"Nursing in Shul: A Halachically-Informed Perspective" is an academic treatise that was published in the Spring 2020 issue of The CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly, the scholarly journal of the Central Conference of American rabbis. It asks if a mother may openly nurse in a synagogue sanctuary, and explains why the answer is a resounding "YES!" based on centuries of Jewish tradition.
Nursing in Shul:
Note: This is very formally written, but I include it here because I feel it is an important topic, one that is not often found in Jewish modern literature. I hope it may serve as a resource for anyone who is seeking a contemporary perspective on the halachot, or laws, that apply to nursing in public.
A congregant who is a new mother wishes to attend services at temple and she stated quite publicly that she intends to nurse her infant in the sanctuary should he become hungry. Another congregant overheard this and felt quite uncomfortable. He came to the rabbi for clarity. What does tradition say regarding the issue of nursing mothers during prayer?
In addressing the question, I must first acknowledge the social concerns that arise from the notion of a woman breastfeeding in the temple sanctuary. Discomfort on the part of other congregants is a valid concern. Yet social habits change over time, as do the attitudes of congregants. I therefore acknowledge that the values involved in making this decision (tzniut—modesty, k’vod hatzibur —respect for the community, “sanctity,” etc.), are rooted in social convention, no matter how much I may wish such conventions to be religiously grounded.
I must thusly consider two separate yet related issues: (1) tzniut, or the laws of modesty; and (2) laws regarding the sanctity of the synagogue.
Were I 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 bimah. Orthodox Jews adhere to different standards of modesty, and while their definition of tzniut has evolved over time, in general, it is much more fixed.
Traditionally, halachah derives the laws of tzniut from biblical sources, primarily Micah 6:8: “The Eternal requires of you: only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk modestly (v’hatz’neia lechet) with your God.” Other biblical sources of tzniut include
Genesis 3:21: “And the Eternal 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 B’reishit Rabbah 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. Genesis 24:63–65 continues the theme, for Rebekah puts on her veil as she is about to meet Isaac, say the Rabbis, for reasons of tzniut.
Throughout Rabbinic literature, to walk modestly (v’hatz’nei-a lechet) with your God has been interpreted 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 Pirkei Avot 4:1 asks, “Who is powerful? One who subdues his passions.” To this end, the Sages have provided numerous ways in which men can avoid arousal: men can avoid conversation with women,1 women follow behind men, even in a mourning procession 2 , women do not expose their hair in public,3 and men do not listen to a woman sing.4 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.5
As a whole, Reform Jews today do not stringently follow these rules. We do not believe that men are incapable of controlling themselves; on the contrary, we hold that men, women, and those of all gender identifications do have the ability to conquer or subdue their sexual urges. Yet, we only wish to subdue these urges in situations where they are unwelcome or inappropriate. We embrace sex when it is consensual, and we welcome expressions of healthy sexuality.6 As an egalitarian movement, we do not require women to cover their hair,7 and the Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, ordains female cantors, rejecting the statement that kol b’ishah ervah (a voice of a woman is nakedness).8 While we do value modesty and humility, we do not solely define it in terms of keeping sexual thoughts at bay. The expression of tzniut is generally a personal choice in Reform Judaism. We acknowledge societal values by encouraging modest dress at services, particularly at b’nei mitzvah, yet ultimately the choice of dress is a person’s own and largely unenforceable.
That said, I 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 sixteenth-century poskim R. Joseph Karo and R. Moshe Isserles, the Shulchan Aruch states that a man can only recite d’varim sh’bikdushah (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 k’riyat sh’ma opposite it,” with k’riyat sh’ma including any words of prayer or Torah study.9 The commentary in Mishnah B’rurah 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.”10 Traditionally, this means a man
may not pray in the presence of a nursing woman.
On the other hand, a minority opinion by the thirteenth-century Rabbeinu 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.11 His contemporary Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet (Rashba) adds that other women in the same room may
also recite all prayers and blessings in the presence of a nursing mother.12 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.13 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.14 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.15
The Sages’ concern is clearly the exposure of the bosom, for they see any attention to a woman’s body as inherently sexual. As a modern Reform Jew, I do not share this unease. I have faith that anyone who is observing a nursing mother will not sexualize a
lactating breast. And if for some reason someone is aroused by the sight, I believe that that person is capable of recognizing their sexual urge as inappropriate and uninvited, and will do their best to conquer it immediately.
In addition, I feel that in today’s world, the opinion of Rashba should be expanded: a woman should be able to nurse not only in the presence of other women who are praying, but should be able to nurse in front of any person who is praying, including men and other genders. Perhaps the Rabbis did not consider that another woman might be aroused by the sight of a nursing breast; or, if they did, perhaps they discarded the possibility, believing that women could overcome their sexual urges better than men. In either case, I believe that a permissive act for women should be a permissive act for all genders. And since all individuals can control their urges,
I have no issue with anyone praying in the presence of a nursing mother.
As I place the responsibility to tame inappropriate sexual urges upon those who are viewing a nursing mother, and do not hold her liable for their urges, it also follows that I put the onus of the ability to pray upon the person who is distressed by a nursing child,
and not upon the mother herself. It is not the nursing mother’s responsibility to make others in the sanctuary feel comfortable, and the observer’s ability to pray does not take precedence over the mother’s desire to pray. Reform Judaism does not hold to the same obligation to pray as does Orthodoxy, so if an observer is uncomfortable or distracted by the sight of a nursing child, they may alter the focus of their attention or remove themselves from the immediate vicinity.
It is important to note, as well, that all the halachot cited portray relative leniency in the tradition. They underscore the Rabbis’ feelings that it was equally crucial to nurse a child as it was to pray to God. In contrast to today, in which the availability of formula
and the necessity of returning to the workforce lead almost 80 percent of American women to stop nursing by the time their child is one year old,16 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.”17 A baby should also
be allowed to nurse as often as it desires, up to and including all day.18 This is likened to prayer, as the Talmud Y’rushalmi 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.”19
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” as a Jew of every gender. It is a basic right of every Jew to pray, just as it is a basic right of every child to eat, and a man’s obligation to pray does not trump the obligation of a woman. If a nursing mother wants to go to synagogue to pray and her infant becomes hungry, then we must support her in her choice to pray, as well as in her need to feed her child.
The Sanctity of the Synagogue
Talmud Bavli M’gillah 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 (k’dushat beit haknesset)?
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).20 This includes not playing or engaging21 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’nei mitzvah dress code or a congregational requirement for bimah attire. As explained by Rabbi Mark Washofsky, however, “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.”23 Synagogue standards of what constitutes “respect” can thus vary dramatically.
One contemporary form of respect that is almost universally accepted is the custom for a parent to remove a child from the sanctuary if that child becomes loud or boisterous, in order to show regard for the synagogue as well as for the other congregants. Yet, in
discussing the reading of the M’gillah, the Shulchan 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 I contend that if the presence of loud, boisterous children
are conducive to sanctity at Purim, then the presence and noise of a nursing child in the sanctuary, when the mother is literally providing physical as well as spiritual nourishment, is also conducive to sanctity on Purim and all other days.
Taking into account both the concept of tzniut and the sanctity of the synagogue, I conclude that a nursing mother is welcome and encouraged to feed her child wherever she so pleases. An individual’s choice to pray does not, and should not, supersede either a woman’s necessity to feed her child or the child’s right to be fed. If observers find her exposed breast or the attention to her chest distracting, they may choose to direct their thoughts elsewhere or to physically move to another location. The miracle of nursing a child is holy work and unequivocally belongs in a sanctuary.
1. Mishnah Avot 1:5
2. JT Sanhedrin 2:4d
3. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 75:10. This is learned from Numbers 5:18, “The priest shall bare the woman’s head,” and its interpretation in Sifrei B’midbar 11, “We learn from this that the daughters of
Israel covered their heads.”
4. BT B’rachot 24a, Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 75:17. A woman’s voice is ervah (a source of eroticism).
5. JT B’rachot 4:1, 7d.
6. See discussion of sexual ethics in Rachel Adler, “Justice and Peace Shall Kiss: An Ethics of Sexuality and Relationship,” in Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics (Philadelphia, PA: The
Jewish Publication Society, 1998), chap. 4.
7. CCAR New American Reform Responsa 13: “Women with Heads Covered in the Synagogue” (August 1990).
8. BT B’rachot 24a.
9. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 75:1 and Mishnah B’rurah 75:1–7 and 76:2.
10. Mishnah B’rurah 75:3 (Orenstein translation).
11. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 74:1, Mishnah B’rurah 75:4.
12. Mishnah B’rurah 75:8.
13. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 75:1, Mishnah B’rurah 75:3.
14. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 75:6, Mishnah B’rurah 75:29.
15. Extrapolated from BT 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!
16. 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.
17. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Dei-ah 81:7.
18. Tosefta Sotah 4:2D.
19. JT B’rachot 9:5, IX.C, 350 (Neusner translation).
20. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 151.
22. Ibid. See Mishnah B’rurah 151:5–9 for exceptions to these rules.
23. R. Mark Washofsky, Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice (New York: UAHC Press, 2001), 64.
24. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 689:6, Mishnah B’rurah 689:17–18.