Miscarriages and fertility challenges happen a lot; even within the Jewish community. Though many people suffer through the pain of infertility or the loss of miscarriage, they often do so in silence. The burden of silence can be compounded by an all-too-common and troubling belief that women are to blame for these issues: that reproductive challenges are caused by laxness in following the laws of taharat hamishpacha (laws surrounding the mikveh; literally “family purity”). And though the Mishna states that those who do not keep the laws punctiliously may be punished in childbirth, the mishna says nothing about infertility. Likewise, while the time of immersion is a special time to pray for the blessings of fertility, it is not a magical cure to medical issues. Zeal in keeping the laws of niddah has no relation to becoming pregnant or carrying a baby to term. It’s time for our community to trade the silence for more open, supportive conversation that acknowledges these losses.
It’s not difficult to explain the silence around miscarriage and infertility. With miscarriage, it’s hard to openly grieve a loss that most people don’t know happened:
Because of the precariousness of early pregnancy, many women do not announce their pregnancies before the second trimester. In a family-centered society, couples can feel a lot of pressure to have children and fertility challenges can lead to feelings of shame. Because of the close link between mikveh and ovulation, too, people often consider taharat hamishpacha to be a boon to fertility. When fertility challenges arise, people can be left feeling guilty and alone.
The origins of the widespread idea that miscarriage or infertility can arise from not being machmir (strict) enough in taharat hamishpacha are less clear. It is possible that a simple inversion of the idea that taharat hamischpacha increases fertility is part of the explanation, though the logic of that is flawed: mikveh often promotes intimacy around a common ovulation time, but that does not mean that there’s any other kind of causal link between mikveh and fertility. There are also textual sources that may promote this kind of thinking: the Gemara in Nedarim talks about the parents’ sexual activities affecting the children’s physical traits and the Mishnah says that one of the reasons that women die in childbirth is that they don’t follow the laws of niddah strictly. The Rabbanut today forwards views along these lines in a pamphlet on taharat hamishpacha that claims that people who don’t follow the laws strictly will have deformed children.
The Eden Center is working to break some of the silence and dispel some of the harmful ideas circulating on taharat hamishpacha. Along with organizations that support the emotional sides of fertility challenges, we have run a support group where women can share their experiences so as not to feel alone. Furthermore, in our course for mikveh attendants we teach them to be sensitive and aware of feelings a woman might be going through if she is facing infertility or miscarriage, and if the woman is interested, be to able to facilitate a meaningful moment–for miscarriage this can be a time of closure–in the mikveh. We also raise the topics of infertility and miscarriage in our advanced course for kallah (bridal) teachers.
Legitimizing a topic takes a long time. But the more discussion and resources that there are, the more legitimacy there will be for others to discuss it and not to feel ashamed. We all have a part to play in de-stigmatizing fertility challenges and miscarriage and dispelling the myth that women are at fault for their losses, whether it is being brave enough to share or strong enough to listen and support.