I have to admit I’ve avoided writing this for a long time. Not because I didn’t want to write about it and not because I don’t love the topic – as a long-time meditator, longer-time Jew, Jewish Meditation Center Board member and sit leader in my local community, I’m pretty involved. It’s just that when it comes to my own process as a Jew, and (eek) writing as a Jew? Let’s say I’m pretty ambivalent.
But I’m also a mom and a birth doula, and when I was asked to write about Jewish meditation and birth, too many of my identities were wrapped up too neatly for me to say no.
So, why the ambivalence? I’d trace it back to my beginnings; as the eldest daughter of a first generation New York Jew and a converted Presbyterian from the Midwest, identity was always a bit fuzzy for me. My mother’s mother is a lifelong church-goer and card-carrying member of the Daughters of the American Revolution; my father’s mother is a Modern Orthodox Holocaust survivor. We took the Christmas tree down and up at least three times one winter when both sets of grandparents happened to be visiting at the same time. It’s not an unusual story these days.
When Jewishness is both of you and not of you, claiming it, speaking for it, is a strange process. I began a meditation practice as a teenager, but have never felt as at home in it as I do in Jewish meditation sits. Yet, even today as I lead JMC-style sits in my home town of Beacon, I don’t have a particularly great response to the persistent question: “So, what makes this meditation Jewish?” Sylvia Boorstein has the best answer I’ve heard yet; at a retreat I attended she said folks would ask her, “Why Jewish meditation? Why not just meditate? Why complicate it with Jewishness?” Her answer: “Because I am complicated with Jewishness.”
So, I am complicated with Jewishness. Complicated being the operative word. Jewishness, it seems, has that affect on many of us.
And what does this all have to do with birth? Nothing? Everything? These are not rhetorical questions. Some more thoughts:
When you’re as obsessed with birth as a person needs to be to work with laboring women, birth metaphors are everywhere. And in many ways, the process of pregnancy, labor, and delivery are the ultimate metaphor, combining so many of humanity’s deepest tropes – the endless patience, sacrifice, and waiting of gestation, the utter lack of control and surrender of it all, the deep adventure into the unknown, the vulnerability. The endurance, strength, power, and struggle of labor and the breakthrough of delivery. The profound transformation of the woman as she becomes a mother, as her body, heart, and mind are changed forever, and the profound transformation of nothingness into everythingness: a new human life.
Because the Jewish calendar operates with the moon, many of our most important holidays fall on the full moon. Many pregnant women also go into labor on the full moon. At 37 weeks, I felt what I thought were my first labor pains on the second night of Passover. As I drove to our community seder, I called my doula to let her know. “Maybe I’ll name my child Moses,” I thought, as I sat through the seder, pretending nothing was happening. I sat with the story of the final plague – the slaying of the first born – in a different way that night, and I giggled as we talked about freedom from mitzrayim: the narrow passage.
As it turned out, my daughter – who is not named Moses – waited for the NEXT full moon, and after a short labor and a long two hours pushing through our own little mitzrayim, she was born on the 31st day of the Omer: Tiferet in Hod. The simple translation of that day would be the inner balance in beauty and multiplicity. Sound familiar?
And what does that have to do with meditation? Nothing? Everything?
At the last meditation sit I led, a participant asked, “What’s the goal here?” We talked about the goals each of us bring to our practice, and I closed by reminding us that some meditation teachers would be horrified by the idea of having a goal at all. I’m all about goals for pretty much everything, but it is incredibly important to have the right kind of goal. This is the same advice I give to clients who are preparing for birth. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment with a goal you very well might not achieve, whether it be enlightenment, forgiving a difficult person, or an epic vaginal delivery where all you feel is love in your heart. One of the greatest lessons birth has taught me is that we are not in control of anything but the lens we use to see the world. And one of the greatest lessons meditation has taught me is how to know and use that lens. I’ve always liked the idea of Passover as a birthing story: we labored, the water parted, we passed through, and were born as a people.
May we use this Passover as an invitation to bring the lens of birth and rebirth to the journey from mitzrayim and find liberation.