Earlier this year a friend asked me to create a new ritual for her upcoming surgery. What came to mind immediately is that God is sometimes referred to as El Shaddai, the Breasted God (shaddayim is the Hebrew word for breasts). And in our Torah we already have a ritual for removing something from the body that is unwanted—circumcision for males. It may sound strange to use this male-specific ritual template for a woman’s breast reduction. But while as a feminist I have wrestled with this rite, the circumcision of my son was one of the more powerful Jewish moments in my life. It was a test of faith and commitment, and is a sign of the covenant with God. Creating this ritual for my friend actually put ritual male circumcision in a new light for me as well.
My friend told me, by way of explaining why she wanted a ritual for this usually rather private medical procedure: “I inherited my grandmother’s breasts, what early writers on breast surgery described, perhaps with racist intent, as the ‘pendulous breasts of the Jewish woman’. My grandmother and I were the same busty size and shape when I was a mere adolescent. I saw how she held herself very upright, supported by a longline bra with underwire, almost a corset. I decided then and there this was not to be my path. I was a teen in the 1960s, and feminism saved me. I went braless.
“Bras became the symbol of my oppression. My mother and I argued relentlessly over this; the major strife of our relationship. I was not conforming to the image of the sweet young lady she had been tasked to raise. And as my body went through weight gain, then loss, my breasts went up and down. Then I got pregnant, and swelled again. While I appreciated my breasts when I was nursing, I still hated bras.
“After menopause I developed acid reflux, and suddenly bras were the bane of my existence again. I couldn’t wait to get them off. I lost weight, which helped, but by then my breasts were sagging. My posture was suffering from their weight. I lived with the reality that gravity was working on my body. My breasts were, literally, a pain in my now-arthritic neck.
“Every year or so I would discuss breast reduction with my therapist, but always decided I couldn’t face surgery and recovery. Too much time, too many people needed me. But really what I was feeling was that I couldn’t betray my own internalized belief that my body was made in God’s image and was just perfect as is, so I scorned elective surgery undertaken for mere vanity.
“My therapist encouraged me to ‘just go get a consult’.
“So, I went to the medical practice nearest me. They weren’t sure my large size was large enough to qualify, but when the answer came back that the insurance company would cover the procedure I marched forward.
“Before undergoing the breast reduction I’ve resisted for so long, I want some marker event to help me reconcile my complicated feelings, ranging from betraying my female forebears to betraying my feminist disdain for body-reshaping surgery. And it matters to me to embed my experience in a spiritual context.”
“Circumcision of the Breast” Ritual
THE INTRODUCTION. (This is read aloud.) El Shaddai, the Breasted God, is the name featured on the mezuzah for protection, and is also the One related to circumcision.
Deuteronomy 10:16 says “Circumcise the foreskin of your heart, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked anymore.” Breasts lie over the heart. What is the connection between circumcision and heart, between breast and circumcision? Between El Shaddai and shaddayim, our breasts?
SHARING. Friends are asked to tell, if they like, a very short narrative about surgery, mastectomy or breast reduction.
CREATING AN ALTAR. Among the items are goddess statues; angel figurines; the four elements, including a Miriam’s Cup filled with milk. Then, on the altar, weights, red threads and bras.
SINGING. Psalm 97: “And the women came rejoicing.”
SETTING THE INTENTION. The woman enunciates her hopes moving forward. In this case, she said, “In the season of my youngest child moving out, my parenting chapter is changing. In light of our political era, it is time to be liberated for action, to be more of an Amazon, to be a leaner warrior for the fight for the earth and our country. What needs to be sacrificed to go forward in strength and to heal?”
MAKING A COVENANT. Letting go of what is no longer needed.
INVOKING THE FEMININE ASPECT OF GOD. We speak of the Shekhinah/Goddess and the Venus of Willendorf, that Austrian fertility great-mother goddess with pendulous breasts, and Asherah, the breasted Goddess of the Hebrew Scriptures who holds her breasts in prayer.
THE WOMAN SHARES HER MAMMARY MEMORIES. “At camp, at 12, being teased that I wasn’t wearing a bra. At 13, the mortification of getting a bra and having the attendant feel me up to see if it fit. At 15, petting in the back of the car with my first boyfriend, feeling my boobs suddenly alive. Jogging defiantly without a bra in the 1960s. Sharing my breasts with lovers. Walking down one of the busiest streets in Israel and hearing a strange man call out to me ‘Ayzeh shadayim, b’chol hahayim lo raiti shadayim ka’eleh!!’ ‘What breasts are these? In all my life I have never seen breasts like these!!’ Being groped by my tour guide; did he really touch me, or no? Did I imagine that? Nursing my son. Mammograms. Irregular mammograms. Skinny dipping with my breasts floating. In a workshop where we held our hands under our breasts and prayed, my body felt holy.”
SINGING “THE BREAST SONG” (available at www.shechinah.com/reb-rayzel-lyrics.html), with some lyrics funny, some poignant, like:
Of all the things to worry about and if it’s keeping you up at night
Let us say this once and for all Your breasts are all just right—the way they are (repeat)
For they are the symbol of the Divine presence—
El Shaddai herself
And we are her daughters
Created in her image
And we are just perfect.
READING A LETTER TO HER BREASTS. The woman reads: “You have been a part of me. I’ve accepted you, we’ve lived together, yet now you hurt my neck and sit on my stomach. Have I loved you? I found pleasure in you. I have some grief that I haven’t fully accepted you, relished you or appreciated you since you’ve been too hot or floppy or sweaty. I’ve hoisted you up to see what I would have looked like if you were in the right place. I have grief for betraying my family from whom I inherited this DNA. Yet you have been there. You’ve been pillows for my children. I am going to put you through pain and discomfort so that I can have a lighter body and free my neck…. Will you forgive me?”
HER BREASTS RESPOND. (The guests read.) “Hey, we want to be loved! We’ve been your companions a lot of years and you have accepted us, sometimes just tolerated but that’s better than hatred. We girls just want to have fun and be adored. Life is too short to schlep around what you don’t want. Promise to take us walking in the sunshine, and don’t forget to show your scars proudly. We are willing to be of service and do tzimtzum (a reduction of the space we take up) for the larger whole body.
LAYING DOWN THE WEIGHTS. The woman carries around the room the weights placed on the altar as symbols of the “baggage” being released, and recites, “I put down this weight to free me for the for the next step, for the unknown, for the possibility of unforeseen blessing” and “I now give thanks to my breasts and release them with love.” (Wording suggested by poet Merle Feld).
BLESSINGS. Red thread is an ancient amulet for Jewish women, regarded as anti-demonic. Useful to ward off the evil eye, the red thread was a substitute for blood sacrifice. The woman’s wrist is wrapped with the red thread: she is reminded to wear it during surgery. The woman is offered a blessing.
CONNECTING PERSONAL AND POLITICAL. A moment of solidarity checking for breast lumps; an announcement that the tissue from the reduction will be donated to breast cancer research; writing postcards written to legislators in support of women’s rights.
THIS BREAST-REDUCTION MEDITATION, adapted from Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, is read aloud:
El Shaddai, God of Breasts, mark well the changing of my body! You have made me in Your image, full-breasted as the mountains, yet should the mountains continue to shake and quake, the very foundation of the earth would be destroyed.
I ask Your permission to strengthen the world by controlling the mountains and their power. In humility I offer to do tzimtzum, reducing my essence to make room for other ways of standing tall and strong and doing Your holy work. In love I offer to do tzimtzum so that new strengths can be revealed. In compassion for myself and my body and my health, I emulate Your compassion.
“Would a mother forget her babe, refrain from feeling compassion for the child of her womb? Even were these to forget, I would not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15). Great Mother, stay with me through my surgery, and remember me for goodness, health, and a complete recovery.
PRAYER FOR THE SURGERY (adapted from Kohenet Gail Tishman), should the woman choose to recite it:
To the hospital team: I come to you today, with trust in your artistic and healing abilities. I thank you for your work, knowledge, experience and dedication to your job and your patients. You are each here today because you are one I need at this moment, and I know God is guiding you in your work, and I am blessed to have you here.
I am choosing to do this surgery to alleviate the discomfort in my body. It has not been an easy decision, and it is something I have wrestled with. I do believe the body is a temple for the soul. It is a symbol of the intricacies and majesty of God and creation, even with its imperfections. So I ask you to approach this task as holy one…I know each of you has angels to guide you, and I invite mine and all of yours to assist.
This piece first appeared in Lilith magazine—independent, Jewish & frankly feminist—in the Summer 2017 issue, and is used with permission. More at www.Lilith.org.