Breastfeeding and the Shema

The Talmud continues its enquiry into the timing of the saying of the Shema.  With reference to the morning recital, it gives the following guidance:

When a woman talks with her husband and a baby nurses from its mother’s breast, let him rise and recite the Shema.

What a wonderful image and connection,  from the warmth of everyday domesticity, he may rise and recite the Shema.

The suggestion is of a seamless integration between the homeliness of this scene, the nourishment of the feeding child and the engagement with the Shema.

In the psychoanalytic worldview too, everything begins with the breast.  For Winnicott, the manner in which this meeting is conducted – the tenderness in the mother’s embrace, her calmly loving presence – are as critical to success as the milk itself.   We begin, for him, not as one, but as two, and the harmony and dedication in that coupling are what gives us the foundations to engage with society, to seek out and build the relationships which sustain us.

The beauty of the moment is wonderfully portrayed by Sara Maitland, in ‘A Book of Silence’:

I remember it with an almost heartbreaking clarity.  Some of it is simply physical – a full and contented baby falling asleep at the empty and contented breast.  But even now I think that those sweet dawns, when it turned from dark to pale night, and we drifted back into our own separate selves without wrench or loss, were the starting point of my journey into silence. 

There is something about the dark itself, and the quiet of the world, even in cities, at that strange time before the dawn.

The dark, the ‘time out of time’ and the quiet of the night are fixed in my memory, along with the density of that particular silent joy.  (Page 12.)

Indeed, from this womblike darkness and silence we emerge into the world.

The Shema, our umbilical cord to the Divine, acts as the transitional object which makes the movement a stable and confident one.

The Shema then contains something of the stabilising and rooting force of a functional spousal relationship and also something of the helpless dependence of the baby being fed.  We recite the Shema, more of a reading of memory – of constancy – than a prayer, and in a strange way that we don’t fully understand it affects us, centres us, prepares us for the day.

My friend William Kolbrener pointed out that in Homer, we see a markedly opposing image.  The hero returns from his warrior’s journey and disrupts the suckling child, he unsettles the gentle routines of the household.  In that culture, we might speculate, the understanding of a man’s role could not accommodate the memory of the intimacy and dependence of breastfeeding.  His violence and independence had to exist in denial of it, the two worlds could never be integrated.

The Shema tries to help us with this integration, to ensure that our religious projects do not proceed from a denial of our fragile humanity.  In the Shema we remember, and in that memory we find the compassion and concern which must fuel our engagement with the world.

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