The Gender of Our Clergy Need Not Dictate Where Women Breastfeed

In her JOFA post, “I Wasn’t Asking for Your Opinion,” Rabbanit Sharona Halickman rightfully criticizes the Orthodox Union for “only now thinking about whether they want . . . women to work in their shuls.” She recalls how Rabbi Avi Weiss hired her as a rabbinic intern at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale eighteen years ago, back in the last century–the first women to fill a pastoral role in an Orthodox synagogue.

Halickman could not find a similar congregational post after making aliyah (moving to Israel), so she reached out to a population whose spiritual needs were not being met–young mothers, residents of nursing homes, immigrants, and girls studying for their bnot mitzvah. She joined Beit Hillel, an initiative of male and female Orthodox leaders, and founded the organization “Torat Reva.”

Halickman and other learned women have made significant contributions to expanding leadership roles for Orthodox women. Her article gives examples of how women are not always well-served by a system with only male clergy.

However, I’d like to address a few points that unintentionally reinforce gender roles and separation of the sexes. While they may seem like minor concerns, these attitudes ultimately marginalize women and are part of what keep them from getting full rights and responsibilities within our community.

The first relates to breastfeeding mothers. As a lactation consultant, I believe it’s important for us to recognize breastfeeding as an essential part of both infant and maternal physiology. Feminists in particular should be doing all we can to protect the rights of babies and mothers to breastfeed. Any time we suggest that breastfeeding might interfere with women’s ability to participate in society, more so than other parenting roles, we do babies and mothers a disservice.

This approach in no way disrespects or denigrates mothers who do not breastfeed, whether because of medical concerns, or any other reason including personal preference. We need to recognize that all parents, both mothers and fathers, usually face challenges in balancing the intense needs of babies and young children with their own financial, professional, social, and spiritual needs. Breastfeeding is only one part of that. But because only mothers breastfeed, sexist attitudes often surround breastfeeding. These must be addressed on a societal level.

A simple example appears in the article, when the author mentions teaching “nursing mothers who are at home with their babies.” While it’s true that it’s hard to get out of the house with a baby, especially to attend a class, this is a function of caring for small children and not breastfeeding alone. Describing these mothers as “nursing” implies that breastfeeding requires mothers to stay home, whereas in fact many mothers prefer to attend Torah classes with their babies and even manage to breastfeed in class.

Breastfeeding comes up again when Halickman asks, regarding male rabbis, “Is it appropriate for them to teach a group of nursing mothers?” My answer is a resounding yes. If we see breastfeeding as the act of feeding a baby, devoid of sexual significance, we have no reason to restrict men from teaching breastfeeding mothers.

Suggesting that rabbis, or men in general, will somehow be inappropriately stimulated by nursing mothers harms women and their babies. It places an additional barrier on breastfeeding mothers, by isolating them and limiting their activities to those in which only women are present. This attitude becomes simply another means of excluding women from the public sphere.

Certainly, many mothers prefer to breastfeed privately, to attend a class only with other women, or be taught by a woman. And there are many men and women, including rabbis, who are uncomfortable with the presence of breastfeeding mothers. Like most Americans of my generation, I also grew up in a culture that views breasts and breastfeeding in a sexual context, and something that should be hidden. But this attitude is not universal, nor is it inherently Jewish. We won’t change cultural attitudes overnight. But we do both adults and children a disservice when we assume that all nursing mothers wish to be separated, or worse, ought to be separated from the rest of the community or be denied being taught by a male teacher because it’s “inappropriate.”

The article brings up another reason for preferring female leaders or teachers for breastfeeding mothers or for discussing questions of nida (Jewish ritual purity), asking: “Even if the rabbis are comfortable with all of the above, how many girls and women would be comfortable being put in those situations considering all of the scandals our community has faced in recent years?”

This rhetorical question seems to mischaracterize sexual abuse in our community, and between teachers and students. Sexual abuse scandals are deplorable, but separating men and women from each other or suggesting that they shouldn’t counsel the opposite sex is not the answer. The vast majority of male teachers are not sex abusers.

There are many reasons why a woman might prefer to consult with another woman regarding any number of issues. But it’s unfair to infer that it’s because the men might be sex abusers. Much of sexual abuse exists within the family, or in a single-sex context—perpetrated by both men or women on others of their own sex. We as a community need to be vigilant about sex abuse. But we can do so without enforced segregation of sexes and without limiting opportunities for professionals of either sex.

As Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld, manhiga ruchanit (spiritual leader) of the Israeli town of Efrat, said in a recent talk, the main reason for encouraging women’s religious leadership is so our community can take advantage of the large pool of talent and skills that exist among the entire population of both men and women. In this way, groups and individuals with various needs and interests can find teachers and advisers that they can relate to.

Rabbanit Halickman, an excellent role model for women aspiring to Jewish leadership, reminds us why encouraging religious women’s leadership is good for women and good for the community as a whole. But women’s leadership should not be used as a justification for keeping any individual or group, including breastfeeding women, from providing or receiving services in a separate-sex or mixed setting according to their preference.

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