Excerpted with permission from Daughters of the King, edited by Susan Grossman and Rivka Haut (Jewish Publication Society).
In many respects, pregnancy and parenting are new phenomena. This sounds like a patently absurd statement until we consider the dramatic changes that have taken place surrounding the experience of having children in the last 200 years. Women no longer expect to die in childbirth. Where once perhaps half of all women died giving birth, the number of women who do so now is small enough that we do not consciously worry about this risk any longer.
Today Pregnancy Is a Choice
At the same time that the physical prospect of bearing children has become less frightening, the material costs of raising these children have become more daunting. With the changes in our economic system, children are not the economic assets they once were. On the contrary, raising the middle-class child involves the expenditure of an enormous amount of money and a reduction in most parents’ standard of living. Recent scholarship has indicated that the “maternal instinct” is neither innate nor universal. Deciding to have children is a difficult personal choice that involves love, will, determination, and a readiness for self-sacrifice.
It is in that word “choice” that the great magnitude of the change in childbirth becomes apparent. Pregnancy is no longer inevitable for most people. With our improved knowledge of birth control, pregnancy can usually be scheduled or prevented. Even when prophylaxis fails and accidents happen, modern abortion techniques make it possible to terminate a pregnancy early, easily, and safely. Theoretically, since every pregnancy can be terminated, every pregnancy that has not been ended has been accepted and chosen. Every pregnancy is a volitional act, every child is a “wanted” child.
If pregnancy has become an act of volition rather than inevitability, of decision rather than destiny, it demands conscious thought, recognition, and sacralization. We need to recognize parenting, with all its difficulties and sacrifices, as the valuable and valiant work that it is and to appreciate pregnancy for the labor and effort that it involves. We should celebrate pregnancy as a major contribution to our communal life. That we have not done so is due to the “naturalness” of the task and to the fact that the organized community has thought mainly about affairs in which men are more immediately involved.
Ritualizing Biological Events
All the major biological events of women’s lives–menarche, sexual maturation, pregnancy, lactation, menopause–have been ignored by our religious traditions and thereby made into secular events. The androcentricity of our inherited religious and cultural traditions, however, as well as their lack of attention to biology, are not irrevocable and should not cause irremediable loss. Now that women have had greater access to learning and to participation in Jewish public life, now that we have found our own voices, it is time to turn our attention to the “female” (biological) aspects of women’s existence. If pregnancy is a decision, it should be a spiritual and religious decision, and if childbearing is an important and sacred task, it needs to be affirmed and celebrated as such. For this, we need new prayers and rituals, and women in the last decade have been writing and performing new women-centered and women-acted liturgy.
Revisioning Jewish Themes to Create New Rituals
Creating such liturgy is a challenge, for if we do not want to perpetuate an arbitrary and outmoded split between Jewish women’s social and biological experiences, we must create liturgy that is distinctly Jewish. Otherwise, we might as well enact our rituals in a coven or an ashram (at both of which we are likely to be sharing with other Jewish women) as in a synagogue or a Rosh Chodesh group [women’s group that celebrates the beginning of a new Jewish month]. We must attempt to expand Jewish thinking into new directions, while staying in harmony with the rest of the religion’s teachings and practices. The way to do this is to delve into the sources and mine Jewish literature for those nuggets of insight that were written there, with no intention of being relevant to birth or other “female” concerns. These can be reinterpreted and recombined to bring female experiences into the sanctified realm of Judaism.
In considering childbearing, two Jewish themes seem to cry out for such reinterpretation. One is the biblical notion of covenants sealed in blood, both the blood of the covenant of circumcision, and the sprinkling of the people with the “blood of the covenant” as they accepted the covenant of Sinai (Exod. 24: 7-8). Menstrual blood should also be seen as a sign of a covenant, the covenant between God and woman. by which women become and continue to be the bearers and shapers of new life. God affirms this covenant in the blood of menarche, and women affirm it as they undertake a pregnancy.
In their willingness to bear the child, both the man and the woman become “partners in the work of creation.” This is an old and significant concept, for Judaism considers the work of God’s creation to be unfinished, and it is part of humanity’s task to continue this labor, to become “shutafim le-ma’asay be’reishit,” “partners in the work of creation.” We may do so liturgically, for “everyone who prays on Friday night and says ‘[And the heavens and the earth ] were finished,’ Scripture considers him to have become a partner of the Blessed Holy One in the works of creation” (BT Shab. l19b). And we may do so socially, by working to improve social justice and to repair society, for “every judge who judges a righteous judgment even once, Scripture considers to have become a partner of the Blessed Holy One in the works of creation” (BT Shab. 10a). And there is another, obvious way in which we can be partners of God in creation: by helping to create new lives.
The following ritual is an acceptance of this covenantal role, a declaration of willingness to be God’s partners and to accept unstintingly whatever hardships and sacrifices this might entail. Even though the decision to bear children is a personal family choice, the setting of this ritual is in the synagogue rather than the home. As a Jewish people, we consider it our obligation to become parents, we welcome new lives, and we actively worry about our declining or static birth rate. As a Jewish community, we should affirm each couple’s choice to have children, witness their acceptance of their duties, celebrate their decision, and offer communal support and encouragement for their endeavors. Every birth is an occasion for rejoicing, and every joyously accepted pregnancy sanctifies all of us.
Ritual for Affirming and Accepting Pregnancy
The parents (or the mother):
We declare ourselves fully ready to fulfill the commandment “Be fruitful and multiply,” which God commanded us on the day that God created us and on the day that God rescued us from the waters of the flood. And in order to fulfill this commandment, we hereby come to enter the covenant that God has made with the daughters of Eve.
For Eve first recognized this bond of creation, affirming it at the birth of her first son, when she stated [“kaniti ish et hashem“] “I have created a man with the Lord” (Gen. 4:1). God who creates us has created in woman the power to continue and participate in God’s creations on earth.
I come to affirm this partnership with God:
In my womb You form the child
in my womb, I nourish it.
There You form and number the limbs
there I contain and protect them.
You who can see the child in the depths of my innards,
I who can feel the kicks and the turns–
Together we count the months,
together we plan the future,
flesh of my flesh
form of Your form
another human upon the earth;
a home for God in this, our world.
As we have entered this covenant, so may we be privileged to bring our child to the Torah, to the commandments, to the wedding canopy, and to a righteous life. And let us say Amen.
The rabbi offers the following “personal prayer” (Misheberakh):
May the One Who blessed our ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah, bless this woman ______ and this man ______ because they have entered this pact with our Creator. For this may the Holy Blessed One be full of mercy for her, to keep her safe, alive, healthy, and well. And may God bring forth the child from her womb at a good and propitious time. For You bring on labor and bring on birth. May it be Your wish that her parents will be privileged to raise children to the Torah, the wedding canopy, and to a righteous life. And let us say, Amen.
(Congregation then sings):
Y’varekh’khem Ha-Shem mi-Tzion
u-ra’u be-tuv Yerushalayim
Ye-varekh’khem Ha-Shem mi-Tzion
kol ye-mei, ye-mei chayyeikhem
U-ra’u banim le-vnaikhem
shalom al Yisra’el.
[May the Lord bless you from Zion;
may you share the prosperity of Jerusalem
all the days of your life,
and live to see your children’s children.
May all be well with Israel! (Psalm 128:5-6)]