The Early Weeks of Pregnancy Do Not Need to Be Isolating
Baruch Atah, Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam Asher yatzar et ha’adam b’chochma Uvara vo nekavim nekavim Chalulim chalulim Galui v’yadua lifne chisei ch’vodecha Sh’im yipateiach echad meihem O yisateim ehad meihem I efshar l’hitkayem v’la’amod lefanekha Baruch Atah Adonai, rofei chol basar, umafli la’asot.
Blessed are You, God, our God, sovereign of the universe, who formed humans with wisdom and created within him many openings and many hollows.It is obvious in the presence of your glorious throne that if one of them were ruptured, or if one of them were blocked, it would be impossible to exist and standin your presence.Blessed are You, God, who heals all flesh and performs wonders. [translation by Hazon]
With these words, we give thanks for the miraculous and mundane functioning of our bodies. For veins and arteries that allow our blood to flow; for our intestines that allow us to absorb nutrients to sustain ourselves; for the spinal columns that act as conduits between our bodies and our minds, allowing us to breathe and to dream, to run and to pray, to cry and to hope.
This prayer tells us that if only one of the closed tubes were to open, or one of the open channels were to shut, if one gene had flipped when we were conceived, it would be impossible to endure and sing God’s praises today. The rabbis who penned this prayer knew what could go wrong. Their willingness to acknowledge the tissue-thin boundary between life and death only lent strength to their wonder when contemplating the complexity of God’s creation.
I wonder about the stories that lie behind this prayer. What memories did the rabbis recall when they uttered it each morning? How did its words fit the contours of their lives? I don’t know. But I know how they fit mine.
Many of you have met my wonderful daughters, or at least follow their antics on my Facebook page. For all the mundane work that parenting entails, the experience of watching my girls grow into people who can ask questions and write music and occasionally clear their dishes from the table is an ongoing lesson in radical amazement. And the awe and wonder that strike me when I realize that somehow, twice, everything went right, are only compounded by my memory of the time it went wrong.
Because between the births of my two girls, there was another pregnancy. It began as easily as the other two. I took my vitamins went to prenatal yoga. After keeping it secret for the first 12 weeks, I gratefully broke out my maternity clothes. I was thrilled when I could finally feel the baby move.
And then, at 17 weeks, I got troubling test results. At the follow-up ultrasound, we learned there was an opening in a tube that should have been closed—the baby’s neural tube, which would have become its spine. One tiny hole in this essential membrane had resulted in a fatal blurring of inside and outside, as the baby’s spinal fluid seeped out into the watery environment that was meant to sustain its life. “Im yipateach echad mehem, i efshar l’hitkayem v’la’amod lefanakha.” We had no choice but to terminate that life before it began.
A few days later, I sat with my older daughter, who was two at the time, while she took a bath. As I watched the water roll down the curve of her perfectly average spine, I was overcome by the recognition of what it took for her to be born whole. It turns out that before I was born, a gene flipped, making me more likely to have a child with a neural tube defect. But we had had no idea because of Catherine’s miraculously uneventful entry into our lives. As with the rabbis who wrote Asher Yatzar, my newfound recognition of all that could go wrong served to reinforce my awe at what had somehow gone right.
These are the stories I carried with me when I approached the text of the Tazria Torah portion in preparation for this sermon. I opened to Leviticus and read: “Isha ki tazria v’yaldah zachar v’tamah shivat yamim” [A woman who produces seed and gives birth to a boy is “impure” for seven days]. She then remains “bidmei taharah” [in a state of blood purification] for 33 days, after which she brings a sacrifice to the temple. When she gives birth to a girl, on the other hand, she is tamei for two weeks instead of one, and waits twice as long before bringing her offering. Concerned with maintaining secure boundaries between holy and profane, and between life and death, the authors of Leviticus envision a world in which everything is either “tahor” or “tamei.” Typically these words are translated as meaning “pure” and “impure” or “clean” and “unclean.” But what is unclean, or impure about a woman who has given birth?
As Professor David Kraemer explains, citing Rabbi Eliezer, the term tahor is used to mark what is rightfully in our realm; tamei designates that which belongs to God. “We cannot eat the ‘impure’ animal,” he explains, “because God, its creator, has not granted us the right to do so. Its impurity marks it as ‘out of bounds.’” Likewise, “life and death,” and by extension, pregnancy and birth, “are in the realm of God.” Contact with God’s realm is what renders us tamei. When a woman gives birth, the Levitical system recognizes that she has breached the boundary between God’s domain and our own. It therefore creates ritual means for reestablishing that boundary and bring her back into community.
I had read this portion many, many times before. But this time, I found myself becoming angry. I wanted to know: “What if a pregnancy ended before you knew if it was a boy or a girl? How long would we remain tamei then? Would we pretend it never happened? What kind of sacrifice accounts for a life that ends before it begins? It seems to me that any system designed to make firm the slippery boundaries between life and death needs to account for that dark and unbounded space in which too many of us find ourselves as we try to bring life into this world.
According to our commentators, the word “tazria” itself does just that, by encompassing the realities of both birth and pregnancy loss. They read: “Isha ki tazria v’yaldah zachar.” and ask: What is the word “tazria” doing here? After all, if it means simply to give birth, that is covered by the more common “yaldah.” Both Rashi and Ramban suggest that because “‘tazria’ literally means ‘to give forth seed’, even if the embryo has lost its human form, and what emerges appears like the ‘seed’ that went into her,” the mother is treated as having given birth. They acknowledge what we too often seek to ignore – that not all pregnancies end with a child. They insist that even when a pregnancy dissolves into something that resembles only the primordial beginnings of life, we cannot pretend that nothing happened. We must instead ritually recognize that the woman took part, albeit too briefly, in the act of creation.
The rabbis’ desire to ritually account for pregnancy loss finds expression in the Mishnah, where Rabbi Me’ir says, “whenever a woman miscarries something that is like an animal or bird,” it is counted as though it were a birth for purposes of requiring a ritual sacrifice. Likewise, in considering who does not need to bring a sacrifice, the rabbis recapitulate the early stages of creation, holding that there is no sacrifice when a woman miscarries an embryo that is filled with water, or unformed matter, or something in the shape of fish, locusts, or creeping things.
Somewhere between the conception and the birth of a child the potential life becomes human, and must be marked as such. But the rabbis struggle to find the line. In this way, they are not so unlike prospective parents today staring at the shifting images of an ultrasound. The shadowy figure my husband and I saw on the screen may have resembled a fish, or a locust, or a bird still in its shell, but at some point, we had taken the leap and set our hopes on it, declaring it human, and declaring it ours.
The rabbis do not even shy away from the reality of multiple losses. They discuss how many pairs of pigeons need to be sacrificed by a woman who has had several consecutive miscarriages. When a woman has one miscarriage after another, asking how many pigeons she should sacrifice seems absurdly callous. You want to shake the authors of these statements and say, “Would you forget about the pigeons for a second? What about the parents who are suffering?” But this is where we have it exactly wrong. The rabbis are not the ones who ignore the pain of those who have suffered this kind of loss. They look at one word, tazria, and intuit that the Levitical system must have been designed to address both full-term and aborted pregnancies. They acknowledge the possibility of loss after loss, and try to determine how to bring those who have suffered back into the community.
It is we instead who typically turn the early weeks of pregnancy into a period of taboo and isolation. How often do we at HUC-JIR see students go missing for weeks or months at a time while they anxiously wait to see if their pregnancies will continue long enough to merit recognition. Women who are battling the early weeks of morning-sickness, or tired from waking up early to go for their latest round of IVF. Partners who check their phone in class, hoping that the latest test will not bring bad news. If things turn out well, there is eventually an announcement, and we retroactively understand why they seemed to disappear. If not, they remain invisible. When someone in our community suffers a death in their family, we are pretty good about taking care of them. What if we were as good at talking about the fear and uncertainty that accompany early pregnancy?
Instead, we effectively place those who are trying to conceive and sustain pregnancy michutz lamachaneh [outside the camp]. As Nancy Wiener and Jo Hirschmann write in “Maps and Meaning,” Leviticus uses the metaphor of the camp to mark encounters with life and death that remove us from community. One example is the mysterious skin condition known as tzara’at. Tzara’at breached the limits of the body, blurring the distinction between life and death that was so important to maintaining an appropriately bounded connection with God.
Once diagnosed by the priest, the person with tzara’at would have to tear his clothes and let his hair go loose, and cry out “tamei, tamei” to announce his status. What’s more, “Badad yeisheiv; michutz lamachaneh moshavo” [He was to dwell alone outside the camp]. Badad yeisheiv: Rashi says this means he was to be separated even from others suffering the same affliction.
To modern ears, forcing the afflicted to call out “tamei, tamei” seems terribly cruel. And yet, the rabbis suggest that this announcement served to notify the community to pray for healing and compassion on his behalf. By contrast, when we shroud pregnancy loss in secrecy, we rob the prospective parents of a public transition into mourning, and close them off from the prayers of their community. As anthropologist Linda Layne, who suffered multiple miscarriages, writes in “Motherhood Lost”: “[I remember] the time I learned that the baby had died right before I was scheduled to speak at a conference, and I talked my doctor into prescribing progesterone to sustain the pregnancy long enough for me to go, so my personal loss would not be compounded by a professional loss. Then, once I got there, how weird I felt acting as if nothing was wrong; carrying a dead baby inside me that no one could see, and feeling unable to broach the subject … even with my closest colleagues. What could I say?…I’m in the middle of a miscarriage? And what would the appropriate response be in that context?” She and others have noted that the prevalent theme in the stories of women who have suffered this kind of loss is silence. “Bereaved mothers say again and again ‘no one wanted to hear, no one let me talk, no one listened, no one said I’m sorry.”
According to the Levitical regime, once the priest determined that tzara’at was gone, the aflicted would undergo an elaborate purification ritual and offer a sacrifice, marking his reentry into society. But while we ritually mark the transition to parenthood when pregnancies succeed, we have no rites to reincorporate those who suffer a pregnancy loss. As one woman who suffered two stillbirths explains in “Motherhood Lost”: “There is a Limbo, but it’s not for the stillborn babies. It’s for their parents. We gave birth – sort of. We had a child – sort of. Our child died – sort of. Soon we learn to speak of things somewhere between birth and death, as we live in our someplace between heaven and hell.”
As for me, I took two days off from work after my termination. I was physically fine, and the consensus was that I might as well get back to work. I spent most of those two days binge-watching “America’s Next Top Model,” and avoiding going outside. When I eventually had to leave my house, my only consolation was that I no longer looked pregnant, and so no one would have to know what had happened. As Rabbi Sara Luria teaches, women are hungry for prayer and ritual to acknowledge experiences that otherwise go unmarked. She says every woman’s body is heavy with stories, and there is power in telling them.
If you ask many women why they wait to tell people they are pregnant, they will tell you they want to avoid having to “untell” everyone if something goes wrong. As someone who had to do this, I assure you, the untelling is not the hard part. In fact, it can be a surprising source of comfort. Because I was already visibly pregnant, I had to untell everyone – friends, family, the partners in my law firm, even the opposing counsel on my cases. And as soon as those emails went out – as soon as I called out tamei tamei – people responded with their own stories. It turns out there is a huge community that has spent time outside the camp. But in order to find it, you must announce yourself. Otherwise, badad teisheiv – you will find yourself alone indefinitely.
If the personal is political, then telling our untold stories is a political act. It is a way of challenging the taboo around women’s reproductive experiences. It’s a way to admit that life is messy, and that there will be times when our bodies will disrupt society’s expectations of boundary and containment. To reclaim our right to call out “tamei, tamei,” is to acknowledge that sometimes it is the social boundaries that we believe will protect us that make us unable to stand before God. “Im yisateim echad mehem, i efshar l’hitkayem, v’laamod l’fanecha.” Sometimes we need to dare to open up what for too long has been closed.
When I spoke of my experience during my interview for a chaplaincy training program, my supervisor asked what I thought God’s role had been in all of it. I had no earthly idea. Now I would say that God was in the love and compassion I felt when I broke open the silence that had surrounded my loss. Through the compassion of people who heard my story, I began to envision a God who could handle my anger. Through the love I felt from those around me, I started to imagine that even I was worthy of God’s love. After the untelling comes retelling, which if we are lucky can ultimately lead to wholeness.
Do you have a story that has gone untold? Has your experience with the inexplicable mystery of life and death left you or someone you love dwelling silent and alone outside the camp? Has your soul cried out, “tamei tamei” even as your lips have remained silent? If so, I invite you to open yourself up to the compassion of this community, and to rise, and stand before God as we praise God together:
Praised are you, Eternal and Compassionate One, who invites us to become partners in the creation of human life. We are painfully aware that there is a hair’s breadth between life and death, and that when things go wrong, it can feel impossible to endure, and to stand in your presence. But when we cry out, you find us in our solitude outside the camp and lead us back home, so that we may recognize your compassion reflected in the eyes of those who love us. Praised are you, Adonai, whose compassion allows us to heal, so that we may appreciate once again Your world of wonders.
Nicole Armenta Auerbach is a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in New York. This piece is adapted from a sermon delivered at HUC-JIR on April 23, 2015.