Like many women, Bonnie Zaben, a 42-year-old doctoral student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, examines her breasts each month. She checks for lumps, a regular and simple screening process for early signs of breast cancer. But unlike many, she has managed to transform this anxiety-provoking routine from an unpleasant necessity into a spiritual occasion.
“For a while, I hadn’t been doing regular breast exams,” says Zaben, “But one time when I did check my breasts and did not find anything to worry about, my automatic response was to say, ‘Thank God.’ Then I thought—No, really. I do need to thank God that my body is healthy.”
Zaben describes her breast exam rites as “rituals in progress.” Each month, she recites a classic prayer, as well as some readings or poetry. One traditional prayer that immediately came to her mind was the prayer that thanks God for “fashioning human beings with wisdom, and creating within them openings upon openings, cavities upon cavities . . . if one of them were ruptured, or one of them were sealed, it would be impossible to stand before You for even one hour.” Thanking God for keeping all of her parts in order felt particularly relevant to Zaben as she began to create a ritual around probing for breast lumps.
For first-timers, Zaben recommends the “‘shehecheyanu.” This blessing thanks God for “keeping us alive, sustaining us, and bringing us to this time”—appropriate considering the prevalence of breast cancer and its devastating effects.
Zaben’s rituals are not, she says “Torah mi-Sinai” (Torah as handed down from Mount Sinai). “This is a personal process—I want to encourage people to take the idea and make it work for themselves.” She has heard from women who have invented rituals different from hers, such as using the circling motion of breast checking as a relaxation or meditation technique.
Developing breast checking rituals and speaking to other Jewish women about them has given Zaben an outreach mission. “It is so frustrating. I meet many smart women who do preventive medicine in so many ways—they take a ton of herbs and vitamins—and they don’t do this! Breast checking costs no money, the only tools we need are our hands, and women still don’t do it,” she rails.
Zaben realizes that ritual is not for everyone, and insists that women who do not do ritual should still do self-exams. “But if ritual brings more women into doing it, that’s great!”