Giving Birth

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

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Women's Prayers Before the Enlightenment

Recent years have seen the publication of women's prayers that focus on childbirth in its many stages: Prayers for conception, for each of the months, for the beginning of labor, for the stages of childbirth, and for the postpartum. [Other] books… have again brought to light poetry and prayers which women shared for several centuries, but which fell into virtual darkness during the Enlightenment. These prayers have provided source material for recent efforts of Jewish women to sanctify childbirth in ways authentic to both Judaism and women's history.

Chava Weissler, an expert on tkhines,observes that the male rabbinic tradition "collapses all women into Eve" and makes much of the association between sin and childbirth. The tkhines that seem to be authored by women, in contrast, plead for the health and safety of mother and infant and address the question of suffering. As Weissler writes, attention is paid to "the physical discomfort, pain, and danger women experience in menstruation and childbirth. The authors of the tkhines want to know why women suffer, not why they bleed."

Contemporary Liturgy and Ritual

Tkhineliterature nourishes contemporary efforts to produce liturgy and rituals for childbirth…. Jane Litman's "M'ugelet: A Pregnancy Ritual" uses a cord that had been wrapped around Rachel's tomb. A group of women recite adapted tkhines and pass the pregnant woman around a circle, chanting personal blessings as she becomes entwined by the cord to which she may later cling while giving birth.

This ceremony resonates with some older customs…. [For example,] a woman in difficult labor was sometimes given the keys of the synagogue to clutch or the cord that binds the Torah….

Women have also borrowed images from the Jewish wedding in creating childbirth rituals. In Reconstructionist, Shoshanah Zonderman describes a ritual that she designed for 12 women on the last full moon of her pregnancy; it included a ceremony parallel to the wedding and a document parallel to the ketubah (wedding contract). The women used symbols and fruits, breathing exercises and chanting, and they completed a Jewish mandala upon which the mother focused during labor and which now has a permanent place in the family home."

Dr. Tikva Frymer-Kensky has drawn on a variety of ancient traditions--Jewish and non-Jewish--in creating liturgical poems for pregnancy and childbirth. Schneider in Jewish and Female includes Nechama Liss-Levenson and her husband's simple ritual for conception: The couple marked their decision to stop using contraception by making Kiddush (blessing over wine on Sabbath or holidays) and reciting the Sheva Berakhot (seven marital blessings) to reestablish the traditional connection between marriage and childbirth, and to sanctify their choice to wait until they were ready to conceive.

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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.