Life Cycle: Birth

Life cycles were extremely popular program topics in the first years of WTB. At that time, the membership represented the three major Abrahamic traditions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Now that our membership had become more diverse, we decided to revisit the topic of birth, from conception to early childhood, with a panel that included women of other spiritual paths as well.

Judaism—Francine Berg

Francine is the cantor of Temple Society of Concord, vice president of leadership of the Syracuse Jewish Federation, and vice president of Jewish Family Service and of the National Council of Jewish Women. She serves on the board of Signature Music, is a volunteer for Hospice Memorial Services, and is music director of Camp Healing Hearts. She has taught music in the Syracuse City School District for many years and is director of Rainbow Kids.

Francine began by discussing the question, “Who is a Jew?” Traditionally, any child born of a Jewish mother is Jewish. Even though the religion is patriarchal, membership is passed in the matrilineal line because, whereas paternity can be in question, maternity seldom is. Moreover, it is usually the mother who nurtures the child and teaches the values and rites of Judaism. In recent decades, Reform and Reconstructionist congregations have recognized children of Jewish fathers as being Jewish; this has caused rifts with traditionalists, particularly when a child grows up and wants to marry an Orthodox or Conservative person. Some branches of Judaism accept converts, but the Orthodox branch, particularly in Israel, never does.

Brit milah, or circumcision, is the physical sign of a 4000-year-old spiritual covenant between God and Abraham. All Jewish males are circumcised on the eighth day of life. Circumcision is so central to Jewish life that the ceremony takes precedence over all holy days and is performed even when the eighth day falls on one of the High Holy Days. Modern science has determined that our clotting ability is poorly developed at birth but well developed by the eighth day, confirming the ancient wisdom of the timing of the rite. Recited at the circumcision ceremony are prayers and blessings for entering into the covenant with God.

 Boys receive their names at the circumcision ceremony. Girls receive their names at a regular synagogue service. Both boys and girls are given Hebrew names that consist of a given name, followed by the Hebrew word for son of or daughter of, and finally the parents’ given names. This Hebrew name is used in religious ceremonies: at birth; at the brit milah or the baby naming; whenever the person is called upon to read from the Torah; at marriage; and at death. The secular name given to a child is frequently similar to his or her Hebrew name. The similarity of the rites for boys and girls confirms that both boys and girls have the same privileges and responsibilities and bring the same joy to their families and community. Sephardic Jews—those whose ancestors are from Spain and Mediterranean areas—traditionally name their children for living relatives. Ashkenazi Jews—those of Germanic and Eastern European ancestry—traditionally name their children for deceased relatives.

The tenth plague, the death of all first-born Egyptian males, finally led to the release of all Jews from Egyptian bondage. In commemoration of this event, and in atonement for their deaths, every first-born Jewish son is dedicated to God’s service in the synagogue. In modern times, the child is redeemed from service on the thirtieth day of his life; this is both a reminder of one’s continual obligation to serve God and a link to early Jewish history.

In response to a question about when an unborn baby achieves personhood or gains a soul, Francine said that she had never been asked the question before. From the audience, Joan Burstyn said that it is when the infant is viable; Lynda Fuchs said it is when the head and shoulders are delivered, or when the infant draws its first breath. In olden times, if someone caused a miscarriage, that person was responsible for paying compensation.

Christianity (Episcopal)—Rev. Bridget McManus

Bridget is the rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Pulaski, where she has served since 2004. A Syracuse native, Bridget is a proud graduate of Corcoran High School. She earned her B.A. at Williams College and her master of divinity at the University of Chicago. Bridget was ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago in 2003. In Chicago, she worked as associate rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church, directing a hunger-relief program focused on building relationships across class barriers. Her other passions in ministry include preaching and seeking a balance between traditional and innovative worship.

Bridget stressed that for Christians, prayer is important for reversing infertility, safeguarding pregnancy, and protecting young children. It is common for a minister to visit a new mother and her child in the hospital or at home in order to give thanks and ask for blessings; however, this is informal, not a rite. Bridget recommended the book, Motherprayer: The Pregnant Woman’s Spiritual Companion, by Tikva Frymer-Kensky, a Reconstructionist Jew.

Bridget explained that Christian denominations have varying opinions on when life and the soul begin. Some, notably Roman Catholics, believe that the soul is present at conception and should be accorded all rights at that time. Thomas Aquinas held that the soul enters at quickening, at approximately the fourth month. Some denominations say that the soul is bestowed at birth. Others hold that the question is partly scientific and that there are no good data. Bridget says that her own denomination has no fixed doctrine and that she will abide by the parents’ decision. If they wish to have a funeral service for loss of an unborn child, she will do it.

Bridget, who grew up Roman Catholic, was comfortable talking about a variety of beliefs and practices within many traditions of the Christian community. She discussed the two different approaches to baptism: infant baptism and believer’s baptism. Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Orthodox, Lutherans, and others practice infant baptism. When parents were baptized in ancient times, the entire family was included, and the rite was seen as erasing original sin. Today many traditions see baptism more as a welcome into the church community. There is a theological belief that none of us will ever be intellectually ready to understand God, so a newborn infant is as ready as anyone for baptism. Parents frequently attend instructional sessions in preparation for the ceremony, and they make promises in the child’s name that the child will live a moral, virtuous life in accordance with God’s will. Godparents may be named who will oversee the child’s growth in faith. Baptismal water is poured or splashed on the child’s forehead, with words from the New Testament, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

In contrast to infant baptism is believer’s baptism. The person must be mature enough to request baptism and must make professions of faith in his or her own name. Believer’s baptism is usually by immersion, making clear as the individual bursts from the water that a new life is beginning. The water of both baptismal forms gives spiritual life. A Paschal candle, first lit at Easter, ties baptism to the Easter story and to new life in Christ. Some Christian traditions also anoint the child or adult with oil.

At each of her infant children’s baptisms, Bridget followed a tradition of giving the child a tiny piece of communion wafer, thus including the child in the sacred meal where she is fed by God. At funerals, the coffin is covered with a white shroud representing the baptismal gown. At baptism, a person is given spiritual birth; death is a birth into eternal life.

Onondaga—Jeanne Shenandoah

Jeanne is a member of the Onondaga Nation. She has been a practicing midwife for 30 years. She works in the communications office of the Onondaga Nation, is involved in all ceremonies, and teaches Native American tradition.

Although Jeanne is following the birthing traditions of all women on earth, her practice was illegal for many years. The Public Health Authority stopped her grandmother’s practice of midwifery and attempted to intimidate pregnant women into using the medical system. Jeanne maintains that women have the right to choose where and with whom to give birth. Jeanne now works in homes, hospitals, and birthing centers. She wants to regain the precious spirituality that belongs to birth and that encourages the sisterhood and community of women.

The Onondaga Nation is composed of clan families. Relationships are matrilineal, so all your mother’s relatives are your family—resulting in very large families indeed! Word of a pregnancy travels quickly in these families, and everyone gathers to encourage the spark of life. During the pregnancy, relatives help with the other children, provide good foods to nourish the mother, and smile warmly to care for her emotional state. Jeanne provides prenatal advice and later readies the labor space for the sacred ceremony of birth. The mother will invite to the labor and delivery her husband, friends, neighbors, anyone who will provide strength and happiness to the process. Jeanne feels it is an honor to teach young women how to take care of their family, how to regain the wisdom of the past, and how to provide the nurturing and comfort that everyone deserves through such humble tasks as tending children and doing laundry. She wants to draw people together in prayer and thanksgiving. In contrast, doctors disempower, implying that we need experts for even basic care.

Naming a child is part of a community celebration. When a clan member dies, his or her name rests for a while, then is given to a new child by the clan mother. In this way, each name can be traced back several generations and identifies the child by clan and nation. Jeanne’s Haudenosaunee name identifies her as Eel Clan of the Onondaga Nation. The clan mother brings the child and parents to the “speaker of the ceremony,” who announces the birth to the assembled community, gives thanks for the new person, and honors the parents. Sacred foods are served to the children; a corn pudding with strawberries is a favorite treat. Throughout the year, the first day of every ceremony is planned for the children, so the naming ceremony will take place soon after the birth.

Wicca—Terra Harmatuk

Terra is a high priestess in the Wiccan tradition and has ministerial credentials with the Covenant of the Goddess. She is high priestess of the Circle of the Rising Phoenix and teaches classes at both Mystic Side and Seven Rays. She is married, with two children in college, and employed by the Onondaga County Department of Social Services. Terra is a Reiki II practitioner. She has an AAS in theater and a BA in secondary education, English and theater from the State University of New York at Geneseo.

Terra explained that her spiritual path is very eclectic and draws from many sources. Although Wiccans do not have a sacred book, they believe strongly in ritual and symbolism to celebrate life’s passages. They look back to ancient times for ideas. They are sometimes surprised to discover that Wiccans from another area have adopted similar practices; apparently, some ideas are innate. It is impossible to say what all Wiccans believe; for instance, some, but not all, believe in reincarnation. A common belief is that a child is a spirit returning to earth to grow, evolve, gain wisdom, and eventually become one with Spirit. The God and the Goddess are the essence of Spirit. Our time between lives is spent looking over our past life and seeing what we still need to learn, although there will be no memory of this. Babies may choose their parents and may be with people they have known previously.

Terra practices a “gateway ritual” shortly before a child’s birth. As a gateway for the spirit to return to earth, the mother is pampered with nurturing and caring—a massage, perhaps, or a pedicure—and a painting is done on her belly by friends who then discuss with the mother the words, symbols or colors they have chosen. The group asks the God and the Goddess to make the labor safe and easy. Then gifts are given to the mother; these could include a book of original poems and sayings, a robe, some lotions. The group honors the mother now because later attention will be given to the child. The group also organizes ways to help after the birth. Wiccans try to keep birth (and all of life) natural, using herbs, teas, a midwife if possible, and breastfeeding. Terra said that there are various beliefs about when the soul or personhood begins. Some Wiccans say that the spirit enters the body at the first heartbeat; others, at the first breath. This is one of life’s mysteries. In the Nordic tradition, spirit comes first, and it in turn causes the physical.

During a Wiccaning, or naming ritual, the child is welcomed, and the God and the Goddess are asked to protect, and provide a safe space for, the child. The parents bring the baby into the circle and let their intent be known: their wish for their child to be a member of the community. The high priestess anoints the child’s head with oil and blesses her or him. The child is presented to the four directions, which represent air, fire, water and earth. The parents make a commitment to care for the child, and each member of the community gives the child a blessing, signifying that the entire community takes responsibility for the child. Wiccans recognize that each child will walk his or her own path, and they encourage children to explore other religions on their journey to reach Spirit. Wiccans remember that children are close to the “other side,” so they pay attention to children’s wisdom. All members of a Wiccan circle are equal participants; children take part when they feel they are ready.

Islam—Danya Wellmon

Danya converted to Islam in 1992 and is active at the Islamic Society of Central New York. She is uniquely able to bridge the Christian and Muslim traditions, having grown up in a Methodist family. After co-leading WTB for three years, Danya is now a lifetime member of the WTB Council. She is a medical technologist with the American Red Cross.

Danya explained that Muslims believe that all things are created by God, including the infant in the mother’s womb. The Qur΄an even spells out the physical development of the baby from conception through birth, with considerable scientific accuracy.

The Qur΄an tells us that an angel brings the soul from God at the end of the first trimester, when the heart starts to beat. At the same time, two other angels bring a book in which they will write events of the child’s life: means of livelihood, lifespan, and actions (be they good or bad). Children are born pure and are not accountable until the age of puberty. They are born with knowledge of God and are given guardian angels to accompany them through life. At death, the soul is taken by angels back to God. Many angels are involved with the life of one person.

Birth is a time of celebration for the Muslim family and community. Immediately after birth, a call to prayer is whispered into the right ear of the child. The prophet Muhammad started a tradition of putting a softened date into an infant’s mouth, thereby bestowing something sweet in life and teaching the child that henceforth nourishment would come from the mouth. The child is born with the right to be treated with care; to receive a proper upbringing; to receive food, clothing and moral guidance. The parents are held accountable for these. The child is considered a trust and a gift from God.

As a sign of the covenant with Abraham, circumcision is required of all males. In the past, circumcision was performed on the seventh day, but now it usually takes place in the hospital soon after birth. Female circumcision is prohibited; however, in some areas it is performed for cultural (not Islamic) reasons. In another tradition, the child receives a first haircut on the seventh day; the cuttings are weighed, and the equivalent of their weight in gold is given to charity.

Islam has no naming ceremony. Boys are traditionally named after a righteous person or a prophet; girls, after a prominent Muslim woman or scholar. Danya explained that her name comes from the Qur’an and means “to bring near or close”; she chose the name because it is similar to her given name, Diana. A traditional birth celebration is marked with the slaughter of a sheep or cow. A large part of the animal is given to the poor, while the rest is used to feed a community celebration. The event may be postponed until the new parents can afford the expense