To the truly religious, the Torah is like mother’s milk: sustaining and nurturing.
Many, however, don’t believe the sanctuary is a place where mothers and their babies should extend that metaphor into breast-feeding. In their view, the only thing that should be uncovered during services is the Torah scroll.
But a new religious opinion passed recently by the Conservative movement’s law committee endorses the idea of women discreetly breast-feeding their children in the sanctuary.
"I understand halacha to permit public breast-feeding, including in a beit midrash or synagogue sanctuary during a worship service, so long as it is done in a modest, subtle and dignified fashion," according to the paper written by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson.
"This paper is important particularly as the Conservative movement gears up to show its attractiveness to younger people and to bringing women on board as equal players," Rabbi Artson, dean of the rabbinical school at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and the father of young children, told The Jewish Week. "Including in synagogue life the family raising that so many women are intimately involved with is essential," as is "making the decorum of our synagogues less of an inflexible priority."
The matter of mothers breast-feeding in public (still a taboo in some quarters despite a popular culture that worships displays of midriff and other flesh) resurfaced as a national issue recently courtesy of talk-show host Barbara Walters.
In May, on her show "The View," the 70-something Walters expressed distaste at having seen a woman nursing her baby on a plane.
In less time than it takes to get junior into suckling position, some 200 women converged on the television studio to protest, holding babies and placards.
Synagogue sanctuaries are hardly immune from social challenges. Some Orthodox congregations recently began banning most alcohol consumption; one Orthodox synagogue on Long Island has prohibited talking during religious services.
While the Conservative movement has sanctioned breast-feeding in the sanctuary, most nursing mothers say they often seek out the privacy of a quiet room in the building.
Sarah Kahn Glass had her third child, Jacob, a month ago. Even though only close friends and family members were in attendance at his brit milah at her Conservative synagogue, the Park Slope Jewish Center in Brooklyn, she retreated to the rabbi’s study to nurse before and after the circumcision.
"At the beginning it’s very hard to be discreet," Kahn Glass said. "You need to expose more of yourself because the baby can’t get a grasp as easily and you need to help him in those first few weeks. When they’re 9 months old, you just have to lift your shirt a tiny bit and the baby can do the rest."
She describes herself as "an avid nurser," saying she breast-feeds in restaurants and other public locations. But Kahn Glass said she probably would not nurse inside the sanctuary.
"I think it would be distracting in synagogue, and I’m not sure that it’s the best thing for the rest of people in this environment, especially people of another generation," she said. "I would remove myself from the sanctuary but wouldn’t be bothered if other people breast-fed. It’s a decorum thing for me."
According to Rabbi Artson, discouraging nursing in the sanctuary is "a mistaken idea of what kavod hatzibur [honoring the synagogue’s dignity] is."
"There is no greater image of the love of God for humanity than a nursing mother, and no greater image for the way the Torah is lovingly transmitted from one generation to another than a nursing mother," said Rabbi Artson, who is among those being bandied about as a possible successor to Ismar Schorsch as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
The Conservatives’ stance on breast-feeding, which in effect becomes denominational policy, was adopted at the June 1 meeting of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards after heated debate. The 14-3 vote for approval was split largely along generational lines, Rabbi Artson said.
The matter did not become the focus of attention because of a congregational contretemps, though there have been plenty of those, rabbis said.
Rather it arose when a student of Rabbi Artson was pregnant and asked him whether she could nurse her baby in Talmud class and during worship in the sanctuary.
Rabbi Artson decided to investigate and found plenty in classical Jewish sources to support the stance by the Conservative movement.
The student, Rabbi Amy Bolton, said she nursed her firstborn "on milk and Torah" through her last semester in seminary. That child, a daughter named Shuli, is now 5. Rabbi Bolton and her husband have two other children, ages 3 and 1.
"I’m glad to hear they passed the teshuvah," she said. "It should be a non-issue, and we should have our communities actively supporting mothers and children."
"This can be an issue which inadvertently marginalizes families, and particularly women," said Rabbi Edythe Mencher, assistant director in the Union for Reform Judaism’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns.
Many of the women who picketed Walters for her comments against breast-feeding in public reported that they have been asked to leave fast-food restaurants, airports and other public places because they were nursing their babies.
In Jewish environments, those in charge don’t always seem to extend the milk of human kindness to nursing mothers.
A mother of two was breast-feeding her infant while watching her 5-year-old play in the pool at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael, Calif., in March 2004 when a manager walked up to her with a towel and asked her to cover up because she was "in full view of a senior exercise class," reported the San Francisco Gate.
Outraged, the mother, Lisa Tabb, canceled her membership.Orthodox rabbis haven’t needed to involve their professional organization, the Rabbinical Council of America, in this area, according to the group’s executive director.
"The issue hasn’t come up," said Rabbi Basil Herring. "In the Orthodox world there would be a general understanding that it would be best for the mother and baby to be following the traditional role of staying home. If she does come to synagogue, it would not be in the pews where she would be breast-feeding."
In the Reform movement, "there are different norms in different communities, but no overall policy," said Rabbi Mencher. "We get many more questions about what to do about screaming children. If a child is nursing, they’re quiet."