Wednesday, August 08, 2012

The Barren Shall Rejoice: Battling Infertility With Jewish Rituals

["Genesis" by the sculptor Jacob Epstein]

Its been a while since I've added an entry. And recently it occurred to me that I have only addressed issues of infertility tangentially, through the themes of Sukkot, or the fabulous stories of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. So here is something more on point:

Fertility and infertility is a major issue in any traditional culture, and Jewish culture is no different. In fact, infertility is a central theme in the book of Genesis, starting with the divine command to be "fruitful and multiple," right through the growing pathos arising from the contrast between God's promise to make Abraham a great nation and the constant struggles with infertility he and his family endured (Gen. 30:1).

Over the centuries, Jews, and especially Jewish women, developed a whole arsenal of folk cures, rituals, and devices to combat prolonged bouts of infertility (this is aside from wedding rituals encouraging fertility, aphrodisiacs and treatments for male impotence, things I explored in an earlier entry). These include -

  • Mandrakes, which have a biblical warrant (Gen. 30:14-16). This root is incorporated into varied cures across the centuries.

  • Consuming rubies was another popular treatment in medieval medical texts.1

  • Visiting the grave of Rachel outside Bethlehem, to ask for the Matriarch's intervention. The burial places of other deceased worthies, such as Hasidic masters, are also sought out.

  • Mizrachi (Asian) Jews would place a cup of water under the chair set out for Elijah at a circumcision ceremony (Brit Milah). Following the ceremony, barren women would drink this water in hope of aiding in pregnancy. A related practice would be to drink from a kiddush cup that had just been used at a Brit Milah. In Europe, women would meditate upon the knife used to perform a circumcision. All this was inspired by the hope that the fertility embodied in the newborn boy that permeated the ritual would prove contagious. 2

  • The exact reverse of this association, and one probably adopted from surrounding gentile cultures, involved having a woman stand in close proximity to a corpse, or sprinkle themselves with the water used to purify a corpse (European gentile women would stand under a gallows or even a hanging criminal).

  • Incantations and kamiyot (amulets) were common and widely circulated. Most amulets included verses from Scripture that promise to counter barrenness (Isaiah 30:19, for example, or Exodus 23:26).3

  • Most startling is a practice forbidden by the rabbis, but nevertheless reported in several communities - infertile women consuming the foreskin tissue from a circumcision (perhaps not so weird if we think of the occasional modern practice of women eating the afterbirth, but still shocking). Not surprisingly, keeping the foreskin as a talisman was more common. 4
Zal g’mor: To learn more, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism:http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

1. Klein, A Time to Be Born, 41.

2. Sperber, The Jewish Life Cycle, 16, 452.

3. Naveh and Shaked, magic Spells and Formulae, 160-161.

4. Patai, "Folk Customs and Charms Related to Childbirth" (Heb.), Talpiot 6. Fascination with foreskins in not unique to Judaism. Historian Frances Stonor Saunders reports that at one point, a relic of Jesus' foreskin could be petitioned in 18 different cathedrals of Europe. The monastic movement took that one better with the "cult of the holy foreskin," a belief that the foreskin of the savior was the wedding ring of every novice who took holy orders. One saint had a vision of Jesus circumcising himself before placing the ring of flesh on her finger.


Blogger Chaya said...

I say this for the benefit of any infertile woman reading Torah and taking the shame of not having children to heart. Rachel thought she was dead if she didn't have children, so did Sarah. The threat of being abandoned for infertility and subsequent lack of support and therefore survival was real for ancient women.

Therefore, women were/are not free when subject to social stigma requiring having children when 10-25% are naturally infertile according to World Health Organization estimates. Not being free, being in subjugation and slavery is not God, it is the Other Side of evil/klippot.

The editorial often seen in mystical interpretations is that if you're really good and ask with a lot of kavana you would have children. Who says this is the right thing to do though? Is it God? I don't believe so because God created 10% infertile. Maybe for a good reason. Maybe to be a woman's voice in these macho religions. And look how they have been silenced by shame.

Having children as the "prime directive" is a type of control, because relegating women to only having babies, which all organized religions including Judaism have done, is a way of preventing women from full participation in religious practice. This is from the sitra achra, not from God. I'd like some of these so called sages who don't hear from Gd a lot better if they did hear from Gd on things that stigmatize women.

Yes, spiritually speaking it is possible to force a miracle child or two when barren. Is this a good thing? Maybe Gd's highest will would have been to have the line of promise through Hagar/Keturah instead of Sarah, then perhaps we would have a higher likelihood of peace in the world?

Yes, fervent prayers can draw down shefa whether it is Gd's highest will or not. In other words, be careful what you wish/pray for.

11:02 AM  
Blogger Geoffrey Dennis said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:01 PM  
Blogger Geoffrey Dennis said...

Thank you Chaya for your thougthful and heartfelt post. Your point is well taken about the wrongness of measuring a woman's worth by her fertility. Hopefully, it is evident I made no such claim in my entry. You too may be overlooking something - the sociological importance of children, even today. Certainly before the invention of the modern state, pensions, and IRAs, having children was more than just a matter of control or male-female relations; it was a survival strategy. Children were a work force (after age 8, energy created by their labor contibution on a farm exceeds the energy they consume). Adult children were the essential source of security in old age. Men and women saw infertility as a looming threat to their longevity and prosperity. This is why, I think, fertility is such an issue in the Iron Age worldview of the TaNaKH. It is a tad too reductionist to claim that the pressure on women to have children was a) entirely external or b) simply an act of coercive patriarchy.

12:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find Chaya's response interesting, especially the part about keeping women in the "Having Children" mode as a means of control. What I cannot relate to as Chaya's reference to the Sitra Achra as not from God....Very unJewish and not what the Kabbalah means. Also, Shefah which is abundance in Hebrew, is only from God and only by his/her/it's will....JG See special Kabbalah blessings at www. batbarmitzvah. com/

6:37 PM  

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