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.’
Opening the door to hope and renewal is a theme that runs through a recent post-abortion ritual devised by Rabbi Tamar Duvdevani, currently a graduate student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio. The ceremony, composed in Hebrew, appears in Parashat HaMayim: Immersion in Water as an Opportunity for Renewal and Spiritual Growth, a book published in Israel in 2011 including immersion ceremonies, edited by four Reform Rabbis: Alona Lisitsa, Dalia Marx, Maya Leibovich, and Tamar Duvdevani. The ritual draws its inspiration from the tashlich (“casting off”) service performed on Rosh Hashanah, in which Jews gather by a stream of flowing water and toss their sins (along with a pocketful of breadcrumbs or crusts) into the river or sea.
Rabbi Dalia Marx of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem admits that the editors debated at length on whether to include an abortion ritual in the collection. “If you write a ritual for it, it means that you embrace it, or you think it’s legitimate,” she said. “And obviously, most of us think that it is legitimate; it’s unfortunate, but it’s something that happens to many women.” It’s also an experience that many women go through alone—without a partner, friend, or family to accompany them. “Not being able to process it religiously makes it a very hard experience,” Marx said. “We thought it’s important to give it a voice.”
As the introduction to their service explains, it was precisely because of the secrecy attached to abortion that the editors decided to create the ritual to sustain the woman through her distress. It’s also why they recommend sharing the ceremony with a group of friends and a leader, who introduces it with words of reassurance: “We have gathered here to mark the choice of [woman’s name] to abort the fetus in her womb. We know it was not an easy decision, and we offer her our support.” The woman recites passages from Psalms and from the daily Amidah prayer and declares her intention to bear in mind “the sprout of life” that grew in her womb and announce her choice not to let it flourish. She throws breadcrumbs into the water, and the leader responds: “This stream of water is like the stream of tears that washes away pain and purifies your heart, for forgiveness and a new beginning.” The woman then immerses herself in a stream of running water.
The choice of running water—the sea, a spring—over a traditional mikveh is deliberate: “Mikveh in Israel is a very loaded, Orthodox institution,” said Marx, adding that the mikveh lady may have instructions not to let an unmarried woman immerse. Yet one Orthodox mikveh-in-the-making in Jerusalem, the Eden Center, is open to the idea of immersion after abortion. Naomi Grumet, the founder of the Eden Center, explained that “mikveh is a connection to eternity, to creation, to the cycle of life, because a mikveh has to come from natural rainwater. The mikveh itself represents the womb, represents rebirth, represents reconnection.” While the Eden Center would not necessarily create its own abortion ritual, it might, Grumet said, “provide a platform if women will find it meaningful,” perhaps by providing Mayyim Hayyim’s ceremony in translation.
The Eden Center may prove to be the rare Orthodox organization willing to consider such a ritual. As Meira—a woman who had an abortion recently and also asked to use a nickname—explained, such a service would be unthinkable in the Orthodox mikveh that she visits monthly. Earlier this year, Meira decided to end the pregnancy of a “very planned, very wanted fourth child,” following a “bad prenatal diagnosis.” She looked for a feminist ritual and found the one offered by Mayyim Hayyim but couldn’t imagine explaining the service to her mikveh attendant: “Mikveh and abortion are two completely contrary spaces for me, because I’m so used to mikveh being this profoundly Orthodox space,” she explained. “The people who I think of who are pro-choice—who are people who have either had, or would have an abortion, even if many of them are vibrant, observant Jewish women—are a very different set of people in my mind from the women who consistently go to mikveh.” Even so, she said, the fact that the ritual exists at all “gives me a certain level of peace.”
Discomfort over the place of abortion within Judaism—or the need for a Jewish ritual to mark it—is not confined to Orthodox circles. “When, God forbid, a woman has to terminate a pregnancy due to her own physical and emotional health crisis, or because she was raped, or because the fetus was terminally ill, then I think these rituals could play an important role in her healing and renewal,” said Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky of the Conservative synagogue Ansche Chesed on New York’s Upper West Side. But he added a caveat: “Now, I suppose that this is true only of those regrettable instances when one terminates a pregnancy for responsible and defensible reasons. I do share the view of many people that purely elective abortion runs afoul of many Jewish values and norms.”
Is a formal post-abortion ritual really necessary? Aliza Lavie, Bar Ilan University academic and author of A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book, wonders why a woman needs official sanction to say a prayer after terminating a pregnancy. “She decided to do it, so why does she need to ask permission for prayer from a rabbi?” asked Lavie, who is currently a member of the Israeli Knesset representing the party Yesh Atid. “Why can’t she decide for herself? This is her reality, she knows her situation, she knows her needs, so she is the one to decide what to pray, and when, and whatever.” Like our biblical foremothers and forefathers, who composed their own prayers, she, too, can write her own, Lavie suggests—as women have done throughout the centuries.
Lavie believes that the search for such a ritual is a very “modern” quest, in the sense that abortion was rarely an option for women in past centuries. That such ceremonies are springing up now—and not 20, 30, or 40 years ago—also reflects the flowering of new feminist ritual since the 1980s, noted Eilberg. They were not composed earlier, she believes, perhaps because of the political complexity that surrounds the issue: the vexed question of how to reconcile a pro-choice, feminist position with a Jewish ritual that acknowledges the sense of loss and ambivalence that may follow an abortion. But Eilberg doesn’t see the contradiction: “This is not about politics; this is about a mother’s experience,” she said. “Prayer isn’t about moral logic; prayer responds to the human being’s need for God, for comfort, for community. And that’s the spirit in which I offered it—despite the fact that I personally very much believe that abortion needs to be available in a healthy and safe way for women who need it.”
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Most American Jews have effectively cast off rabbinic guidance. Would the Talmud’s rabbis have respected us for it, or disdained us?