This Sacred Time of Year is a Birthing Story

On Rosh Hashanah, our sacred texts are all about mothers and children. We read about Hannah and Sarah and Hagar, Biblical women struggling with infertility, yearning for children. We read about the binding of Isaac, and Sarah’s conspicuous absence. We focus on the perpetuation of our people, about the creative power of women. About the love and heartbreak and fear that accompanies raising children.  About the mysterious, painful struggles that accompany childbirth. It is a holiday about longing, despair, and hope. We tell the stories of the creators of our people. 

As we come to the shofar service, the climax of the Rosh Hashanah service, we will read a piyut—a liturgical poem—each time the shofar is sounded. Hayom Harat Olam. In our machzor, it’s translated as “this is the day of the world’s birth.” The translation doesn’t really do it justice- some translate it as “today the world was conceived” or “today the world was born.” I’ve always been intrigued by this line- but not until this year did I appreciate the passive voice-ness of the translation. Who was pregnant with this world? Who labored for this world?

It’s a phrase reminiscent of a text from Jeremiah, who, after a rough day on the job as a prophet, fantasized about never having been born. He imagined that his mother might be “big with child” for all time and he might have remained in the womb forever.

Hayom harat olam is a positive inversion of this idea- a kind of perpetual pregnancy, but one in which there is endless creative potential. What a radical notion for the holiest time of the year: God appears in our text, pregnant with the world.

As we turn the page on the year that saw the overturning of Roe v Wade, these texts call out to us. They remind us of the holiness, the divinity, of pregnant bodies. Since 2016, I have more closely studied the traditional Jewish legal approach to reproductive health and rights. And what I have learned has provoked in me a combination of pride and alienation.

First the pride- the war over reproductive freedom is being waged on a religious battlefield. Jewish voices have provided a check on a particular strain of conservative christian ideology that speaks in the name of religion. In a rare moment of near unity, Jewish organizations across the religious spectrum have spoken out in favor of legal and safe access to abortion care. Jews do not all agree on when and how and who should make the decision about ending a pregnancy, but there are instances when abortion is required by Jewish law. There are lawsuits that have been filed by rabbis challenging restrictive abortion laws as an infringment of their freedom of religion. This is a fight where our voices, as Jews, matter. I am proud to speak out, as a rabbi, for reproductive freedom.  

But the Jewish texts that we cite to make these arguments are painfully disconnected from the life and humanity of the pregnant person that they concern. Callous and unfeeling, we fight patriarchy with patriarchy. Our foundational text about when life begins is a text from Exodus that is primarily concerned with legal damages. It explains that if men are fighting, and a woman is killed, then the person who killed her must be put to death. If she is injured causing her to have a miscarriage, then he must pay a fine to her husband. This teaches us that life in the womb has a different, lesser status than a person who exists in the world. This is important. It is a completely different reading of Biblical text than those who believe that life begins at conception. And, in this text, there is no mention of the humanity of the mother, or her injury, or her sadness, or her pain. It is cavalier about the life of the mother as well as the potential life of the fetus. There is no discussion about what it means to lose a pregnancy, or how it feels or what the woman might be owed. 

In the ensuing talmudic texts and legal codes, we get all kinds of examples of situations in which someone might end a pregnancy, texts about the status of the fetus, about protecting the life of the pregnant person over the life of the fetus…but none of these traditional texts are about the agency of the pregnant person. None of them are about personal autonomy or trusting a pregnant person to decide what happens to their body. They are texts by men, often answering difficult legal questions with the same detachment that they write about eating Kosher food or when you can shake the lulav. So while I am proud to be part of a tradition that offers a religious alternative to the conservative religious voices that are encroaching on our freedom and autonomy, the Jewish texts that we often cite have nothing to do with freedom and autonomy.

But I believe we can talk about life, and birth, and potential and power in a different way. Rosh Hashanah provides us with a template to celebrate and marvel at the complexity, and divinity of birth and new beginnings. 

Hayom harat olam. Today the world is conceived. 

Our tradition has generally avoided this metaphor. The Torah and the text that followed were written to deliberately distance our tradition from Pagan ideas of God’s fertility and sexuality. But we have lots of metaphors for God. We see God doing all kinds of other human things: being a king, sitting on a throne, writing in a book, loving us, judging us, welcoming us home. If God can do all of these other things, why can’t God be a creator of life in a recognizable way. Why can’t we embrace such a familiar, essential metaphor for God: pregnant, nauseated and hormonal, nervous and excited, scared and filled with hope. 

Why does it matter? Why should we bother to uncover this dimension of our tradition? Because we are living at a scary and dangerous time. When the lives of pregnant people are at risk, when healthcare is being withheld for fear of litigation, when people are dying because their ability to be creators of life is being weaponized against them in the name of religion. 

We need to be clear eyed about our faith, about our texts. About the stories we tell, and the stories we omit. We have thousands of years of scholarship, our tradition read through the eyes of men, and in the stretch of history, women’s voices, trans voices, non-binary voices, are just beginning to teach and interpret our tradition. I believe these metaphors matter because when we believe that power is always male, when we believe that God is always male, it makes it easier to discount the lives of women, the lives of anyone who is not male. Rosh Hashanah is a holiday about judgment, about fear and fate. But it’s also a holiday about fertility and creating life; those ideas have been here all along.   

I don’t know how to make sense of a country in 2022, in 5783, where your life can hang in the balance because of your ability to bear children. What does it mean to enter this new year having lost our right to make decisions about our bodies and our healthcare? Let us not be so naive as to think that this is new. There are many in our country who lost the right to make decisions about their bodies a long time ago. Our country has a long and ugly history of dehumanizing indigenous bodies, black bodies, trans-bodies, immigrants’ bodies. Perhaps the shock and the sorrow are simply an admission of privilege. 

But what is happening in America right now is the latest chapter in an ongoing emergency. As Valerie Kaur, a Sikh activist, lawyer and filmmaker, memorably said at an interfaith service after the 2016 election,

What if? What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of
the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country that is waiting to be born?

What does the midwife tell us to do? Breathe. And then? Push.

Today the world is conceived. Hayom harat olam. Here in our little corner of the universe, I want to believe that there is another way, to believe in the potential of the womb and this season of eternal creation. I want to reclaim the Divine mother, and I want to invite you to join me. I want us to tell the story of the new year not just as a tale of a judgey king sitting on a throne, but as a pregnant Goddess urging us forward, cheering us on, strengthening us for the difficult road ahead.

Adapted from a sermon delivered Temple Sinai, Washington D.C. Erev Rosh Hashanah 5783