- Women, Birth, and Death in Jewish Law and Practice
Rochelle Millen's book, Women, Birth, and Death in Jewish Law and Practice, is a welcome contribution to all of the disciplines upon which it draws: Women's Studies, Feminist Studies, Religious Studies, Sociology and Anthropology. A thorough analysis of a selection of Jewish texts relating to women and lifecycle events surrounding birth and death, it addresses the topics of procreation, birth, contraception, fertility and infertility, ceremonies upon the birth of a daughter, funerals and kaddish.
Millen surveys scholarly material prior to her book's publication and adds to it her own illuminating understandings. An example of her treatment of this material may be drawn from her discussion of women's exemption from the commandment to procreate. Millen goes through various possible explanations for the exemption: (1) Since childbirth was so dangerous in rabbinic times, it would not have made sense for the Rabbis to compel women to do something that threatened their lives. (2) Since women, unlike men, have a natural urge to procreate, there is no need to obligate them to do something they would naturally do anyway. (3) Since the Rabbis believed that women's sex drive is more controlled than men's—perhaps because contraception in talmudic times was scarcely as reliable as it is today—women would have been less inclined to have sex outside of the accepted social parameters. Men, however, needed encouragement, in the form of a religious obligation, to channel all of their sexual desires towards building a family. (4) The rabbis did not want to empower women by giving them grounds for divorce after ten years in a childless marriage. (5) The rabbis did want to empower women in another [End Page 216] area—contraception. If women were not obligated to procreate, they would be free to use birth control.
Some of these explanations are attributed in footnotes to other scholars, while others are not, leading one to conclude that the latter are Millen's own innovative contributions. However, it is not always clear, even after checking the footnotes, when an explanation is Millen's own and when she is quoting it from elsewhere; one would have to check the sources cited in the footnotes in order to be certain. My assumption is that this vagueness is not intentional and might have been clarified by a careful editing. Clearer attributions in the body of the text itself would have made this book, which is occasionally a bit dense linguistically, easier to read and use.
One of Millen's stated purposes is to examine "how the various denominations within Judaism deal with critical aspects of the Jewish lifecycle, birth, and death, as they pertain specifically to women's development" (p. 1). What is indeed most unique about this book is its inclusion in one volume of literature from the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform streams of Judaism. In our fragmented Jewish world, with each denomination so closed within itself, it is a rare thing not only on the ground but even in written scholarship to see all of them discussed on equal footing.
Moreover, Millen's comparisons of these denominations' approaches to the issue of women's participation in lifecycle events are on the mark. A good example is her discussion of women's recitation of the kaddish during the mourning period for close relatives. Although it has traditionally not been accepted in most Orthodox synagogues for women to recite the kaddish, Millen shows how Orthodox poskim (halakhic decisors) seem to agree among themselves that there is no real halakhic problem with it. Nevertheless, while some of them prioritize the woman mourner's spiritual and emotional well-being, others place their fears of change, feminism, and Conservative and Reform Judaism above the woman's right to express her grief within the Jewish tradition. Conservative responsa on the subject are more straightforward. Since there is no real halakhic problem with women reciting kaddish, the movement allows it. However, Millen writes:
. . . the gap between the leaders...