the liturgy that talk about the Temple service, while the similarly ancient ritual of redeeming my child leaves me feeling extremely strange? Maybe because the pidyon haben is relatively rare–so few sons are eligible for it, and many families choose to skip it, whereas the parts of the liturgy that mention the Temple service are there for everyone using that form of liturgy, every day and every week.
In the end the pidyon haben was not particularly meaningful for me, just as many mitzvot (commandments) are not that meaningful for me. However, the cumulative weight of semi-traditional practice adds up to something I find to be worthy. Also, it provided an important opportunity to discuss hooter-hider etiquette with my husband. Were I ever to breastfeed in the future I have high hopes he will serve me chocolates on a plate instead of throwing them down my shirt in public–or at least refrain from yelling “FIFTY POINTS!” when he successfully got one inside. My in-laws already think we’re weird enough.