“Nursing in Shul: A Reform Responsum. ” A traditional research-based Q&A answering the question if a woman may nurse in the sanctuary.
Rabbi Michal Loving
QUESTION: A congregant who is a new mother wishes to attend services at temple. She has stated that she intends to nurse her infant in the sanctuary should he become hungry. Another congregant says she should not be allowed to do so. Which view does tradition uphold? Should she be allowed to nurse in the sanctuary, or not?
ANSWER: We first must acknowledge the social concerns that arise from the notion of a woman breastfeeding in the temple sanctuary. Squeamishness on the part of other congregants is a valid concern. Yet social habits change over time, as do the attitudes of congregants. We therefore acknowledge that the values involved in making this decision (tzniut, k’vod hatzibur, “sanctity,” etc.), are rooted in social convention, no matter how much we may wish such conventions to be religiously irrelevant.
Our responsum must consider two separate yet related issues: 1) tzniut, or the laws of modesty; and 2) laws regarding the sanctity of the synagogue.
Were we to regard nursing in public immodest, there would be no question but to refuse a woman the right to nurse her child in the sanctuary. However, the value of modesty, tzniut, is a fluid term. To engage in tzniut in Reform Judaism is not the same as following a straightforward rule, like how to build a sukkah, or how to say a prayer correctly. Modesty is not determined by the authority of any medieval religious body, but rather is subject to contemporary social convention and requires community standards. These standards constantly change throughout the years, for women now wear pants, keep their hair uncovered, and participate equally with men on the bima. Orthodox Jews adhere to different standards of modesty, and their definition of tzniut is much more fixed.
Traditionally, halacha derives the laws of tzniut from Biblical sources, primarily Micah 6:8: “The Lord requires of you: only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk modestly, v’hatz’nae-ah lechet, with your God.”1 The rabbis have interpreted v’hatz’nae-ah lechet in a variety of ways, all based upon the expectation that one’s clothes and actions reflect rabbinic understandings of humility, privacy and decency. Their overarching goal in enforcing tzniut is to avoid thoughts of sexuality. As Pirke Avot 4:1 asks, “Who is powerful? One who subdues his passions.” To this end, sages have provided numerous ways in which men can avoid arousal: men can avoid conversation with women,2 women follow behind men, even in a mourning procession,3 women do not expose their hair in public,4 and men do not listen to a woman sing.5 As a last resort, if men are truly overwhelmed with sexual thoughts, it is advised that they study Torah or even ponder the day of their deaths.6
Reform Jews today do not stringently follow these rules. We neither believe that men are incapable of controlling themselves, nor that the conquering of our sexual urges is necessary. In contrast, we embrace sexuality as long as it is expressed in a healthy and loving manner.7 As an egalitarian movement, we do not require women to cover their hair,8 and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion ordains female cantors, rejecting the statement that kol b’ isha ervah.9 While we do value modesty and humility, we do not necessarily define it in terms of keeping sexual thoughts at bay.
The value of tzniut is generally a personal choice in Reform Judaism. We do acknowledge societal values by encouraging modest dress at services, particularly at b’nai mitzvah, yet ultimately the choice of dress is a person’s own, and largely unenforceable. Yet we cannot ignore the fact that the possibility of baring a woman’s breast in the synagogue can negatively affect the prayer of others. As codified by 16th century poskim R. Joseph Caro and R. Moshe Isserles, the Shulkhan Aruch states that a man can only recite devarim shebikdushah, words pertaining to holiness, in the presence of a modestly dressed woman: “when a handbreadth of the body of a woman in an area which is normally covered, is exposed, then, even if the woman is one’s own wife, one is forbidden to read ‘The Reading of the Shema’ opposite it,” with “The Reading of the Shema” including any words of prayer or Torah study.10 The commentary in Mishnah Berurah further explains that “one must therefore be careful while one’s wife is nursing a child and her breasts are exposed [in order] to avoid uttering anything holy.”11 Traditionally, then, a man may not pray in the presence of a nursing woman.
On the other hand, the 13th century Rabbenu Asher deems it acceptable for a mother herself to study Torah and recite any blessing or prayer while nursing, even if she is not completely covered.12 His contemporary Rashba, or Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet, adds that other women in the same room may also recite all prayers and blessings in the presence of a nursing mother.13 The woman’s husband may study Torah and recite blessings and prayers while facing his nursing wife, but only if no parts of her body which are normally covered are exposed.14 If her breasts are exposed, say the Acharonim, then he may still study Torah and recite blessings, but only if his entire body is turned away from his wife. 15 This applies only to a husband and wife, however, for if a woman were to pray and nurse immodestly in front of any man other than her husband, she would be liable for divorce.16 In today’s society, in which blankets and nursing tops make it possible for a woman to nurse without exposing her breast, we see no problem with the issue of a man praying in the presence of a nursing mother.
The halachot cited portray relative leniency in the tradition. They underscore how important it was to the rabbis both to nurse a child, and to pray to God. In contrast to today’s societal expectations, which lead almost 80% of American women to stop nursing by the time their child is one year old,17 Jewish women of old were expected to nurse for much longer. The Shulchan Aruch states that “a child nurses for two years, or even four or five if he is weak.”18 A baby should also be allowed to nurse as often as he desires, up to and including all day.19 This is likened to prayer, as the Talmud Yerushalmi further states that “Just as an infant must nurse all through the day, so every person... must toil in the study of Torah all through the day.”20
Like Orthodoxy, Reform Judaism supports the concept of nursing a baby at all hours as needed. And, since we are egalitarian, we regard “a Jew involved in Torah study” to include a woman as well as a man. It is a basic right of every Jew to pray, just as it is a basic right of every child to eat. If a nursing mother wants to go to synagogue to pray and her infant becomes hungry, we must support her in her decision to feed her child. That said, she should do her best to nurse in a modest way, perhaps by covering herself or by moving to the back of the sanctuary where she will not distract others.
II. The sanctity of the synagogue.
B.T. Megillah 28a states that “Synagogues must not be treated disrespectfully.” If a woman were to nurse in the sanctuary, would she be treating the sanctuary with disrespect? What does it mean to violate the laws of sanctity of the synagogue, kedushah beit knesset?
According to tradition, one must engage in dignified behavior, and not “act with light-headedness” in synagogues or in a beit midrash, house of study.21 This includes not playing or engaging in “idle talk” or “foolishness,” as well as not eating, drinking, or sleeping in shul.22 Today, this same respectful behavior can mean creating a b’nai mitzvah dress code or a congregational requirement for bima attire. However, as explained by the modern scholar Rabbi Mark Washofsky, since “the definition of propriety is determined largely by minhag, the religious custom of the people, the standards of morality and taste that prevail within a particular community,” synagogue standards of what constitutes “respect” can vary dramatically.23
One contemporary form of respect that is almost universally accepted is the custom for a parent to remove a child from the sanctuary if it becomes loud or boisterous. This shows regard for the synagogue as well as for the other congregants. However, in discussing the reading of the Megillah, the Shulkhan Aruch says that parents are obligated not to remove their very young children from the sanctuary because they must perform the mitzvah of educating their children.24 To do otherwise is to violate the sanctity of the shul.25 We hold that if loud, boisterous children are conducive to sanctity at Purim, then nursing a child, which is a quiet activity that disturbs no one, is conducive to sanctity on Purim and all other days. As long as a nursing infant is not disturbing anyone, we fail to see why nursing during services could be considered unsacred.
We conclude that a nursing mother should be allowed to feed her child in the sanctuary if she so wishes. However, in light of the issues of tzniut and synagogue sanctity, as well as in consideration of the sensitivity of others, we ask that she act with restraint and show the least amount of skin possible.
1 Other Biblical sources of tzniut include Genesis 3:21, “And the Lord God made garments of skins for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.” This is seen as God teaching humanity the laws of tzniut. In Bereisheet Rabba 16.2, the rabbis explain that Eve was created not from the mouth, nor the eyes, nor any external part of Adam’s body, but from his internal limb, in respect to tzniut. In Genesis 24:63-65, Rebecca puts on her veil as she is about to meet Isaac because of tzniut. Other Biblical examples abound.
2 M. Avot 1:5
3 P.T. Sanhedrin 2:4d
4 Shulkhan Aruch Orah Hayim 75:10. Learned from Numbers 5:18, “The priest shall bare the woman’s head,” and its interpretation in Sifrei Bamidbar 11, “We learn from this that the daughters of Israel covered their heads.”
5 B.T. Berakhot 24a, Shulkhan Aruch Orah Hayim 75:17. A woman’s voice is ervah, a source of eroticism.
6 P.T. Berakhot 4:1, 7d
7 See discussion of sexual ethics in Chapter Four, “Justice & Peace Shall Kiss: An Ethics of Sexuality and Relationship” of Rachel Adler’s Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 1998.
8 CCAR New American Reform Responsa 13: “Women with Heads Covered in the Synagogue,” August 1990
9 B. Berakhot 24a
10 Shulkhan Aruch Orah Hayim 75:1 and Mishnah Berurah 75:1-7 and 76:2
11 Mishnah Berurah 75:3, Orenstein translation
12 Shulkhan Aruch Orah Hayim 74:1, Mishnah Berurah 75:4
13 Mishnah Berurah 75:8
14 Shulkhan Aruch Orah Hayim 75:1, Mishnah Berurah 75:3
15 Shulkhan Aruch Orah Hayim 75:6, Mishnah Berurah 75:29
16 Extrapolated from B.T. Gittin 89a, in which R. Meir states that a married woman who nurses in the street in front of men other than her husband is liable for divorce. How much the more so, we assume, if she nursed in front of men other than her husband while praying!
17 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Breastfeeding Among U.S. Children Born 1999-2006, CDC National Immunization Survey,” http://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/data/NIS_data/index.htm
18 Shulkhan Aruch Yoreh De’ah 81:7
19 Tosefta Sotah 4:2D
20 P.T. Berachot 9.5, IX.C, p.350 Neusner translation
21 Shulkhan Aruch Orah Hayim 151
22 Ibid. See Mishnah Berurah 151:5-9 for exceptions to these rules.
23 R. Mark Washofsky, Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice. New York, NY: UAHC Press, 2001, p. 64
24 Shulkhan Aruch Orah Hayim 689:6, Mishnah Berurah 689:17-18