I saw several women and girls in shalim (modesty cloaks) at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo the other day. One shal-wearing mother was sitting on a bench, peacefully nursing her baby. Her shirt hid her breast completely and she saw no need for a blanket, apron or other cover.
Comfort with public breastfeeding has nothing to do with Jewish laws of tzniut (modesty) and everything to do with attitudes toward breastfeeding. Many women who show lots of skin become squeamish when it comes to nursing in public. The question is whether breastfeeding is seen as a way to feed a baby, or is it the idea, common in western culture, that breasts are mainly about sex?
I grew up in the United States with a positive attitude about breastfeeding, but discomfort with public nursing. Despite my self-consciousness I nursed everywhere both for convenience and because I wanted others, especially my children, to see breastfeeding as normal. Israelis have less of an issue with nursing in public than Americans do, although that may be starting to change.
Women should be able to nurse when and where they want without harassment. Breastfeeding advocates insist that the debate about public breastfeeding is thinly disguised gender discrimination. Keeping breastfeeding mothers hidden keeps prevents them from participating in public life. But it’s hard enough to get through a day caring for young children without having to worry about offending someone every time your baby gets hungry.
Some mothers prefer to nurse privately and don’t mind leaving the scene. But not all mothers are the same. I felt isolated away from the action.
Jewish law doesn’t place restrictions on women nursing in public, in front of men, or in the synagogue, as long as their breasts are covered. And the idea that public breastfeeding should be prohibited because it makes people uncomfortable is as absurd as keeping pregnant women in the house because people might think about how they got that way.
One blog suggested that breastfeeding should be prohibited in the synagogue because eating is forbidden. But no one stops babies from drinking from a bottle in a synagogue—the restriction on eating simply doesn’t apply to babies. And if you take that argument to its logical conclusion, you couldn’t nurse a baby in other situations where eating is prohibited like the bathroom (an unhygienic and humiliating suggestion) or while the baby is naked.
I wonder if that mother considered shlepping her toddler to nurse the baby in the hot, crowded bathroom a short distance away. I’m glad she didn’t think it was necessary.