New Jewish Rituals Offer Comfort to Women Who Have Had Abortions
‘Not being able to process it religiously makes it a very hard experience. We thought it’s important to give it a voice.’
Forty years ago, in a moment of what she later described as “self-centered professional zeal,” Batya had an abortion. She was 22 years old, a grad student about to leave the country for an archaeological expedition. “I did it in panic. I always wanted to have children, but I just wasn’t ready,” said the now-mother of three, who agreed to speak about her abortion only if she was identified by her nickname. That abortion turned out to be the first of two: The second occurred later, when her first marriage was falling apart. But afterward, she was troubled by feelings of grief and loss that she admits, many years later, are still partly unresolved.
“I haven’t been wallowing in misery for the last 40 years,” Batya told me. But she did think that a “spiritual, ritual way,” of marking the decision would have helped in resolving those feelings. So, when a young relative recently chose to have an abortion, Batya assisted her in finding a Jewish ritual to help her come to terms with the decision. Trawling the Internet turned up nothing at first, but then she found something: an immersion in the ritual bath offered by the Mayyim Hayyim (Living Waters) community mikveh in Newton, Mass. “I felt a certain sense of relief and comfort, in the fact that others had thought of this, and that there could be a certain solidarity and community,” Batya said. “We mark every other experience in a Jewish way; why not mark this one?”
The founders of Mayyim Hayyim concur, because they have created one of the very few Jewish rituals for a woman marking the termination of a pregnancy. The rite, written by Matia Rania Angelou, Deborah Issokson, and Judith D. Kummer—a poet, a psychologist, and a rabbi, respectively—is so exceptional that women who discover it are often astounded to find that it exists. It consists of three immersions in the mikveh, interspersed with short blessings and prayers, and it opens with a kavanah—the “intention” by which a person prepares herself to do a mitzvah in the fullness of her heart—asking God for help “to begin healing from this difficult decision to interrupt the promise of life.”
Within the Orthodox Jewish tradition, abortion is generally permitted only when the pregnancy would endanger the life of the woman, although some authorities allow it in cases of severe genetic disorders, such as Tay-Sachs disease. Conservative and Reform attitudes toward abortion tend to be more tolerant, allowing it in cases of severe psychological harm as well. Even so, “abortion is one of those issues that’s on the dark side of fertility,” said Elana Sztokman, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. “People, especially in the religious Jewish community, often do not like talking about it. Even though Judaism has quite a humane approach to abortion, the Jewish community as a whole still often does not speak openly about abortion. Many women who have had abortions experience solitude and loneliness and even a fear of social judgment.”
The result is that many Jewish women who choose abortion go through the ordeal alone, in silence and fear and with no spiritual recourse or guidance. While prayers for women have been composed to mark virtually every other life-changing experience—including miscarriage, infertility, and menopause—the notion that some form of religious observance is necessary, desirable, or acceptable for abortion is hard for many people to fathom. They may believe that abortion is a procedure that the woman has chosen, often for “elective” social reasons, and not something visited upon her, as with an unintended pregnancy loss. A Jewish ritual for abortion is also complicated from a feminist point of view: Forty years after Roe v. Wade—and decades of often-violent anti-abortion activism and restrictive state legislation—some feminists don’t necessarily want to acknowledge the notion that abortion may be associated with feelings of grief, loss, or regret that may last for years.
Yet some women who have chosen abortion, even if they are sure that it is the right choice at the time, find themselves dwelling upon the decision, even years after the procedure, and often on its anniversary or in the weeks leading up to it. Immersing in the mikveh, said Mayyim Hayyim’s executive director Carrie Bornstein, can offer the woman an opportunity for separation and transition: “Oftentimes it’s helpful for people to say, ‘I’m going to move to the next stage of my life, whatever that might bring, and I’m not going to let that experience define me or take me over.’ ”
From a halachic point of view, going to the mikveh after an abortion is, in fact, required for a married woman, Bornstein adds, since she has an obligation to immerse after uterine bleeding in order to enter a state of taharah—ritual purity. Aliza Kline, the founding director of Mayyim Hayyim, claims that there are “probably scores, if not hundreds, if not thousands of women” who have gone to the mikveh after an abortion. “Having to go and be dishonest as to why you are going seems to me completely counterintuitive to the whole notion of mikveh, during which you are naked, vulnerable, and exposed,” Kline said. “The notion that the community is closing their eyes and plugging their ears and saying ‘la la la, this isn’t happening,’ is really not helpful.”
Mayyim Hayyim is not the first institution to offer a Jewish ritual for abortion: In 1998, Conservative Rabbi Amy Eilberg published a post-abortion ritual in Moreh Derekh, the Rabbinical Assembly’s “Rabbi’s Manual” that serves as the Conservative community’s guide to Jewish life-cycle events. Eilberg, who is now on the faculty of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in Brighton, Minn., says she wrote the “grieving ritual following termination of pregnancy” out of “a general Jewish feminist awareness that the tradition was created substantially by men . . . who didn’t necessarily know what women, if they had agency, would want to have included in the tradition.”
Eilberg recalls that in her work as a hospital chaplain in the early 1990s, she met many women who had experienced a pregnancy loss or termination. “Whether it was because of an abnormality, whether it was because conception was unintended, and the mother discerned that she was not going to be able to take care of this baby, or God forbid it was a rape, whatever the circumstances, I frequently encountered grief and sometimes significant ambivalence of ‘am I doing the right thing?’ ” These women often sought reassurance from their loved ones or community, she said, “that there is some way to sanctify the decision that I’ve made.”
Eilberg’s ceremony, which does not specify the reason for the termination, is designed to take place in the rabbi’s study or at the woman’s home, in the presence of trusted family and friends. It includes prayers and passages from Psalms, and, most significant, a “rabbinic meditation” that acknowledges that a choice has been made, and that sometimes it is a “terrible choice that was no choice at all.” It ends with words from Deuteronomy 30:19, which we read from the Torah this year on Aug. 31, the double portion Nitzavim-Vayelech: “Choose life, that you and your seed may live.”
Most American Jews have effectively cast off rabbinic guidance. Would the Talmud’s rabbis have respected us for it, or disdained us?