How Breastfeeding Impacts the Religious Woman

Bible and the Breast

Being religious doesn’t mean you have to be squeamish about baring it all for your baby. Mia Diamond Padwa of Bronx, N.Y., is an observant Jew and the mother of three children. She nurses anytime, anywhere – and that includes shul (synagogue) and Shabbat (Sabbath) meals at other people’s homes. “I do not expose myself any more than necessary, nor do I hide in another room,” she says.

Padwa laughs as she recalls her son’s bris (circumcision). “Right after Shmuel’s bris, I was heading into the … ladies’ room to nurse,” she says. “The rabbi [asked] with concern if that would be private enough.” Ironically, Padwa had been nursing her daughter, Eliana, in the back of the shul for the last three years.

Hunger vs. Modesty

For Padwa, religious modesty doesn’t contradict a mother’s imperative to feed her children in the best way possible. Breastfeeding is part of Jewish tradition. She points out that the Hebrew word for baby comes from a root meaning “to suckle.” “A baby is defined as a nursing baby,” she says.

At a conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, Padwa addressed the subject of “Breasts, Babies and Boundaries: Breastfeeding in the Talmud.” “The Talmud clearly considers breastfeeding the only way to feed a child,” she says. “Tzniut [modesty] is certainly an important value, but it is a misinterpretation … to think that a mother feeding her child is immodest or improper.”

Christian women, too, are spreading the word that breastfeeding is part of God’s plan for our bodies and our families. Elaine Smith* of Dubuque, Iowa, is a pastor’s wife. She cites the verse, “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, all you who love her … for you will nurse and be satisfied at her comforting breasts; you will drink deeply and delight in her overflowing abundance” (Isaiah 66:10-11).

Though many believe the Bible uses exclusively male images of God, these verses are a glimpse into God’s softer, more nurturing side. And if it’s good enough for God, it’s good enough for us, says Smith. “If God Himself uses … nursing and feeding a child as an analogy to explain His love for us, then I feel no shame in doing these things and talking about them.”

Though Smith is comfortable with breastfeeding, she doesn’t do it in the church because it might distract others. “Images of the female breast have sexual connotations,” she says. “There will be some that are offended.” Her church makes every effort to accommodate nursing moms discreetly, providing them with comfortable chairs and closed-circuit television to watch the service. “I look at this as being for my comfort as well as others’,” she says.

Hadass Evans* of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, agrees with Padwa about the Jewish principle of modesty. First, she says, “I nurse very discreetly – I challenge anyone to see any flesh once the baby is latched on.” But Evans is careful to clarify what’s most important to her. “Modesty is one thing,” she says. “Depriving a baby of nourishment is another.”

Like Smith, though, Evans won’t nurse during services at her egalitarian, conservative synagogue. “I don’t eat there myself … I just don’t feel it’s appropriate,” she says. “So I go sit in the foyer and greet everyone who comes in.” She’s not shy about breastfeeding elsewhere. “Recently, I was in a store trying to buy a piece of furniture and the baby was pitching a fit, so I sat down and plugged her in and signed the Visa bill with my other hand,” she says. “The poor salesman didn’t know where to look, but he survived!”

Religious Law

Beyond modesty, religious women also have concerns about fast days, when food and drink are forbidden. For Christian women of the Catholic faith, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fast. While it is generally understood that pregnant and nursing mothers are excused from this law, they are encouraged to substitute an appropriate sacrifice.

“I never fully fasted while I was pregnant or nursing,” says Sherry Frances* of Erie, Pa. “Instead, I implemented a modest diet of bland, yet nutritious, foods. I ate foods in their natural form, and I did not cook.”

There are five “minor” fasts for Jewish women, lasting only from sunrise to sunset, for which dispensation is often available for the comfort of Mother or Baby. Two, though, Yom Kippur and Tisha b’Av, are “major” fasts, beginning at sunset one day and ending at sunset of the next.

Padwa says this hasn’t been a problem for her. “Personally, I have never had a very young baby at either fast,” she says. However, she notes that Tisha b’Av is not among the original holy days prescribed by the Torah. Hence, rabbis are more likely to allow eating or drinking than on Yom Kippur, when fasting is a more serious imperative.

The important thing is to differentiate between discomfort – which all Jews feel to some extent – and actual danger to life or health. During my first pregnancy, almost full term and with Yom Kippur approaching, I asked my doctor whether she thought fasting was advisable. She didn’t seem too religious, and frankly, I was looking for a break. Without hesitation, she looked down at her growing belly and said, “Well, I am.”

On Yom Kippur, Padwa says most rabbis would normally suggest staying home and resting, “rather than going out to shul and running around and becoming dehydrated.” Of course, in cases where the health of either Mother or Baby is in danger or for specific concerns, such as a pregnant woman with a history of preterm labor, Judaism would always dictate ending the fast before endangering either life.

Padwa has recently become a La Leche League Leader and says her synagogue gives out her number to mothers needing support. Similarly, Smith tries to form relationships with pregnant women in her church to offer help. “I then follow that up with a meal or two once the baby is born,” she says.

Evans also helps mothers in her community – Jewish and non-Jewish – and draws inspiration from Biblical messages. “One of the wonderful stories about the matriarch Sarah is that she nursed a whole bunch of children, not just her own, to prove that she really did have a baby [at the advanced age of 90],” she says. Evans also recalls the party to mark Isaac’s weaning at age 3, Samuel, the prophet, nursing until he was old enough to go to the temple and be left there. (Evans weaned her oldest child, Rafi, at age 4.)

Padwa’s second child, Eliana, was a dedicated nurser who kept it up well into Padwa’s next pregnancy. Her husband assured Eliana that she’d be ready to stop when she turned 3. Padwa recalls the morning of Eliana’s 3rd birthday when the little girl woke up and asked about her party. “When I said [her party was this weekend], she replied, ‘Then I’m too old for nursies,'” says Padwa. “And she never asked again, even after her brother was born 11 days later.”

Following the matriarch Sarah’s example, some Jewish groups have started exploring new rituals to celebrate weaning. However, most women still mark the occasion as a private rite of passage, a sweet-but-tender reminder of their baby’s growing independence.

“Breastfeeding is more than milk,” Padwa says. “It’s a mother’s love in liquid form.” But a careful reading suggests it’s even more – far from immodest, it’s a natural extension of God’s overflowing, nurturing love.

“I enjoyed so much being able to look into my babies’ eyes and see them smile up at me as they nursed and were satisfied,” says Smith, whose youngest, Denise, is now 2 and no longer nursing. “They knew they were loved, and I knew that they loved me.”

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

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