When my son was almost a year old, we went out to a diner to meet my sister-in-law for lunch. After ordering our food, my son started to get a bit fussy and his toys didn’t seem to satisfy him at the moment, so I went for what usually works: Nursing. My son quietly fed while my husband and I caught up with my sister-in-law.
Our waitress, a young woman in her teens, came over, yet instead of talking to us about our order, or checking to see if we needed anything, she looked at me pointedly, made a face, and said, “You can’t do that here.”
She clarified that she meant the breastfeeding. She said that other patrons complained and that they had a special place where I could do… that. Unfortunately, they didn’t actually have any sort of special room, and what she had meant was, “You can use the bathroom to feed your child.” No thank you. I wouldn’t eat my grilled cheese in the bathroom, and I wouldn’t dream of feeding my child in the bathroom either, unless it was some sort of emergency.
Thankfully, I knew my rights and explained that the state we were in protected my right to breastfeed where I wanted to in public, and that I would be just fine staying right there. My sister-in-law offered up a few choice words in support, and we were able to continue on with our lunch with only a few heated death glares from our waitress and her friend. Remarkably, nobody else actually eating in the diner batted an eye.
But I left that lunch all shook up and questioning the whole breastfeeding in public thing. I had never been asked to stop before, nor had anyone ever expressed any dismay at me feeding my son. Yet, I knew that breastfeeding in public is a heated issue, and it only took one person to say something discouraging to get me all worked up.
Thankfully, I had the support of friends and family who reminded me I was just doing what I had to do as a mom and to let these types of situation roll off my back. And I did for the remainder of the time I nursed my son. But it got me thinking—what does Judaism say about public breastfeeding, especially when it comes to modesty?
I turned to Rabbi Riqi Kosovske, rabbi at Beit Ahavah, the Reform synagogue of Greater Northampton in Western MA, to find out if there is any halakhic (according to Jewish law) ruling on breastfeeding in public.
“The Talmud discusses nursing for 24 months,” Rabbi Riqi told me. “The Shulchan Aruch codifies this as two years, and to a maximum of five years.”
So, when it comes to the act of breastfeeding in general, Judaism is all for it, with many rulings, stories, and guidelines that protect the mother and child to nurse and have it be integrated in the mother’s full life.
But what about when it comes to breastfeeding in public?
“An important Talmudic ruling is that a woman’s breast if exposed and seen ‘during the time of nursing is likened to her hands or her face,’” explained the rabbi. “That means that if you (or a man) happen to view a woman’s breast while she is nursing, even if in the middle of prayer, it is not viewed as a sexual object or even as ‘nakedness’ but rather as another functional body part one is accustomed to seeing. Breastfeeding in public in Judaism is not seen as nakedness.
“That being said, Jewish tradition would indicate that a woman try to be modest while nursing (such as taking care to not purposefully expose her chest). But the rabbis apparently understood the constraints of clothing and squirmy babies and toddlers!”
And that’s the crux of it: Modesty. What does it mean to be modest while breastfeeding? Does it mean using a nursing cover even if that will make it more difficult for the mother? No. It means doing what you can not to flash the world, but knowing that if there’s a little nip-slip while you’re feeding your child, it’s not the end of the world, and nobody should condemn you for it.
As a mother herself, Rabbi Riqi has a deep understanding of the issue. She shared a story of when her newborn son was less than 2 weeks old and she had been honored with an aliyah at her rabbinical school’s Torah service at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles:
“In the moment of the aliyah, I recall our young son waking up with cries of wanting to nurse, and so I just went for it — carried him up nursing to the bima. I don’t think anyone even noticed he was nursing under my tallit, and it was a pivotal moment for me to feel welcomed fully as a mom in the Jewish community. I knew then I would always encourage, educate, and welcome nursing moms to all synagogue events. I also always post a ‘breastfeeding’ symbol on my temple office door and encourage prayers for breastfeeding to be said by new moms after birth or at the bris and naming ceremonies.”
When it comes to those she counsels, Rabbi Riqi encourages women to feel confident nursing in public and in all aspects of religious life. “I don’t encourage the ‘tent’ fabric ponchos some women use to nurse under because it creates a sense that nursing is something to be hidden, unless it is a woman’s choice due to her own comfort level,” she explains. “As a mom and female rabbi who nursed on demand for a number of years, I know that women are usually able to nurse confidently when they have support, and to manage their shirts and clothing so that their breasts are not exposed the whole time.”
So the next time you find yourself wondering or worrying about breastfeeding in public, remember that Judaism not only allows for it, but encourages you to do so.