[The following article was published this week as part of the URJ's "Ten Minutes of Torah" listserve. If you would like to sign up to receive articles like this, please visit http://urj.org/learning/torah/ten/ . And mazal tov to the children in our congregation who are being consecrated at our Simchat Torah service this evening.]
What is Consecration? What is its connection to Reform Judaism?
by Barry Shainker
How many of us actually remember our own Consecration service? We were young, probably overwhelmed, and most likely unsure of the event’s significance. Aside from some paper flags, an uncomfortable clip-on tie, and a bunch of kids making a mad dash from the sanctuary to the social hall for cookies, today the only real memory I have of my Consecration is the picture which now hangs alongside the many others in the temple. But the meaning of the event is something that I have acquired over time. Looking back, I know that my Consecration began a lifelong experience of Jewish learning.
Consecration is a uniquely Reform event. According to historian Michael Meyer, the ceremony can be attributed to Rabbi David Einhorn, one of the early leading figures during Reform’s creation in Germany and later in the United States. Rabbi Einhorn was a proponent of placing spirituality over halachah (Jewish law), and so he suggested replacing circumcision with a consecration ritual as the opening event that would confirm a young boy’s life in the Jewish community.1 2
The ceremony of Consecration marks the beginning on one’s Jewish learning, usually between the ages of 5 and 8, within an organized setting, for example a congregational religious school. When young people begin their study of Judaism, they are honored before the community as a new student and often presented with a certificate marking the occasion and gifts like miniature Torah scrolls. Many congregations will add other rituals to the ceremony such as a special blessing or a recitation of the Sh’ma.
Consecration services often take place at the end of the High Holiday season, usually as part of the congregation’s celebration for the holiday of Simchat Torah, meaning ‘joy or celebration of the Torah.’ The word “consecrate” in religious circles means an association with something holy, and throughout our tradition Jewish learning is considered a sacred task. What an appropriate time, then, to celebrate this milestone in a young person’s life. As the entire synagogue community joins in the hakafah (processional of the Torah) and Torah scrolls are unrolled for all to see, new students see the importance and centrality of this ancient and holy sourcebook. They also have the opportunity to see Judaism as a tradition that is interactive, celebratory, and engaging.
A textual basis for Consecration’s placement on this day might come from a custom of calling all in the community to hear the Torah on Sukkot, which is itself based on Deuteronomy 31:12.3 The text reads as God’s instructions to Moses: Gather the people – men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities – that they may hear and so learn to revere Adonai your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching.”4
While the overwhelming majority of synagogues follow this practice, a handful in our movement do not. Some see Consecration as a statement of dedication and therefore recognize their new students on Chanukah, one of most triumphant stories of renewal and survival in the history of the Jewish people. Others look to Shavuot, the spring holiday in which we celebrate Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people at Sinai, and draw a direct parallel between the start of one’s Jewish education at Consecration and the reaffirmation of it as a young adult at Confirmation.
While most of our young people cannot fully comprehend the magnitude of this milestone, we hope that they will look back on the occasion in the years that follow with a new understanding. Consecration, like so many other rituals in our tradition, is about coming together to as a community to welcome new students and new families. Wherever the ceremony is celebrated on the calendar, we affirm our commitment and dedication to educating our young people in Jewish tradition. And, as we see the hope and spirit in our young people, we renew in ourselves a passion for Jewish learning that we hope to transmit to our children.
Barry Shainker is currently an Education student at HUC-JIR in New York. He is also Educational Intern at Temple Sinai in Roslyn, NY.
1 Meyer, Michael A. Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism. Oxford UP: New York, 1999. p. 163
2 At the time, only young boys were recognized with a bris ritual, Consecration, Bar Mitzvah, or any other sort of ceremony. Similar services for girls would only be instituted years later, as the women’s liberation movement gained acceptance in Reform.
3 Knobel, Peter S. ed. Gates of the Seasons: A Guide to the Jewish Year. CCAR Press: New York, 1983. p. 135.
4 Translation from JPS Tanakh, 1999 ed.