It was the morning of my eldest son’s bris, on the eighth day of his life. As he is my first child, it was also my eighth day of motherhood. I was sore, exhausted, and overwhelmed. Family and friends were coming in from all over and I was expected to put on a dress, come to synagogue, and smile as my child endured a strange and ancient custom, one that I supported but still made me cringe.
I am sure that the experience was more painful for me than for him. But when I look back on his early days, that Jewish ceremony is not the strangest thing that happened to my newborn son.
It started right before my in-laws left after the bris, when they mentioned that they were booking their return flights for our son’s pidyon haben, the redeeming of the firstborn son. I immediately flew into a rage. Sure, you could blame my postpartum hormones, but it was more than that.
A pidyon haben is a brief ceremony to redeem a firstborn son, one who is the first issue of his mother’s womb, from a life of Temple service. It is performed on the 31st day after birth. The baby’s parents present their newborn son to a Cohen, a descendant of the priestly class, who exchanges the baby for five silver coins. The purpose of the ceremony is to remind us that the first issue of the womb has a special relationship with God, who spared the Jewish firstborn males during the final plague in Egypt. Instead of serving a life of obligation to the Temple, firstborn sons are “redeemed” in a ritual and returned to their parents.
I objected to this ancient rite for four reasons:
1. Sexism. A pidyon haben is for a son only—not a daughter—and as a woman and proud feminist, I reject a celebration that is gender specific.
2. Respect for other women. A pidyon haben is only for a child that is the first issue of a woman’s womb. So if a woman had an abortion or miscarriage, even if her firstborn child were a son, she would not be able to “redeem” him. I felt that my blessing to have not had a miscarriage or abortion did not give me the right (or obligation) to shove that in the faces of other women.
3. Fairness. Since a pidyon haben must be the first issue of a woman’s womb, it necessitates a vaginal birth. Again, I felt that I did not want to rudely publicize my fortune by participating in a ritual that excluded my peers who had birthed their babies in other ways (C-section, for instance).
4. Egalitarianism. A pidyon haben necessitates a Cohen, a descendant of the priestly class from Temple times, to “redeem” the baby. As a Jew who believes that everyone should be equal, I have trouble accepting a class system as part of my religion.
I was really stuck. I could feel the pull of Jewish tradition, and yet my own gut was in knots.
I polled a group of female rabbis, my friends, and advisors. Ultimately it was their collective advice and kind warning that convinced me: I wouldn’t want my son to one day feel the need to “redeem” himself, so I owed it to him to take care of this. Not wanting to deny my son his right, and certainly not wanting to shirk my duties as his mother, I agreed to perform the ritual, but insisted it happen without any pomp or circumstance, and without any family present.
We settled on a quiet group of members of our congregation during our weekly Torah study. The ceremony was over in minutes and no one cried.
When I look back on the day of my son’s pidyon haben—now nearly seven years ago—I still think it was the strangest experience. We handed our child to a Cohen (in our case, our dear friend and cantor) and we read some words in Hebrew. Silver dollars in a pouch were placed on the pillow where our child lay, then were waved over his head. While in my sleep-deprived state I almost offered the cantor to just take the baby home with him for a few days, ultimately we “redeemed” our son and gave the cantor the pouch of coins.
As I reflect now on that day long ago and the objections I had, I am filled with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I still believe our Jewish celebrations should be egalitarian, fair, respectful, and gender-neutral. On the other hand, there is something very special about participating in an ancient ritual, linking our son to generations that preceded him.
I don’t know if our son will ever ask about his pidyon haben. If he does, I plan to share my reservations about the ritual and also to tell him what eventually happened. I’ll show him the pouch of coins (yes, the cantor let us keep them!) and maybe I’ll suggest he save them, so that one day—God-willing and if he so desires—he might use them to redeem his own firstborn son.