Can you imagine giving birth in silence? Me neither. But at least one woman so driven by piety (and perhaps mental illness) did so, staying silent through the rest of the day, apparently because she made a vow of silence, or taanis dibur.
While her husband was at synagogue, one recent Shabbat morning, this woman gave birth to a baby boy, did not cut the umbilical cord and kept the placenta in a bag next to her, with the baby under her dress. She refused to speak to anyone. Not her husband, when he got home from shul, not the rabbi he called, and not the panel of rabbis assembled by neighbors to officially release her from her vow. Finally female police officers held the new mother’s arms while a paramedic cut the umbilical cord, separating the baby from the placenta, and forcibly took the baby and his mother to the hospital.
What stood out to me about this story is that the father seemed to wait several hours before sharing news of the birth, and he did so only in the context of asking for a blessing from his rabbi, when he returned to shul for afternoon prayers. This tells me that something is wrong with him as well.
It is also striking that the police and paramedics from Hatzalah spent two hours fruitlessly trying to persuade the woman to release the baby before deciding they would take action. That was two hours, many hours after the birth, with the baby still attached to the placenta and umbilical cord.
Why did it take them so long? Is it because the notion has become entrenched that anything done in the name of religion must be respected? Or because the authorities in Jerusalem fear doing anything that could be perceived as antagonistic to a member of the Haredi community?
My sources and others say that it seems clear that the new mother is suffering from some form of mental illness. “This is a woman who is clearly disturbed,” said Samuel Heilman, an expert on Hasidic life, in an interview. “Even among the most bizarre cults in religious circles no one would say what she did is appropriate.” That may well be true.
But it is also true that in some Haredi precincts there is a cultural condoning of extreme piety. The kind of piety that cloaks mental instability. Dysfunction is tolerated as long as the person is frum enough.
What’s more, the extreme edge of piety keeps getting pushed back, as demonstrated by the women of the fringe group Lev Tahor [Pure Heart], also known as the burka women, demonstrate.
While even the most rigorously Haredi people I know don’t think a Jewish woman wearing a burka is the right way to go, what is considered appropriate for women’s dress seems to be ever more restrictive. Shvimkleids, for instance, or the swimming dresses that Haredi women now wear even at women’s-only hours at bungalow colony swimming pools.
Stephanie Wellen Levine, author of “Mystics, Mavericks and Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey among Hasidic Girls,” said that during her time in Crown Heights, when she was researching the book, she met “people who gave up their jobs because they wanted to spend all of their important energy on trying to bring moshiach. It was extremely impractical, their lives went to pieces but to them this one piece of their religious life became more important than anything else,” she told The Sisterhood. “This story seems like a similar personality. A woman who says I took this vow of silence and will stick to it no matter what happens.”
There is also the notion, deeply rooted among the very pious, that God will provide no matter what for those who are truly devout. “She might well have had an attitude that she had a covenant with Hashem to stay silent and of course He will provide,” said Levine.
There is a Jewish tradition of people — and not just Haredim — making vows of silence for a defined period of time. They will abstain from any speech except during prayer, in an effort to elevate their thoughts and deeds.
And there is, apparently, a small movement of people who advocate not cutting or clamping the umbilical cord, and instead letting it naturally detach from the new baby after days. They call this lotus birthing.
Perhaps this Jerusalem mother was embracing some combination of both taanis dibur and “lotus birthing,” and the idea that God would take care of her and her baby no matter what, if she was sufficiently sincere in her prayers and commitment to her vow.
Maybe this illustrates that rather than tacitly support it, the Haredi community needs to take more seriously the mental illness where it exists in its midst.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen is an award-winning journalist who covers philanthropy, religion, gender and other contemporary issues. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and New York magazine, among many other publications. She authored the book “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant.”
Delivering a Baby in Silence