Lactation Without Representation

Image: © GRACE/ZEFA/CORBISIt was late last night.  I passed by my son’s bedroom.

“Hey, Mom,” Erik said.  “Did you know that some men can breastfeed?”

“Naaah,” I said.  “Come on.

Erik pointed to his computer screen.  He was reading an article on male lactation.

“Good grief!” I said.  “Talmud was right!”

“Sorry?”

“There’s a story in Talmud about a man who breastfeeds,” I said.

Erik scanned the screen.  “Yes, it mentions that here.”  He began reading: ‘There have been countless literary descriptions of men miraculously breast-feeding, from The Talmud to Tolstoy, where, in Anna Karenina, there is a short anecdote of a baby suckling an Englishman…’”

“Nice!” I said.  “Talmud gets a passing mention and Tolstoy gets a whole paragraph!  Talmud is far more interesting than Tolstoy!”

At this point my husband, Ralf, turned round the corner and speculated on whether I had been drinking something I shouldn’t have.  I admit it: My congregation gives me grape juice for leading Kiddush, as I will get quite silly after consuming two tablespoons of Manischewitz.  And yes, I know that Manischewitz is not wine.  But it does count as alcohol.  Really.  Well, at least for small children and me.

The Talmudic text in question (Shabbat 53b) makes for interesting reading.  In it, a poor man’s wife dies, leaving him with a nursing child.  He can’t afford a wet nurse.  A miracle occurs and his breasts “open,” allowing him to nurse his own child.

The rabbis, as always, proceed to discuss the matter.  Rabbi Yosef exclaims that the poor man must be a great guy, a real mensch.  That explains the miracle.  Rabbi Abaye is of the contrary opinion.  The fellow must be a real schlemiel.   Otherwise, divine intervention would have focused on helping him find a job so he could afford to pay a wet nurse.  Instead, he got slammed with a solution that did the humane thing by keeping the kid alive but could only have afforded major embarrassment.  (Men are not encouraged to be women in the Talmud…).

Rabbi Yehuda insists that it’s pretty hard for heaven to change the fate of a man when it comes to job searches and a lousy economy.  Rabbi Nachman concludes the discussion by stating firmly that a miracle did occur no matter how you shake it, but that one must admit that the guy did not get gainfully employed.  Lack of employment isn’t so good in any age.

You gotta love Talmud.  You really do.

You can find more about male lactation in rabbinic texts.  Genesis Rabbah (30:8) features the rabbis speculating on the weaning of Queen Esther after both parents died.  Mordecai is a prime candidate for male lactation and the survival of his niece.  It’s good to have a loving family.

There is a scientific explanation for male lactation.  You can read all about the hormones that can cause men to get happy and produce milk.  I have also learned that extreme stress combined with strenuous physical activity and a shortage of food can cause male lactation.

Hmmm…. Poor guy + hungry baby = extreme stress.  Tada!!!  Male milk!  I mean, why not?  That’s exactly what happens to women!

“I kinda wish more men would lactate,” I told Erik and Ralf.  “Some of these rabbis seemed to approve of the idea – why didn’t they pray for more such miracles?  Then women could have gotten to do all those men things so much earlier in history.  Women rabbis in the Middle Ages! I can see it!”

“I am not sure there’s a direct correlation,” Erik said slowly.  “Lactating men doesn’t lead inevitably to women on the bima.  And we’ve had women in the pulpit for years and their menfolk have not been bursting out with milk.  At least I am sure I haven’t.  Dad?”

Ralf had left the room.  Probably, he had better things to do.

You learned something from all this, I am sure.  Put War and Peace away.  For entertainment, just read the Talmud.

 

Share