The Torah Value of Decentralized Power -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

October 29, 2014

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…”


And the Lord God Said, “You’re not about sex”. by Yosef Kanefsky

October 24, 2014

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.


Pregnancy and the New Year -by Maharat Rori Picker Neiss

October 7, 2014

(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

אָיוֹם קָדוֹשׁ

 

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

Awesome, Holy

 

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.


Another Perspective on Pregnant and Nursing Women Fasting

October 2, 2014

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.

 


Pregnant and Nursing Women Fasting on Yom Kippur – Reflections

September 29, 2014

by Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold

It’s that time of year again. Jewish pregnant women around the world are talking to their doctors and to their rabbis (or perhaps their Maharats) about whether or not they should fast on Yom Kippur. They are asking friends who have done it what it was like. And maybe they are becoming concerned about whether they will make it through the fast, whether they will get to shul, whether they might need an IV, and whether they might even go into labor early, as one study recently reported. Nursing women are having similar concerns, about whether their milk supply might be diminished, or whether they might become dehydrated. Many women say that fasting while nursing is even more difficult than fasting while pregnant, which makes sense – you’re providing nourishment for not just a small fetus, but a few-month-old baby!

For some women, this is a no brainer. They fast easily, pregnant or not, and they know other women who have fasted through two, or three, or more pregnancies with no trouble. However, for other women, the thought (or previous experience) of fasting while pregnant or nursing is anywhere from worrisome to absolutely frightening.

What follows here is not a formal Teshuvah. This is an attempt to lay out some of the halachic and medical considerations as well as the metzi’ut – the reality – that may come into play when considering whether pregnant or nursing women should fast on Yom Kippur. (Tisha B’av and minor fasts should be discussed separately.)

Halachic considerations:

  • Yom Kippur is the only fast that carries the weight of a d’orraita – a Biblical commandment. We generally do not override a Biblical prohibition unless there is a clear sakana, danger. Women who do not have high-risk pregnancies are in no immediate danger when they fast, and the same is true for nursing women.
  • Halacha allows a cholah, a sick individual, to break her fast on Yom Kippur if fasting might lead to sakana, a life-threatening situation.  Even if medical advice says that it is safe for her to fast, the halacha trusts the individual’s instincts about her own body’s needs and allows her to eat if she says she urgently needs to. For normal pregnancies, it is difficult to know if and when a pregnant woman might cross over into the cholah category. Although it is generally not a life-threatening scenario, this category might be explored.
  • Even though the assumption is that pregnant women should fast on Yom Kippur, the halacha takes into consideration a woman’s psychological need – her yishuv da’at. This is specifically discussed with regards to her cravings, but we might expand the idea of yishuv da’at to include her concern for the wellbeing of the fetus. This is not an objective medical need, but her own feeling of being unsettled or troubled. No matter how many medical facts you throw at her, it might not make her internally feel secure about fasting.
  • The halachic principle of B’makom tzaar lo gazru might also be applied here. This means that if an individual experiences significant pain (physical or psychological) then there is room to be lenient on Rabbinic prohibition. This is what might allow a pregnant woman to eat or drink shiurim (small amounts every 9 minutes) so that she is only violating the Rabbinic-level fast, but she is still fasting on a Biblical level. She has not eaten or drank enough to be considered halachically “eating”.*
  • A pregnant or nursing woman is actively involved in the great mitzvah of Pru U’rvu, bearing children. We should do everything in our power to support her ability to continue to do so unhindered.

 

Medical Considerations:

  • Pregnancy is a unique case because it is a medical status which is global (affects the entire body), and varies greatly from person to person. It also occurs in such a high number of people in the population that it is felt to be common, even though it brings on significant changes and sometimes difficulties.
  • The most common risk of fasting while pregnant is dehydration, which may induce contractions. These contractions may lead to preterm labor, which is of greatest risk to the fetus between 22-32 weeks. Even between 32-37 weeks, the fetus may experience significant health difficulties if delivered early (low birth weight, incomplete lung development, jaundice). 
  • For nursing mothers, fasting may temporarily reduce milk supply, but will not undermine long-term ability to breastfeed.
  • People’s ability to tolerate fasting varies significantly. It often correlates with a woman’s physical stature, but not necessarily. A pregnant woman’s ability to fast will also vary with her pregnancy history of this particular pregnancy as well as previous pregnancies, or pregnancy loss.

 

Reality:

  • Women’s experiences of pregnancy and nursing vary significantly. Some women feel their bodies are robust and resilient during pregnancy, and are confident that their baby is in no danger if they fast. Others feel concerned and worried that fasting will compromise their own health or that of the baby. These are not only mental thoughts, but can be visceral feelings, especially when it comes to a mother questioning the safety of her baby. Whether a pregnant woman is experiencing confidence or concern, no one can convince her to FEEL differently.
  • For a woman who is absolutely committed to breastfeeding, being told that she need not be concerned about the possibility of a temporarily diminished milk supply, because she can just supplement with formula, is extremely troubling and is a very real form of tzaar (psychological distress) for that woman.
  • Some doctors are not concerned about fasting after 37 weeks because the fetus is full term at that point. Since the biggest risk of fasting is that she will go into labor, there is no real danger. However, for a woman who is absolutely committed to a natural birth, being told not to worry if she goes into early labor is extremely troubling. Going into labor when dehydrated will increase the likelihood that she will need IV, or other interventions, and will decrease her confidence in her ability to push through (pun intended) the intense experience she will face.
  • For many women, the conversation with their rabbi and doctor goes something like this:

Woman asks rabbi: Am I obligated to fast on Yom Kippur?

Rabbi responds: Does your doctor say it is safe for you to fast?

Woman asks doctor: Is it safe for me to fast on Yom Kippur?

Doctor responds: Yes, there is no danger to you or to the fetus. But if you don’t feel well, you should break your fast.

Women tells rabbi: My doctor says there is no danger and that I should fast, unless I start to feel sick.

Rabbi responds: Then you are obligated to fast, since your doctor says it is safe. Fast as long as you are able to. If you absolutely need to break your fast, then drink shiurim.

 

Here are the difficulties in this typical scenario:

  1. Medical professionals vary in their opinions on this and many other issues. Some doctors have told me that they never advise a pregnant woman to fast, whereas others regularly advise it. When there is a range in medical opinion, often doctors will take their cues from the patient. This is generally good medical practice – good doctors listen carefully to hear what a patient is experiencing, and what they need. However,  some doctors believe that their religious clientele want to be told that they can fast. One doctor who has many Hareidi patients told me that she is “lenient” and “allows” her patients to fast. Her belief is that she is allowing the patients their full religious practice. However, doctors may not realize that if they were more medically “strict” and cautious, the halacha would respect this. And some women might even be relieved to receive the medical advice that they should not fast. 
  2. The woman in this scenario now has the onus of deciding when she is “sick enough” to need to break her fast. On Yom Kippur, if she is sick in bed, she will not be able to phone the doctor to ask if she needs to eat. She takes Yom kippur extremely seriously, and she now carries the burden of determining her own medical and halachic status. Even though the halacha trusts her own instincts, chances are she will wait as long as possible before finally taking it upon herself to break her fast. At that point, she might be very dehydrated, and she might have begun feeling contractions (I know some women who have driven themselves to this point), and drinking small amounts every 9 minutes might not be sufficient. She may need to even break her fast completely.

NOTE: It isn’t just the women of our own generation who delay breaking their own fast. The Aruch Hashulchan OH 617 points out, “In our time, it is known that the women themselves tend to say they do not need to eat…”

Imagine a conversation between a woman and her halachic advisor that was more of a give and take, where the woman could share her thoughts and hesitations. Imagine if she was told to speak to her doctor, not only to ask whether it was “safe” for her to fast, but to discuss her fears and her previous experiences with fasting. Imagine she also asked her doctor to specify what it might mean to “feel sick enough to eat”, what particular symptoms to look for, so that she would feel more empowered to make that decision on the day of.

Imagine, also, that a woman was encouraged to begin utilizing the possibility of drinking shiurim when her yishuv daat was disturbed, even before she felt very physically ill. If she thinks that she won’t make it through the day, how much better it would be for a woman to drink shiurim earlier, before she feels extremely ill. Then she will be more likely to be able to make it through the fast and still have technically kept the commandment of fasting.

 Many generations of pregnant and nursing women have fasted on Yom Kippur. Our halachic authorities, including the revered Shulchan Aruch, would not have advised women to fast if they thought it posed a serious risk. Is this simply a case where we modern women are more anxious about our bodies, and less trusting in their resiliency? It is possible. We are more accustomed to treating any discomfort by popping a tylenol, rather than just riding it out and trusting our bodies will get through the difficulty. However, it is also possible that women were not an active part of the halachic conversations, and that their own subjective experiences were not fully considered. And even if women’s experiences have changed, and we are accustomed to feeling comfortable, (and even fall into the category of istinis - someone who is spoiled or particular), shouldn’t the subjective concepts of yishuv daat and tzaar still apply, even if some women’s experiences are different than those of generations earlier?

I hope to someday write a full halachic article addressing this issue thoroughly, and citing the extensive sources on the topic. For now, I suggest that we, as a community, consider these important questions: Why are we telling women to fast until they are sick? And why are women going into early labor on Yom Kippur? Even on the day when we are commanded to afflict ourselves “Ve’initem et nafshoteichem”, I still believe that the Torah is “deracheha darchei Noam” – its ways are pleasant and beautiful. Surely, the Torah’s path must protect and respect the most treasured and Divine process that a human being can involve herself with, the miracle of birth.

 

*It is not clear that eating in shiurim constitutes only a Rabbinic prohibition. There is a machloket recorded in the Gemara (Yoma 74a) about this, and normative halachic codification accepts the opinion that eating less than a shiur is still a Biblical prohibition although not punishable. However, the Gemara elsewhere (Kritut 13a) permits a pregnant woman to eat less than a shiur. A further discussion of the various opinions is required. Please do not consider this blog post as “psak” or as a substitute for consulting your own halachic authority as well as your doctor or midwife.


The Waning Moon of Elul by Yosef Kanefsky

September 15, 2014

A couple of years ago I read an essay entitled The ‘Busy’ Trap written by a fellow named Tim Krieder. Although I hadn’t thought about the essay much since then, it came flooding back to me in a sudden torrent last week, as I watched the moon of Elul wane.

Here’s the essay’s opening paragraph:
If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”

Yeah, that’s me. That’s probably a lot of us. Crazy busy. And it’s probably not such a good thing. Especially this time of year.

I’ve often thought, that in an ideal world a total stranger would be able to look at our appointment books and our to-do lists, and through these alone understand who we are, and what our life is about. He’d be able to describe our most cherished goals, maybe even catch a glimpse of our deepest dreams. In this ideal world, our daily calendar would be the concrete expression of our life’s vision, and the entries therein would be the pixels which together form a snapshot of our highest aspirations – the contributions we want to make, the impact we want to have, the progeny that we want to be able to offer to the world. But in this world, the one we actually inhabit, this “stranger” experiment wouldn’t work out. I can tell you that were a stranger to have tried this with my appointment book and to-do list this past week, he’d have concluded that my most deeply cherished goal is to replace the burned out fluorescent bulbs in our kitchen fixture, and that my grand personal vision revolves around securing an appointment for a colonoscopy.

There are two reasons for the disparity between what ideally might be, and what is. One is that we are basar v’dam. We are human beings with material needs and material problems that we need to spend time addressing. No less a giant of the spirit than Rambam divided God’s Mitzvot between those which are aimed at developing our moral and spiritual/intellectual selves, and those intended to improve our society’s material conditions. There’s no shame in this. This is the way we were created.

But the other reason that our daily schedules don’t tell the story of who we are and what our life’s vision is, has nothing to do with our flesh-and-blood composition per se. It is rather that we have all become – to one degree or another – crazy busy. We have, usually out of sheer necessity, surrendered to the un-time bound nature of modern-day work. And it now fills out our daily calendar wall-to-wall. It’s not that work isn’t meaningful. It should be, and hopefully is. But as we’re all keenly aware, work cannot all by itself constitute the story of a life. Work cannot all by itself comprise a vision for our short time here on this planet. You and I alike have experienced that dreadful feeling of running through life at break-neck speed, but without a firm handle on where we’re going, or what we really want to achieve. To borrow Moshe’s image from last week’s parasha, we often feel like the fully-sighted person who is “groping around beneath the noontime sun, as a blind person gropes in the darkness”.

And it might even be even a little worse than just that. At the end of his essay, Kreider alleges that as a society we’ve not only allowed busy-ness to steamroll our living with vision, we’ve actually adopted busy-ness in place of living with vision. He describes “Busyness” as serving “as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously our lives cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if we are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day”. This is a rather pointed allegation, taking “groping in the light” to a whole other level. Of course it may be that he was referring to other people here, and that this isn’t true for us. Or maybe, it’s a little bit true for us too.

The moon of Elul is already waning. And what the waning Elul moon means for us is that the time has come, today, right now, to step out of our Busyness, and to reacquaint ourselves with our personal vision. To ask, “what is my story? Where am I going? How can I find my way back to those things, the mere thought of which causes my heart to pulsate and my soul to vibrate? What are my dreams? What is my vision?

It’s that time of year again. The moon of Elul is waning.


There’s Enough Room in the Heart. by Yosef Kanefsky

August 4, 2014

I know it’s an absurd question.  So I’ll only entertain it for a moment.

The eighth verse of Eicha (Lamentations) simply and plainly states that the Jews of Judea were themselves responsible for the Destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile from the land.  “Jerusalem sinned grievously, and therefore became an abandoned outcast”. This assertion is central to the theology and religious worldview of Eicha, and is consistent with the predictions and pleadings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and virtually all of Israel’s prophets.

Nonetheless, despite this clear assignment of blame and responsibility, despite the assertion that the military defeat was justified in spiritual and moral terms, the book immediately proceeds to mourn over the loss of all the children who were caught up in the war. “For these I weep, my eyes run down with water. My children are lost, for the enemy has triumphed.”

On then, to the absurd question:  Why does the book mourn? Isn’t this sort of mourning misguided and wrong? Doesn’t it reflect ignorance and willful disregard for the larger moral narrative? Isn’t it an expression of a dangerous – even threatening – emotional softness, when what it required is a hard, unflinching focus on the right-and-wrong of the story?

I know. It’s an absurd question. It’s an absurd question because the death of children, no matter how it happens, is a profound tragedy.  Woe for the horrible waste of it. The undeserved suffering. The loss of innocence and beauty. What heart is there that can look the other way?  The book of Eicha reflects what we all know. That no matter how compelling or morally weighty the explanation for it may be, the death of children is still heart-wrenching.

Each one of us has privately quietly mourned, after seeing the pictures and reading the stories of children who have died in Gaza. We have mourned because we are humans, and because we are Jews. And we have mourned thus, despite our knowledge that the blame and responsibility for these deaths lie squarely with the enemy, an enemy which holds children on its own lap while it fires at ours. We have mourned, because this knowledge does not make the outcome less tragic.

But while we have mourned in our hearts, we have been afraid of admitting to others that we have done so. We tend to feel that we mustn’t say it out loud. That we mustn’t include Gazan children in our public prayers for Divine protection.  Because we think that this would be perceived as a betrayal of our people, a betrayal of our selfless and courageous soldiers.  While in reality of course, such a failure to mourn would only be a betrayal of our own souls, of our deepest nature.

Each one of us is mourning the loss of every precious fallen chayal. Which of us could not see his own child in the sweet face of Hadar Goldin, or in the smile of Yuval Dagan? And we have, all of us together, just now completed the shloshim for Naftali and Gilad and Ayal. And the mourning for our own will always be more profound and more wrenching than the mourning for the other. But chevre, let us not be afraid to say publically that we also mourn for the dead children of Gaza. Because what kind of Jewish heart would not? What kind of Jewish nation could not?


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