by Haviva Ner-David
One might have thought that “we” in the preceding quote would not apply to observant Jews, because when Bridges wrote “other societies,” he was referring to societies with strong religious rituals, such as ours. Interestingly, however, I, a Jewish woman deeply steeped in Jewish religious ritual, find that his quote rings true for me in many ways as well.
Although classical Judaism has life-cycle rituals, they are relatively minimal, and they were, for the most part, established for men, from a male perspective. We mark birth, coming of age, marriage, and death. Are there no significant life transitions between standing beneath the huppah and being buried beneath the earth?
For me, this omission became most apparent twice in connection with passages that only women experience. The first time was during an especially difficult miscarriage. I had five children at the time, ranging from three to twelve years old. I wanted one more, but it seemed that my body did not. This was my third miscarriage in six months, and I was over thirty-five years old. I was told at the end of the first trimester that the pregnancy was not viable, that the heart was not beating. But it took another few weeks before the miscarriage happened naturally.
I carried around this dead fetus long enough to come to terms with what seemed like the likelihood that I would not be birthing any more babies. It was an intense three weeks, in which I felt viscerally that this pregnancy was meant not to birth a baby, but rather to birth me in some way that was not clear to me at the time.
Then I started to bleed. I gave birth to my dead fetus—a mass of bloody tissue—on the toilet in a public bathroom. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life— both physically and emotionally. But I got through it. And then I had another couple of weeks of bleeding to decide how to mark this significant transition. With no traditional precedents but much rich Jewish and feminist material to guide me, I created a ritual for myself.
The Ritual in the Mikveh
Because I was living in Jerusalem at the time and did not have access to a mikveh that would welcome my novel ceremony, I could not hold the entire ritual in the mikveh. But I wanted it to at least begin in the mikveh— which is not only the site of transition, rebirth, and renewal in Jewish tradition, but is also the place where Jews have gone for centuries to touch the Divine Spirit of the primordial waters (which are those same waters recycled over and again to this day).
Serendipitously, my mikveh night after my postmiscarriage bleeding fell out on motzei Shabbat, nine days after Rosh Hodesh. This was the night to recite Kiddush Levanah, the prayer sanctifying the new moon—an appropriate prayer to incorporate into my ritual, with its themes of rebirth and renewal.
When it came time to immerse, I slowly walked down the steps into the warm water, descending into the unknown. Over those three weeks of waiting to bleed, I had learned to find holiness and peace in that wide open space. I dunked and felt the waters envelop me like a hug. I stayed under for as long as I could, suspended yet totally immersed. With complete trust, I let myself go— put myself into the hands of God.
I immersed six more times (seven being the number of wholeness, creation, and divine earthly presence). On the seventh immersion, I decided to stay longer in the water, alone in my newly discovered space of peace. No hopes. No wishes. No expectations. Just total surrender. But I knew I could not stay much longer. I had entered the womb, only to be born again. It was time to begin the return to the reality of my life.
As I ascended the stairs, I sang aloud Psalm 118:23. A friend had composed a niggun for me to the words of this psalm, which I had chosen: “Me’et Adonai haytah zot, hi niflat be’eineinu.” “This was from God; it is wondrous in our eyes.” I concentrated on these words. This was a wondrous journey indeed! The blood and pain and tears were all from God.
A Ritual Among Friends
The second part of the evening took place immediately after my mikveh immersion, at the home of a friend who lived across the street from our neighborhood mikveh. When I walked in, the women I had invited were gathered in the living room. We sang the niggun. “This was from God; it is wondrous in our eyes!” When the singing faded out, then stopped, I looked around the room and saw one face after another of amazing women. As I told my miscarriage story, I turned to one woman at a time, explaining how each had helped and supported me.
Then I read a poem I had composed for the occasion. The poem begins on Rosh Hashanah, a week before my first ultrasound. During the haftarah reading on Rosh Hashanah, when I thought I was carrying a viable pregnancy, I was so upset by Chanah’s willingness to give up her child that I closed my prayer book. Then the poem moves to Yom Kippur, after the ultrasound, when I was waiting to miscarry. On that Yom Kippur, I felt so intensely the verse we sing during the 25-hour fast: “We are like clay in the hands of the Creator.” I prayed on that Yom Kippur for guidance from Chanah, who, only ten days before, had made me close my prayer book in disbelief. Now I wanted to know her secret— to understand how she had the courage to surrender to God’s will. I wanted to learn from her how to grow from my pain, rather than wallow in it.
After I read the poem, I took out something I had been holding on to for some time: my pregnancy box, which I was planning to bury as part of this ritual. It contained three positive pregnancy tests, my ultrasound results, a timeline of my pregnancy provided by a new computer program on my first prenatal visit to the doctor, and some other papers from the doctor: a prescription for three months’ worth of folic acid and iron, and some referrals for further tests.
It also contained a photograph my then four-and-a-half-year-old daughter Hallel had cut out of a magazine a few days earlier: a picture of a beautiful blond woman with a smiling, content baby. I told the women that I was prepared to bury that part of my life if need be. Not buried and forgotten. But buried in my heart—a fond memory, but not a whole life, not the end of the story.
Now it was time for sharing. I invited my friends to tell their stories, share their thoughts. After each woman spoke, she drank pomegranate juice from my glass goblet, decorated with roses—the Miriam’s Cup I use for Passover Seders.
After sharing, we went out into the clear, dark night to recite Kiddush Levanah—the prayer recited as the moon works toward its half-month fullness—together. Like the moon, I had been filled and emptied, emptied and filled. I prayed to be renewed like the moon, but by that I did not mean simply to be filled again with blood and the potential to conceive and birth another life. No, I meant a renewal of spirit, a rebirth of me. My womb was empty, and I, too, had been empty. But I could live in that empty space, and I could fill that empty space. And I could praise God for bringing me to a place where I could look up at the moon, marvel at its splendor, and truly be content in that moment.
As I started to walk home, I realized that I still had one thing left to do. I knelt down next to some overgrown bushes and began to dig with my bare hands to bury the box. I did not shed a tear as I covered the box with stones and earth. The time was right. I was past this. I was headed down a path, and while I was not sure where this process would take me, I knew I was on my way toward birthing what was meant to come of this pregnancy. I felt God’s hands guiding me, moving me forward.
A few months after burying my box, I had a revelation. This pregnancy was indeed not meant to birth another child. It was meant to put me in a place of peace and acceptance, fertile ground for realizing that there was a soul waiting to join our family, but not one birthed from my womb. My sixth child was meant to join our family through adoption. Thankfully, my husband felt the same way. And that is how Mishael Adar Binyamin entered our family at age five months.
Three years later, I discovered, much to my surprise, that I was pregnant. At age forty-two, I gave birth to Shefa Lee, my seventh child and sixth C-section, after which I had my tubes tied. This time it was final. No more babies! When I began the process of weaning Shefa, she was already two-and-a-half years old. It took me almost a year to wean her—and not only because she resisted. In fact, her resistance was in large part in response to my own. That last pregnancy, birth, and nursing experience felt like a last-chance gift given to me directly by God. I cherished every moment, and I was not to ready or willing to let go again. My inner peace had been upset. I needed help once again to get me through the process.
A Ritual for Weaning
My plan was to do a weaning ritual prior to speaking at Mayyim Hayyim, a vibrant community mikveh in Newton, Massachusetts. This choice was symbolic, as I was away from Shefa for a full week while on a book tour and was determined not to let her nurse again when I returned home. I also liked the idea of doing the ritual somewhere other than my familiar Shmaya mikveh, to make it more momentous, which is what a ritual should be.
At the water’s edge, I read from the book I had compiled the night before in my lonely—yet liberatingly so!—hotel room by cutting and pasting printed e-mails I had requested from friends and family for the occasion. I was touched by the candor and intimacy of these personal stories and blessings whose general theme was to embrace this new stage in my life while also appreciating what I was leaving behind.
As I descended the circular staircase with its seven steps leading down into the black-bottomed oval mikveh, its underwater lights slowly changing color, I tried to be mindful of the many steps along my journey of birthing and raising my children thus far: During my first immersion, I tried to recall life without children. I visualized myself back in college—always busy, but mostly with my own needs, rarely the needs of others. After reciting a blessing “upon immersing in the living waters,” I immersed a second time, this time trying to be present in the moment, to truly tune into what it feels like to be me, now, in this intense period of caring for others while also trying to care for myself. I then recited a blessing a friend had composed for my ritual: “Blessed are You, Source of all life, who sanctifies transitions.”
Then, as I immersed my entire body for a third and last time, I tried to visualize myself with an empty nest. Although I am the mother of two adult children, they have not exactly left the nest yet. One has returned home while starting her studies after two years of national service, and one will just be beginning his three-year army service this winter. So I can really only imagine what it will be like to have all seven of the kids’ bedrooms empty, to cook for only one or two people at a time, and to have twenty-four hours in a day to devote only to work and my own needs.
As I recited the final blessing—“Blessed are You, majestic Spirit of the universe, who gives me life, sustains the rhythms of my body, and brings me to this moment of renewal”—my tears mixed with the living waters of the mikveh. I was overcome with the emotion of having reached this moment after months and months of anticipation, planning, and fear.
But fear of what? I asked myself. Fear of having no one to take care of but myself. Fear of having my life back and not knowing what to do with it. Fear of the unknown. Although I thought I had conquered that fear during my miscarriage ritual, it seems I still had work to do.
After I returned to Israel, as I waited at passport control in Ben-Gurion Airport, I noticed a woman ahead of me in line with a baby strapped to her back. Unlike in past similar scenarios, I did not feel my heartbeat quicken with pangs of jealousy and longing. I could not imagine myself lugging a baby on my back.
That evening, jet lag convinced me it was only early afternoon. I could not fall asleep. Suddenly, I heard the pitter-patter of three-and-a-half-year-old feet. It was Shefa, whose eyes lit up when she saw me. I kissed her cheek, which was even softer than I remembered it being, and stroked her disheveled hair. She snuggled right into me and peacefully fell back to sleep. No reaching inside my pajama shirt. No begging for “just a little.” No nursing. I realized then that the ritual had worked; I was again at peace.
Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David is the rabbinic director of Shmaya: A Ritual and Educational Mikveh, which is located on Kibbutz Hannaton, where she lives with her husband and seven children. She is the author of two memoirs: Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination and Chanah’s Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women’s Rituals of Baking, Bathing, and Brightening (Ben Yehudah Press, 2014)