Full disclosure: I’m not Jewish. I’m Presbyterian. Still, we can learn from faith traditions other than our own. The following blog post is a VERY brief examination of pregnancy loss in a Jewish tradition, informed by both research literature and other blogs and writings of Jewish authors. I’ve provided links to all at the end.
The Kaddish is the Jewish prayer recited upon the death of a loved one. It cannot be recited alone, and so it is a community celebration of life and acknowledgement of the missing space in our world when someone has left it. But the Kaddish is not recited for pregnancy and early neonatal death because it does not apply when someone dies who is less than 30 days old. This is where our modern sensibilities struggle with ancient rituals. The key part of the Kaddish is that community aspect – it is not to be recited as an expression of sadness, but as part of a community loss. So while the hole left in the hearts of a mother or father when their baby dies is immense, the hole left in the community by someone who took no part in it, is tiny. There is a disconnect between the pain of the parents, and the pain of the community. Regardless of your faith tradition, if you have lost a baby you have likely experienced this: Our society does not recognize the death of a baby as equal to that of the death of an older child or adult.
Related: Grieving without God
The matter of when life begins is not settled in Judaism (Lepicard, 2010). Different rabbis will give you different answers. But wherever theology settles on the matter does not change what you feel in your heart. You may have planned your child’s life from the moment you knew you were pregnant. Your dreams, hopes and aspirations for them all died along with them. Not having a means of publically acknowledging this can be heartbreaking.
Researchers at Ariel University and the University of Haifa, in Israel, have interviewed ultraorthodox women about their experiences of stillbirth (Yaira Hamama-Raz, Hartman, & Buchbinder, 2014). They found among these women that many experienced stillbirths “as a test to the women’s belief in God and was perceived as a way to experience God’s love. The women’s faith became stronger and provided relief, calm, and confidence in God as a benefactor.” This can be a difficult thing to hear if we do not feel this way. However, keep in mind that many of the women were as much as 13 years since their losses occurred, and the majority of women who were asked to be interviewed refused for various reasons. Their experiences may not be reflective of women whose grief is still raw and who have not come to peace with the death of their baby. As one woman described what she came to see as a test from God:
“On the one hand it strengthened me. It was not an easy test, but I had the strength to overcome it. In terms of the test of faith and the question of how something so awful happened to me—the evil inclination played a role. It was senseless to fool around with God. I had to naively accept it.”
Perhaps the role that infertility plays over and over in the lives of our foremothers alters our view of pregnancy loss. Sarah, Hannah, Rachel all struggled with infertility and we have their examples to guide our own experiences. And so we keep the pain and sadness of the death of our baby hidden away inside, struggling with the means to acknowledge and express it.
Past Still Standing authors:
- Kaddish: a podcast by rabbinical student Ariana Katz. Episodes 4 and 5 are about pregnancy loss
- What Hager Can Teach Us About Pregnancy Loss by Rabbi Marc Katz, author of The Heart of Loneliness: How Jewish Wisdom Can Help You Cope and Find Comfort.
- Jewish Pregnancy Loss a database of resources from UK-based author Amanda Bradley
- Hamama-Raz, Y., Hartman, H., & Buchbinder, E. (2014). Coping With Stillbirth Among Ultraorthodox Jewish Women. Qualitative Health Research, 24(7), 923-932. doi:10.1177/1049732314539568
- Hamama-Raz, Y., Hemmendinger, S., & Buchbinder, E. (2010). The unifying difference: dyadic coping with spontaneous abortion among religious Jewish couples. Qualitative Health Research, 20(2), 251-261. doi:https://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1049732309357054
- Klein, M. (2008). Remembrance for nobody. Midwifery Today(88), 56-57.
- Lepicard, E. (2010). The embryo in ancient Rabbinic literature: between religious law and didactic narratives. An interpretive essay. Pubblicazioni della Stazione Zoologica di Napoli – Section Ii: History & Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 32(1), 21-41.
Given that I’m not Jewish, I was cautious about writing this post. While Still Standing has featured Jewish authors in the past, to my knowledge there isn’t anyone writing from that perspective at the moment. If you have wisdom to add, we’d love to hear it. Add your comments below, or on our Facebook page, or feel free to write us directly.
Amanda Ross-White is the proud mother of four beautiful children, including her twin boys Nate and Sam, who were stillborn in 2007. She is eternally grateful to watch her rainbow children, daughter Rebecca and son Alex, grow around her. She is also the author of Joy at the End of the Rainbow: A Guide to Pregnancy After a Loss, which won second place in the American Journal of Nursing’s Book of the Year Awards (Consumer Health).