The Rachel Sabbath
Aiken UU Church
May 13 2012
What is the Rachel Sabbath?
As you have been hearing, through the opening words, the meditation and the readings, this service has something to do with maternal mortality.
Maybe not the cheeriest approach to Mother’s Day, you’re saying to yourself!
But here’s why it’s an important topic for today:
The Religious Institute tells us that “every minute of every day, somewhere in the world a woman dies in childbirth or from pregnancy-related complications – at least half a million women worldwide every year” (www.religiousinstitute.org).
According to the International Rescue Committee, maternal mortality is the largest health inequity in the world. It is particularly acute in developing nations, where 99% of all maternal deaths occur.
More than half of maternal deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa, and one-third in South Asia. Most take place during labor, delivery or in the immediate post-partum period. And that is because sometimes fewer than one in ten births are attended by a skilled health worker or midwife…often women are on their own or delivering with the help of a relative or neighbor.
Maternal mortality also has a devastating effect on children: “More than one million children are left motherless every year due to maternal deaths. Children are three to 10 times more likely to die within two years of the mother’s death.” (Religious Institute Sample Newsletter Article)
There’s been a lot in the news this spring about other aspects of women’s health care – specifically reproductive rights – but today I would like to spend a little bit of time drawing our attention to a problem that has been with us for millennia. Why is maternal mortality something we still tolerate in our world today? Does it say something about the value we place – or don’t place – on the literally life-giving work of women?
And why do we have a hard time talking about this – could it be that there is a taboo that still exists about openly discussing and acknowledging the health needs of women, traceable back through thousands of years to the impurity of blood and also to the subordinate position of women in society, culture, and religion?
The Rachel Sabbath Initiative: Saving Women's Lives is a program from the Religious Institute, a multifaith organization based in Westport, CT, that is dedicated to sexual health, education and justice. The Rachel Sabbath Initiative supports the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goal 5, which focuses on improving maternal health.
This is the third year that the Religious Institute is calling on congregations across the country to raise awareness and support for the UN’s targets of reducing maternal mortality worldwide and achieving universal access to reproductive health care by 2015.
Why is this initiative called the Rachel Sabbath?
The simple answer is because, as you heard in the first reading, Rachel is a matriarch in the Hebrew scriptures who died in childbirth. But there is much more to it than that connection…and I want to spend a few minutes opening up those two readings from Genesis and the Gospel of Mark in order to look again at how ancient the reality of health inequity is for women. For those who know the Bible, these stories about Rachel and the woman who touched Jesus tell us much about Judeo-Christian history, but they also demonstrate the disregard that persists to this day as a near-universal attitude toward women’s health.
Women’s health inequity in the Bible
The story of Rachel in the book of Genesis is interesting on several levels; one of the themes of the book is trickery or deception in reference to the families of Rachel and her husband Jacob. The young Jacob, along with his mother Rebecca, trick his father Isaac into giving Jacob the family birthright over Esau the elder brother. After this deceptive act Jacob flees east from Canaan, and one day he sees and falls in love with Rachel. He in turn is tricked by Rachel’s father Laban, who demands that he work for 7 years to earn Rachel’s hand in marriage; but instead, Jacob is married to her older sister Leah instead. It’s only after seven more years of work that Jacob is allowed to marry Rachel. The two women – and their handmaids – between them then give birth to twelve sons and one daughter. But Rachel first suffers barrenness for many years before giving birth to Joseph: she begs Jacob, “Give me children or I shall die”. The author of Genesis says that this is when God remembers Rachel and opens her womb so that she can conceive. The Five Books of Miriam, which is a woman’s commentary on the Torah written by Ellen Frankel (Harper, 1996), features an imaginary dialogue between Jewish scholars and rabbis with the major characters of the Torah, which is the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. Although Genesis does not tell us how Rachel felt when God intervenes to enable her to conceive, Frankel imagines Rachel’s reaction in these words:
“After being concealed from my husband by my father’s deceit…and eclipsed so long by Leah’s teeming brood of sons, I was finally remembered, as a distressed ewe is heard by the caring Shepherd. No wonder infertile women have always appealed to me to speak to God on their behalf; in their isolation and grief, they feel invisible and mute. What they want more than anything is to be remembered and listened to” (Frankel, 59).
But there is one more trick in the story of Rachel that, in the opinion of some scholars, proves deadly to her: after many years Jacob, with all his wives, children, servants, sheep and goats, decides to leave to go back home to Canaan, and for some reason as she leaves Rachel steals her father’s household gods. Laban chases after the group once he discovers them missing, and Jacob allows him to search their belongings, and even says to Laban “Anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive” (31:32). Rachel sits on her camel saddle in which she has hidden the idols and tells her father that she is in the way of women – in other words menstruation – and so Laban does not touch her or her belongings because of the taboo that would make him impure. Frankel makes the observation that “unlike the men in her family who can negotiate power directly, through physical struggle, bargaining, or covenant, Rachel as a woman can only resort to indirect means…she relies on the camouflage of menstrual taboo and in doing so escapes the harness of social control” (Frankel, 63).
So her days are numbered, maybe as an indirect result of Jacob’s words to Laban; Rachel’s fate is to die at the age of 36 after becoming pregnant again; she experiences difficulty in childbirth and the midwife tells her: “Have no fear, for it is another boy for you.” Before her death, Rachel names the newborn. In Gen. 35:18 it says: “But as she breathed her last—for she was dying—she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin.” The Rabbis explain that Rachel called the child “the son of my suffering” [in Aramaic], while his father gave him the Hebrew name “Benjamin.” (Jewish Women’s Archive Encyclopedia, http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/rachel-midrash-and-aggadah).
It’s said that Jacob buried Rachel on the road to a place that became the town of Bethlehem because he foresaw that when the Israelites would set out on their journey of exile, they would pass through Bethlehem on that road, and so he buried Rachel there, so that she would pray for the exiles.
His prophecy was fulfilled, as we can read in Jeremiah 31:14–16: “A cry is heard in Ramah—wailing, bitter weeping—Rachel weeping for her children, she refuses to be comforted for her children, who are gone. Thus said the Lord: Restrain your voice from weeping, your eyes from shedding tears; for there is a reward for your labor—declares the Lord: They shall return from the enemy’s land. And there is hope for your future—declares the Lord: Your children shall return to their country”. You might recognize the first part of that reading, it was used in the gospel of Matthew to describe the scene of King Herod’s massacre of all male children under the age of two, the result of being outwitted by the Magi when Herod tried to find the Christ child.
Rachel's life was so full of sorrows that, down through the centuries, women who need comfort because of their troubles have felt that they can relate to her. What should have been her joyous wedding after a seven year wait was actually her sister’s wedding, Leah’s veiled deception of Jacob; Rachel had to wait 7 more years to be married and then she was childless for years. She watched Leah give birth to son after son, and the two handmaids give birth to sons as well before she finally had a child. She died giving birth to her second, and did not live to raise her sons.
It is true that at her grave the Jews wept when forced into the Babylonian exile after the destruction of the first Holy Temple.
And from then on, her grave has been a place for constant prayers, the place where women, especially, come for comfort. (http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/149557#.T6vjWxzEVkU) …just as Ellen Frankel imagined Rachel claiming that women who feel invisible and mute want more than anything to be remembered and listened to.
Rachel’s story is tragic, but we can have other glimpses into the state of women’s health in the Bible. Other Old Testament women die in childbirth, including the daughter of King Saul, so it is evident that the dangers of childbirth for women are spread across the ages of kings and prophets. They were probably women who were loved as much as Jacob loved Rachel.
Where we see a startling and hopeful change in the biblical treatment of women is in the New Testament stories of Jesus. The second reading you heard earlier from Mark’s Gospel joins together two females who symbolize the cycle of female fertility: one about to enter puberty, the other probably in the menopause. The love that the father Jairus had for his daughter made him plead with Jesus to come to heal her – but the woman with the flow or hemorrhage of blood had no one. In fact, think for a minute about the audacity of this woman in the context of the times: she seems to have been a woman who had money, but had spent it all on being treated without success. The perpetual hemorrhage made her ritually unclean – for anyone to touch her, or her to touch anyone, would make them unclean as well. Menstruating women in parts of the world, even today, are secluded in another part of the home because no one would risk contamination by laying on a bed on which she had slept, or sitting in a chair where she had sat. Would the woman with the flow of blood have been able to cook for her family? Would she even have been allowed to eat with them? What was she doing out on her own without a male relative? As an unclean woman she would not have been allowed to participate in any religious rituals.
Yet, according to the Women’s Bible Commentary (Carol Newsom and Sharon Ringe, eds, SPCK, 1992) , “that a woman…should be in such a public place evidently unaccompanied by protectors and that she should dare to touch a strange man without his consent are extraordinary events in an ancient cultural context” (267). She must have been so desperate that it didn’t matter to her that she was breaking taboos. Her medical condition placed her outside of the religious community and isolated her from the human community. When she touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, she violated not just the ritual purity law of religion, but also of the social code for women’s proper behavior with men. She passed on her impurity to Jesus, who immediately knew something in his being had been changed; through this touch the woman was healed and she felt whole. An interesting observation by the Women’s Bible Commentary is that, in the original Aramaic language, Jesus says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well” – through his declaration of kinship (“Daughter”) Jesus is giving her legitimacy to be in society again, under the protection of a male. She avoids the social stigma and shame of a woman stepping outside the bounds of custom. The Commentary concludes that the woman’s 12-year illness “constituted a social death in which she was barred from community and kin, a situation not all that removed from the actual death of the twelve-year-old daughter of Jairus, whom Jesus was able to revive and reincorporate into the human and family circle” (268). In the face of social and physical death, two women are deemed by Jesus to be worthy of life. When I reflect on this story, I am blown away by the revolutionary act of love we see in the healing touch of Jesus upon these women.
It is a dramatic, stunning story – and because of its embarrassing and intimate nature, all the more likely to be true. If you were a loyal disciple working on a hagiography of Jesus, why would you make up a story that veers uncomfortably close to the blood taboo when there are plenty of other less messy miracles and wonders, like the loaves and fishes.
Whatever you believe about Jesus, in this reading we feel the tragedy of the subordination of women, the depths of love and the desperate drive for survival, for life. How can we imagine that women who are dealing treatable conditions, such as the dangers of childbirth today, this hour, this minute, feel any less passionately about wanting to live, to care for and see their children live and grow up?
Women’s health inequity in the developing world
Two thousand years on, with today’s medical knowledge it is not rocket science to find a solution to the problem of maternal mortality – we have the technology! According to the UN Population Fund, if current global investments in family planning and pregnancy-related health care were doubled – in 2009, doubled to just under 25 billion dollars – it would save the lives of 400 thousand women and 1.6 million infants every year.
Women’s health inequity in the US: Pregnant Workers Fairness Act
And it’s not just in the developing world – we need to see a solution applied a little closer to home: how about a modification by Congress to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, that was made law over 30 years ago, that helps women to continue to work while pregnant without risk to themselves or their pregnancies? The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is a proposal that will help pregnant women to modify physical activity, like lifting ,standing, repetitive motion - that might endanger their health. Half the U.S. workforce is female; between 2006-2008 two-thirds of women who had their first child worked during pregnancy – of that number, 88% worked into their third trimester. Women can’t afford to take time off before or after their pregnancies for any length of time, especially not in this time of economic uncertainty.
Yet we hear of stories like this one: Amber Wallace, the only female truck driver for a beer distributor. When she asked during the later months of her pregnancy if she could get help with heavy lifting or be reassigned to a different position, her employer refused, even though previously truck drivers with injuries had been given assistance - and even drivers who lost their licenses for drunk driving had been allowed to apply for new positions in sales. Amber was forced into unpaid leave, which was exhausted 6 days after the birth of her baby. When she did not return to work one week after giving birth she was terminated.
A Wal-Mart floor associate named Heather Wiseman became pregnant and began to suffer from bladder and urinary infections. On doctor’s orders she began carrying a water bottle to work to keep hydrated, but because of a rule that only cashiers could have water bottles at work, Heather was terminated.
These cases have been compiled by the National Women’s Law Center, which is advocating for passage of the Pregnant Workers’’ Fairness Act. The Act would prevent employer discrimination against pregnant workers because they need reasonable accommodation, with modifications to things like food or drink policies, but also would prohibit an employer from requiring a pregnant employee to accept changes to her work when she doesn’t want any modification, including being forced to take paid or unpaid leave. Employers already accustomed to accommodation for disabilities would have to go no further in ensuring that pregnant workers are treated as well in the workplace.
Our first UU principle of affirming the worth and dignity of every human person, and the second – justice, equity and compassion in human relations – might already have sprung into your mind when reflecting on the inequities of healthcare that exist today for women all over the world. What you do next is up to you. What gift can you give on Mother’s Day?
When you leave this sanctuary you can read about what the International Rescue Committee is doing to combat the frightening statistics about maternal mortality that I gave you at the beginning of this message; on the bulletin board in the hall I’ve pinned up the IRC update on training midwives and health workers in places like eastern Congo and a camp for Burmese refugees in Thailand. I’ve also put there the fact sheet about the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. Now that you’ve been informed about the needs of women across the world and here at home, you can decide the best way that you can help.
But, as my message today comes to a close, one way we can all help - right this minute - is to spare a thought and a prayer on behalf of women and their health care needs.
Dr. Gaye W. Ortiz