Giving Birth

Women have been creating new rituals that use traditional images and texts to reflect their experiences of childbirth.

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Several women who have created new prayer and ritual shift focus from the birth of the baby to the birth of a "mother." Zonderman writes that she "thought of her advancing pregnancy as a passage through a constricting tunnel to emergence with a revitalized, fuller identity as a Jewish mother--a birth image. This is also the metaphor of the Exodus from Egypt--mitzrayim (Egypt) being a narrow (tzar) place of oppression--when the Israelites passed through the (birthing) waters of the Red Sea to accept new ethico-religious obligations at Mt. Sinai. In becoming a mother, I was accepting new responsibilities and a commitment to the future of the Jewish people."

The Trends in New Rituals

These new religious expressions of gratitude are particularly effective in their appropriation of feminine biblical metaphors. The Exodus from Egypt through the parted Red Sea is the central moment in the drama of the Israelite past, and it remains the central metaphor for Jewish redemption. Only recently have we stressed that it is a birth metaphor, the passage of people into a new life of trials and triumphs through parted waters, after which nourishment in the form of manna [food that God provided to the Israelites in the desert] is bestowed like mother's milk, various in its taste, and supply generated by demand.

The practice of ritual immersion might be reimagined in analogous ways by invoking, for example, Miriam's well, the source of water for the Israelites in the desert. Amniotic waters can be seen as analogous to the tohu vavohu (hurly burly) out of which God labored in birthing the world. The bringing of first fruits to the Temple also finds a new vitality as a feminine image of birth per se when it is brought back to the experience of childbirth in new rituals and prayers. New as these compositions are, they can be especially poignant when they speak with the force of tradition.

For example, in many Jewish families, including my own, it is customary to add a candle to one's Sabbath candelabrum for each new family member. A yahrzeit (anniversary of a death) candle is burned when a Jew dies and annually on the anniversary of a family member's death. A ner neshamah (soul candle) is often lit at brit and naming ceremonies. Recognizing the candle as a Jewish symbol for the soul, a group of contemporary women liturgists has suggested a rite of conception in which an unlit candle is introduced to the Sabbath candelabrum. In the unfortunate event of a failed pregnancy, this candle would be ritually burned, like a yahrzeitcandle, as an act of mourning. An abortion is marked by submerging the lit candle in water. Under happier circumstances, on the first Sabbath following the birth of the baby, the unlit candle becomes a light among its companions and its place is permanently filled on the candelabrum….

Reclaiming "The Body" of Tradition

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Lori H Lefkovitz

Lori Hope Lefkovitz is Professor of Gender and Judaism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Academic Director of Kolot. She is also a fellow of the Institute of Philadelphia Association for Psychoanalysis; author of The Character of Beauty in the Victorian Novel and editor of Textual Bodies: Changing Boundaries of Literary Representation.