This past fall, the Orthodox/halakhic community experienced the most honest public conversation about itself that I think I’ve ever seen. The arrest and investigation of Rabbi Barry Freundel opened up a series of powerful conversations. Husbands and wives talked about gender roles in Jewish law; friends talked about their feelings about rabbis and Jewish law at kiddush, at Shabbos meals, and walking to and from shul; and, most remarkably, the Jewish press, from the blogosphere to Facebook to the Times of Israel to the New York Times, openly and publicly discussed these questions. In my lifetime, I can’t remember anything like it.
While I welcome all of this discussion, I think that much of it has missed a central, big question, which has to do with a couple of central words, namely 1) authority, and 2) authenticity. To put the issue in the form of a question, I would raise it this way: 1) In what, or in whom, do we place authority? 2) When do we feel authentic? And 3) What do the two have to do with one another?
In some ways, the second question really comes before the first one, so let’s start there. The dictionary on my Mac gives several versions of “authentic.” First, authentic means “of undisputed origin; genuine,” as in the sentence, “The letter is now accepted as an authentic document,” or “authentic 14th-century furniture.” In this definition, we see one of the key elements of the concept: that it is uncorrupted, pure, and exactly what it claims to be. Authentic here means that it’s honest, not a fake. It’s the genuine article.
The second definition is related to this, but gives an historical twist. It reads: “Made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original: the restaurant serves authentic Italian meals | every detail of the movie was totally authentic.” In this definition, “authentic” means not just that something is uncorrupted, but that it exists in an unbroken chain with something from the past. In this definition of authenticity, we are aware of the fact that there’s an historical distance between us in the present and those in the past—the people who made the original Italian meals, or the people who lived in the time when the movie is set—but we believe that our experience here and now is just the same as theirs.
You can see where I’m going with this, I imagine. This conversation sounds a lot like a conversation about tradition and change, or continuity and change. Yet, in my experience, those conversations all too often fail to address the way we experience these questions of authenticity—what they mean to us. These are anxiety-producing questions for many people! Consciously or unconsciously, we ask, Is this the genuine article? Is this real Judaism? Is it the pure thing, uncorrupted from the past? Is this the same Judaism that the original Jews—those Jews from the past—practiced? Is our Judaism their Judaism? If it is, we take comfort in knowing we’re doing the authentic thing. If it isn’t, then we worry that we’re committing a fraud, or that we’re breaking faith with the past.
So there’s a lot riding on our experience of authenticity. Yet we also know that, try as we might, our experience cannot be the same as that of our ancestors. We know we live in a different time and place than they did. We know that, at Pesach, we have to see ourselves k’ilu, as if, we are leaving Egypt, because we know that, in fact, we are not. Like that k’ilu, authenticity requires an act of imagination. That doesn’t make it any less powerful or important. But it does remind us that authenticity is, in a fundamental way, in the eye of the person to whom it matters to be called authentic.
And this is where authority comes in. To return to our dictionary: “Authority: the power to influence others, especially because of one’s commanding manner or one’s recognized knowledge about something: he has the natural authority of one who is used to being obeyed; he spoke with authority on the subject.” The first part of this definition is the essence: authority is the power to influence others. When we invest authority in someone or something, we allow it to influence us. If we don’t recognize the authority of someone or something, then we don’t. That is, someone or something is an authority only if we recognize it as such. Unless, of course, that authority is so powerful that it exercises its power over us whether we like it or not. Think of a criminal who shouts, “I do not recognize the authority of this court!” But in the absence of that kind of coercive authority, the authority I’m talking about is that kind of authority that requires our assent.
To bring the two concepts together, we could say: We give authority to those things we deem authentic. And we experience authenticity when those people and institutions in whom we’ve invested authority tell us that what we’re doing is authentic. That is, we assign the power to determine authenticity to people and institutions with authority. Authority and authenticity thus become woven together in a braid, each reflecting and reinforcing the other.
And that brings us to an important question, the question that prompted this reflection in the first place: What happens when authority fails? What happens when the people or institutions we’ve relied on, to sift through the authentic and the inauthentic—what happens when we can no longer rely on them, when we can no longer trust them, when we can’t give them authority anymore? I’m less interested in what they do (that’s predictable—they try to hold on to their authority), than in what we do. What happens to us in that moment when our authorities lose our trust?
One possibility is that we look for new authorities. We find people and institutions we can trust, that we can rely on to judge the authentic from the inauthentic. Another possibility is we take authority for ourselves, and take on the burden of discerning the genuine from the fake. And a third possibility is to stop caring about authenticity, and thus obviate the need for the authority in the first place.
I think we’ve seen all of these responses in one way or another in recent months, years, and even decades and centuries. We may have grown up with rabbinic authorities who lost our trust for one reason or another. Some of us may have found new authorities—new rabbis, new books, new intellectual or spiritual gurus—and replaced our previous rabbis with new ones. Others may have decided that we can’t find a rabbi we can trust, so we’re going to take on the responsibility of halakhic decision-making—that is, determining halakhic authenticity—on our own, from issues in hilkhot niddah to checking lettuce for bugs to whether partnership minyanim are halakhically authentic. We study the halakha and make our own decisions, and we trust that those decisions are authentic. And some of us practice the third option, in which we say, We can’t or don’t care about authenticity anymore, or at least authenticity as it has been defined up until now. We’re going to do what speaks most to us, and we’re not going to worry about whether it’s endorsed by an authority, or whether we experience it as halakhically authentic.
Many of us may be confused about which camp we fall into. Most likely, many of us have pieces of all of these approaches within us. And that’s normal, as far as I can tell (not that I’m an authority).
My aim in framing the issues this way is to try to help us understand what I think is one of, if not the, major Big Question at the heart of not only halakhic Jewish life today, but in many ways, society today (cf. trust in governmental authority, police authority, medicine, home-schooling, and others that bear elements of this discussion): How do we experience authority? Too often, the question is posed in a detached way, as a variant of, “How does authority work?” When asked this way, we can get useful intellectual analysis—historical, political, religious—but we don’t wind up reflecting on the human dynamics of how authority actually operates in our own lives. And unless we publicly talk about that multicolored, nuanced process, our authorities will continue to fail us.
How do we experience authority? The time has come for conversations—in private and in public—on this basic question.
*Note: This was originally delivered as a dvar Torah at Kol Sasson congregation in Skokie.
What is Chanukah? This is how the Talmud begins its short foray into the origins of Chanukah. Remarkably, there is very little material in the Talmud on Chanukah. While Purim has a tractate all its own, Chanukah merits a few scattered lines and a number of minor mentions. Chanukah was apparently not very much appreciated by the rabbis. When the Talmud describes the holiday, it glosses over the great battles and offers the story of a very different miracle: A single cruse of pure oil miraculously lasting for eight days—a story not found in any early sources and whose first appearance is at least four hundred years after the Maccabee victory.
What actually happened? What did the Maccabees and their supporters celebrate and why for eight days? What did it come to mean to the rabbis who clearly re-created the holiday? And finally, what should it mean to us today?
Recently a prominent Orthodox rabbi was arrested for voyeurism, for putting cameras in a mikvah. Much has been written already about what must be learned from this horrific abuse of power. Perhaps rabbis require more oversight and annual reviews, perhaps there should be more women’s leadership around issues of mikvah, tighter security at mikvaot, etc.
All of these lessons and precautions have merit but I would like to call particular attention to one, the tendency in our era toward the centralization of power in the Orthodox community. If a convert feels that only one court or one rabbi can perform a legitimate conversion for her then even when she is wary of that rabbi or court, even when she suspects that doing his office work is not part of the conversion process, or that not putting her water bottle in front of the clock radio in the mikvah preparation room is not a Talmudic instruction, she is stuck. She must play ball with him if she wants to convert even if she finds the process abusive or suspect if there is no other nearby source of orthodox conversions. In contrast, when there is an open market, when anti-trust provisions are in place, customers’ interests are better served. Is such democratization a Jewish value?
When the Jewish people want a monarch, a figure who will centralize power and hold its reins in the era of Samuel, God frowns upon the idea. We see from the description in chapter eight of the book of Shmuel that God’s concern is one of power’s tendency to corrupt:
“9. And therefore listen to their voice; but you should solemnly warn them, and relate to them the customary practice the king who shall reign over them. 10. And Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who asked him for a king. 11. And he said, This will be the customary practice of the king who shall reign over you; He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots. 12. And he will appoint for himself captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to plow his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots. 13. And he will take your daughters to be perfumers, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. 14. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your olive trees, the best of them, and give them to his servants. 15. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. 16. And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your best young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. 17. He will take the tenth of your sheep; and you shall be his servants. 18. And you shall cry out in that day because of your king which you shall have chosen; and the Lord will not hear you in that day. 19. And the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, No; but we will have a king over us; 20. That we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles. 21. And Samuel heard all the words of the people, and he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. 22. And the Lord said to Samuel, Listen to their voice, and make them a king. And Samuel said to the men of Israel, Go every man to his city.”
Even the institution of the high priesthood, with its concentration of power, suffered from the same plague:
“And Eli the high priest was very old, and he heard all that his children were doing to the people of Israel, and that they had slept with the women who came to the tent of meeting (Samuel, chapter 3).”
The existing system of prophets apparently was much more appropriate in God’s eyes. In prophet there was no concentration of power, no royal bloodline or priestly lineage. Just the opposite was true, the people often ignored the Biblical prophets and they did not have the power to coerce the people except through gaining their respect, through the prophet’s own merits. Prophets were anything but a system of centralized power. It required just study and training, and it was then in the hands of the people, their choice, to hear the words of the prophet and take them to heart.
It seems the free market of ideas, within certain bounds (there was of course the Biblical danger of the false prophet), was a strong Biblical Jewish value. The Talmud tells us that anyone had the potential to be a prophet and that there were no less than 600,000 male prophets and 600,000 female prophets among the Jewish people; surely a decentralized institution.
When it comes to power and conversions let us return to the decentralized system of conversion courts which existed until 15 years ago when the Chief Rabbinate of Israel under the guidance of the recently arrested Rabbi, centralized it. Then we can fulfill the immortal words of Moses as recorded in the Biblical book of Numbers, “If only the whole nation of God were prophets…”
The topic this time is not one I would have chosen, rather one that’s been thrust upon us all: the story of a religious leader who has grossly violated the trust that his community has placed in him, and who has grossly violated the dignity and the sacred humanity of his parishioners.
There are a million different things that could be said here, and you can already find almost all of them in the Jewish blogosphere. One facet that mustn’t ever be lost or overlooked is the humiliation and outrage of the victims. Every community is obliged to be on alert for potential abusers in its midst, and to both be vigilant, and to maintain sound precautionary policies. (Please see http://www.jewishjournal.com/los_angeles/article/l.a._rabbis_seeking_to_reassure_mikveh_users_of_facilities_privacy )
But there’s another facet of this story that I want to share some thoughts about. And this has to do with the value and importance of our religious commitments. I could blame no one for reacting to this unseemly spectacle by disparaging religion generally, and Orthodox Judaism in particular. Religion generally, for the hypocrisy that regularly percolates to its loftiest levels, and Orthodox Judaism in particular for its halachik policies that potentially place women into the hands of powerful men who might take advantage of them. And in truth, both of these claims must be taken seriously. (I am working now with my colleagues in the IRF to revamp our conversion guidelines so that it is NEVER only men who hold a woman’s conversion fate in their hands. The RCA is doing the same. And it is high time for Orthodox women clergy!) Yet, as crazy as it may sound, I believe that it’s precisely times like these which reaffirm the importance of religion generally, and of one of Orthodoxy’s cultural/halachik norms in particular.
In a naïve-seeming, countercultural way, we religious folks insist that encounters with other human beings need not have, and to the greatest extent humanly possible must not have, a sexual dimension. We instead strive – religiously! – to see and perceive every person as a Divine creation, a creation whose voice God hears, and whose welfare God seeks. And when we take this religious view seriously, we do not see or perceive other human beings as objects to be used (or abused) for our pleasure, and we do not encounter them as sexual beings at all. This is Biblical religion’s great “chiddush” (revolutionary innovation). And our Orthodox “tzniut” norms, which I know we struggle with sometimes (and chuckle at sometimes), are precisely aimed at helping us maintain this quality of human encounter. And anyone who believes that “tzniut” pertains to one gender any more than the other, has entirely turned the whole thing on its head, cynically rendering it a tool of oppression.
Obviously, religious people including Orthodox rabbis, perversely fail at this religious task sometimes, must be held accountable for their crimes when they do, and deserve every ounce of the humiliation they experience when they are caught. And equally obvious, at least to me, is that the uniquely religious notion that there is an intense human-Divine relationship ,and the uniquely religious behavioral imperative to “Be Holy, for I God am holy” are our beacons in the darkness.
(Rori Picker Neiss is the Maharat at Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis, MO)
I remember when I first found out that I was pregnant with my oldest daughter, Daria.
It was just over four years ago. I had suspected that I might be pregnant, and yet, nothing could have prepared me for that moment when I stood in the bathroom, looking down at the test in my hand, watching those two lines appear. I was immediately hit with an overwhelming mixture of emotion: excitement, fear, trepidation, wonder, more fear, more excitement. They each hit me like a wave. Excitement at this wonderful new chapter that we were beginning in our lives; fear and trepidation at all that we knew could go wrong; wonder for all of the questions for which we still have yet to find answers. What will she be like when she grows up? Will she be happy? Will she feel pain? How will she change the world?
With each child, those emotions have not lessened and those questions have not dissipated.
Now, as I await the birth of my third child, it is no surprise that I find myself thinking a lot about pregnancy and babies these days.
Pregnancy is actually one of our central themes of Rosh Hashanah.
Over the course of the holiday we recount the stories of three women: Sara, Chana, and Rachel, who each yearned to give birth, and we remember the tears that they shed for their children.
Yesterday we heard the story of our matriarch Sara. The rabbis tell us that it was on Rosh Hashana that God remembered Sara and told her that she would conceive and give birth to Yitzchak. This morning we retold the story of Akeidat Yitzchak, of the intended sacrifice of Isaac. The midrash tells us that an angel showed Sara the vision of Avraham holding a knife over Yitzchak as he was bound to the altar, and it was that vision of her only son, the son that she had prayed for and waited for for so long, about to be slaughtered, that killed her. In that very moment before God stopped Avraham from lowering the knife, Sara’s soul departed, unable to bear the thought of being in the world without her child.
Yesterday we also heard the story of Chana, a woman so bereft at her inability to have a child that she pleads with God for a son, a prayer so famous that the rabbis learn how to pray from Chana. Chana is so desperate for a child that she makes a promise to God, vowing to give her son in service to God, in a sense, giving up her son, just for a chance to know him.
And today, we remember Rachel, another matriarch. Rachel, who like Chana, was the favorite wife of her husband, and yet was unable to give him a child. Like Sara and Chana, Rachel, too, is ultimately able to conceive a child, and in fact, conceives twice. Yet, she, too, gives her life for her children, dying in the course of childbirth as her second child, Binyamin, is born. In the haftorah we read this morning, we hear Jeremiah telling us of God describing the cries that Rachel sheds in Heaven as she watches her children, the Jewish people, march into exile.
But even more so than the powerful stories of these three women whom we remember on Rosh Hashana, we see the theme of pregnancy and birth so clearly in the liturgy of the day itself.
Six times over the course of this day we repeat the phrase: היום הרת עולם. It is translated in our machzor as “Today is the birthday of the world.” But, in fact, the word הרת means pregnant. Today the world is pregnant.
We recite this phrase each time the shofar is blown.
הַיּוֹם הֲרַת עוֹלָם
הַיּוֹם יַעֲמִיד בַּמִּשְׁפָּט
כָּל יְצוּרֵי עוֹלָמִים
אִם כְּבָנִים אִם כַּעֲבָדִים
אִם כְּבָנִים רַחֲמֵנוּ כְּרַחֵם אָב עַל בָּנִים
וְאִם כַּעֲבָדִים עֵינֵינוּ לְךָ תְלוּיוֹת
עַד שֶׁתְּחָנֵּנוּ וְתוֹצִיא כָאוֹר מִשְׁפָּטֵנוּ
This day the world is pregnant
This day stands all the world’s creations up in judgement
stands them as sons or as slaves–
If as sons, have compassion for us,
as a father has compassion for his sons.
And if as slaves, our eyes are raised and fixed on You
until you show us favor, and bring out our judgement like sunlight
Upon close study, this is an odd paragraph.
If we read היום הרת עולם as “Today is the birthday of the world,” then perhaps the rest of the paragraph, which talks about standing in judgment, could make sense. Anniversaries are an opportunity to look back and reflect on where we have been and look forward to where we want to go. Often times at jobs, the anniversary of the day we started is when we might have an annual review. We evaluate all that we have done over the year, what has been successful, what has not been successful, where we have achieved our goals, where we have fallen short on our goals, and we think about the goals that we want to set for the coming year.
But if we say היום הרת עולם – Today the world is pregnant, then how does this connect with the rest of the paragraph that speaks about judgement?
The Hasidic master, Rebbe Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, who lived in the 18th century, offers one interpretation. He says that we say on Rosh Hashana, היום הרת עולם – Today the world is pregnant, for it is in the stage of pregnancy that mercy was hidden (he’elem), like a fetus in pregnancy. But now it must be awakened by the shofar, that it should be revealed in actuality.
He takes the word עולם, which means world, and he reads it as העלם hidden.
He says that we live in a world in which mercy in hidden.
In actuality, though, we live in a world in which so much more than mercy is hidden. We live in a world in which God is hidden. And though we believe in God’s presence and we seek it in our everyday lives, it is something we have to work hard to find. God does not appear to us through our eyes or speak to us through our ears. God is not discernible to us through our senses.
I always find it funny when people ask me when the baby is coming. Because I have to tell you, the baby is already here. He isn’t just a thought. I can feel him. If you catch me at the right time, you can feel him, too. You can’t see him. You can’t hold him. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t very real and very much present in our world.
The same can be said of God. Just because God is hidden does not make God absent.
And yet, we stand here today, struggling to find the words we need to speak with God, trying to focus our minds on that which we cannot fathom. We imagine that we can see that which cannot be seen and hear that which cannot be heard, so that we can somehow find within ourselves the proper kavannah, the proper intention for meaningful prayer before a God who, no matter how fervent our prayer, no matter how desperate our pleas, no matter how intense our need to see, hear, or feel God, always remains behind a curtain.
היום הרת עולם – This day the world is pregnant. Today, the world holds God in its womb. Present, yet unseen. Within, and able to be experienced, yet obstructed. The word womb, רחם, is the same root as the word רחמים, mercy. The world holds God, hidden, amidst mercy.
And why does this verse come after the blowing of the shofar? What is this cry of the shofar? What are these series of sounds that we make before reciting this paragraph? It is the cry of birth. Because our responsibility everyday, but today especially, is to reveal God in the world. We reestablish God’s reign over the world.
Although today we mark the anniversary of the day that God first created man, in an ironic twist, today, it is we who birth God into the world. We cannot sit in our chairs and wait for God to reveal Godself in the world. We are not passive participants. We are active partners. We declare to the world, on this day, that the world did not come into existence by accident, but was created by the one true God. We declare to the world, on this day, that God rules over the entire world, and we remind the world, today and every day, that God is manifest in this world, hidden amidst coincidences and luck, accidents and happenstances.
I want to offer one more explanation of this phrase.
היום הרת עולם – This day the world is pregnant. Interestingly, this phrase comes from a passage in Jeremiah. Jeremiah, as we might recall, suffers severely over the course of his life. At one point he says,
Accursed be the day That I was born! Let not the day be blessed When my mother bore me! Accursed be the man Who brought my father the news And said, “A boy Is born to you,” And gave him such joy! Let that man become like the cities Which the Lord overthrew without relenting! Let him hear shrieks in the morning And battle shouts at noontide— Because he did not kill me before birth, So that my mother might be my grave, And her womb big [with me] for all time. Why did I ever issue from the womb, To see misery and woe, To spend all my days in shame! (Jeremiah 20:14-18)
In stark contrast to all of the stories that we mentioned earlier of mothers who had wanted so badly, who had prayed so strongly, to see a child born, Jeremiah prays to God that he should never have been born. He asks: “לָמָּה זֶּה מֵרֶחֶם יָצָאתִי – Why did I ever issue forth from the womb?” And he wishes instead: “וְרַחְמָה הֲרַת עוֹלָם – His mother’s womb should have simply remained pregnant forever.”
Here, הרת עולם has a very different meaning than how we understand it in our machzor. הרת עולם does not refer to the birthday of the world, or to the world being pregnant, but to one who is eternally pregnant. לעולם – forever
And so I want to offer to you that היום הרת עולם – Today, we are eternally pregnant. Not in the way that Jeremiah speaks of. Today, we are pregnant not just with God, who is hidden away, within us and within our world, but we are pregnant with potential.
Today we stand on the cusp of everything that the coming year might bring. And that potential is limitless.
You don’t need to have stood with a positive pregnancy test in your hand, to know what it means to have birthed something into the world.
And like the day I described four years ago, today we all stand together with excitement, fear, trepidation, and wonder. We don’t know what the coming year will bring, and even for those things we might know about, we have no way to predict their ultimate outcome
הַיּוֹם הֲרַת עוֹלָם, הַיּוֹם יַעֲמִיד בַּמִּשְׁפָּט -Today we are eternally pregnant, today we stand in judgement
We stand in judgement for all the potential that we hold within us, as to whether or not that potential will be birthed for good or for bad, for success or for failure, for healing or for illness, for gain or for loss, for joy or for sorrow. All of those possibilities are already within us. They are all real. They are just yet to be realized. They are yet to be birthed.
I want to offer a prayer to all of us here today. May it be in the merit of our prayers today, and in the merit of our efforts to make God actualized in our world, that all of our potential today should be birthed for good, for success, for healing, for gain, for joy. And may we all enjoy a year filled with blessing and new beginnings.
כתיבה וחתימה טובה.
Guest post by Miriam Gedwiser
[I’d like to thank Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold for giving me this forum to respond to her post, and more generally to parallel conversations going on in various fora.]
Last year around this time my daughter announced to her preschool class that I was not fasting on Yom Kippur because I was nursing. In fact I was planning to fast (and did), but I had mentioned to her that it would be a difficult one for me, and I was planning to spend most of the day in bed. The physical drain from nursing her toddler brother was minimal at that point, but (unknown to her) I was pregnant. When her pronouncement made it into the class newsletter I worried that I had indirectly, and inadvertently, contributed to the misconception that the pregnant and nursing women should, as a default, not fast.
Before I had children I shared that misconception. When I got pregnant with my first child, I started to research the halachot and was shocked to learn that there was no blanket permission for pregnant women to eat – small quantities or otherwise. Then my surprise turned to anxiety. Like some many women in their first pregnancies, I was immersed in the American culture of aggressively safeguarding the prenatal environment from even a whiff of danger. I got anxious from just walking past someone smoking in the street, lest the tar reach the baby. How could fasting be OK? I called a female advisor thinking that perhaps there was some off-the-books permissive ruling, only to get the same answer: otherwise healthy pregnant women should fast, resting as much as possible, and break their fast if there was concern for the baby.
At this point I was, perhaps, a poster child for the inadequate approach to these questions Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold is pushing up against. Faced with what seemed an uncompromising rule, I felt scared and alone, but I didn’t feel like I had a choice. I fasted on Tisha B’Av by spending the day almost entirely in bed.
By Yom Kippur we had told our families about my pregnancy and I asked my mother what she had done when pregnant with me. My due date was near my birthday so she would have been around the same stage of pregnancy when Yom Kippur came around. She told me that she fasted and davened normally, which gave me some hope. In the end I stayed home for most of the day out of an abundance of caution, coming to shul only for neilah.
I have been at various stages of pregnancy, nursing, or both every Tisha B’av and Yom Kippur since then, and have fasted each one (with, crucially, childcare support). That this has worked for me does not mean it will work for everyone, of course. But my story causes me to question Maharat Rachel’s assertion that no one can convince a pregnant woman to “FEEL differently” about fasting. While the halachic advice I received did not succeed in changing my feelings directly, it did indirectly. Fasting despite my apprehensions taught me that my body was capable of more than I expected, and that I did not need to be cut off from the central experience of the central day of the Jewish calendar during my childbearing years.
Of course I would have appreciated some more sensitivity along the way – perhaps the authorities I consulted could have suggested I speak to women who fasted about the experience (as I eventually did with my mother), or even shared their own stories. Further, lack of sensitivity and poor communication might lead people who should not be fasting to fast and harm themselves or their babies, and I think Maharat Rachel has given powerful voice to that concern. But there is an opposite concern that I fear is lost in the rush for sensitivity: Overemphasizing subjective perceptions and anxieties will lead women who could have and should have fasted to eat instead.
The Shulchan Aruch (OH 617:2) rules that if a pregnant woman experiences a craving on Yom Kippur, the first step is to whisper in her ear that today is Yom Kippur. If that works to pacify her, all the better. If not, she is fed until her mind is settled. What the contemporary equivalent of such a whisper would be for a woman gripped not by an irrational craving but by fear for her fetus is a delicate pastoral question. But we can’t skip the whispering step.
Which brings me to shiurim. The reason it is preferable for those who must break the fast to eat and drink in small quantities is not that small quantities are not really forbidden. The halachah follows R. Yohanan’s position that “hatzi shiur assur min hatorah,”* even partial servings are biblically forbidden. If even minimal quantities are forbidden biblically, just like larger servings, why are so many people going to sit with shot glasses of liquid and stopwatches this Yom Kippur, making sure they never consume a full shiur within the allotted time? Because the smaller amounts, while still forbidden, do not accrue punishment – in the case of Yom Kippur, the punishment of karet (“excision”).
Ponder that for a minute. The tradition treats eating on Yom Kippur with such trepidation that even those with a perfectly legitimate medical dispensation are advised, if possible, to eat minimal amounts. Just in case they really should be fasting, they will not be liable for the punishment. This sense of dread is perhaps what led many generations of pregnant women, or infirm elders, to fast despite medical and rabbinic advice to the contrary. It is what led my father, a”h, to look visibly shaken when he learned that his elderly aunt had been given her required medicine on Yom Kippur not with water (the doctor- and rabbi- approved plan), but with a high-calorie drink. But more than that, the dread, the trepidation, the awe, are part of what leads people to stand in shul all day, to cry, to aspire to be like angels.
If the days of awe are to live up to that name, the discussion of fasting needs to take place under the constant shadow of fear and trembling, not just ways of peace. It needs to recognize that while the consequences of someone fasting when they should not can be terrible, not fasting when one should is also terrible. Sometimes a rabbinic figure’s job is to dissuade vulnerable people from endangering themselves. But sometimes, his or her job is to persuade people – like myself of six years ago – that pregnant people are still people, that people still need atonement, and that (unless medically counterindicated) we should fast.
May we all merit to observe the upcoming shabbat shabbaton (ultimate sabbath) in its fullest, and achieve a gmar hatimah tovah for ourselves, our families, and everyone.
Miriam Gedwiser teaches at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education and is admitted to the New York bar. She lives in Manhattan with her spouse and children.