By Adam Katz-Stone
Baby shower or no baby shower? If that's the question, the answers are varied.
In Jewish tradition, baby showers were taboo. Neither Halakha or Jewish law forbids gifts for an unborn child, but custom effectively prohibits them.
Such gifts once were thought to draw the attention of dark spirits, marking the child for disaster. To this day, many Orthodox Jews will not so much as utter the name of a baby until that baby is born, for fear of inviting the evil eye.
In liberal Jewish circles, however, attitudes are more relaxed.
"I don't think there is anything wrong with giving gifts," said Rabbi James S. Glazier of the Reform Temple Sinai in South Burlington, Vt.
In his view the traditional reluctance to hold a shower "is based more on superstition than anything else. It's all Ashkenazik medieval superstition. I don't denigrate it, but on the other hand I don't put a lot of stock on it either."
While the rabbi and his wife had baby showers for both their children, they deferred to tradition in so far as they did not decorate the nurseries until after the babies were born. Like many modern rationalists, Rabbi Glazier said he respects the psychological imperative behind the custom of not holding a shower – a custom that arose in a time when infant mortality was high.
"I can see where you don't want to have a whole room waiting, in case something terrible should happen," he said. "Today people have concluded that since infant mortality in childbirth is so infrequent, they think every child will be healthy. I don't agree with that. In our case we didn't want to be faced with a complete room before the baby came home healthy."
At the Conservative Temple Beth Shalom in Mesa, Ariz., meanwhile, Rabbi Bonnie Koppell said her mom warned her against buying "so much as a receiving blanket" before her first child was born. The rabbi went shopping anyway, but she agrees that full-scale pre-natal nursery design may not be appropriate.
"My sense is that preparing a whole suite of furniture and decorating the room might be a bit much," she said. "However, a few receiving blankets, stretchies, diapers – God forbid, if the infant does not come home, these few things won't make terribly much difference in the face of such overwhelming grief."
Yet there are many in the observant community who will not buy so much as a sock. Some say that the tradition of shunning the baby shower is not just ancient superstition: it serves a deeper communal need.
It's not just about the couple having the baby, they say. It's about all the other couples that can't. Rabbi Jay Yaacov Schwartz and his late wife wrestled with infertility for years before adopting. When they did begin the adoption process, "we didn't even tell people when we had an adoptive opportunity, because we were afraid of ayin hara – of bad energy," said the rabbi, a spiritual leader at the Orthodox synagogue Young Israel of Oceanside in New York.
Rabbi Schwartz was not literally afraid of demons. He feared waking the cosmic wheels of action and reaction that he believes return to us just what we give out. In this case, he knew that his happiness might cause pain for some childless couple, and their unhappiness would some day come back to bite him.
"The wisdom behind ayin hara is simple menschlicheit – meaning, be humane, be decent" he said. "The smart person, as I was taught, does not broadcast their business." He suggested, too, that there might be something just a little presumptuous in showering an unborn baby with gifts.
"To do that suggests that we are in control of these things," the rabbi explained. In respecting the tradition of silence prior to a child's birth, he said, "you are making an act of faith. You are putting your trust in God and admitting that we are not always in control of these things."
While such issues are matters of grave consideration in much of the Orthodox world, the whole baby-shower question carries far less weight in liberal circles. Rabbi Koppell said that in 18 years of synagogue life, no congregant has yet asked for her guidance on the baby shower issue. Some progressive rabbis meanwhile have suggested that the whole question could perhaps be laid to rest in ways that satisfy both traditional and modern concerns.
"Many Jews buy items and have the store ship them after the birth," noted Rabbi Rami Shapiro of Miami's Reconstructionist Congregation Beth Or. "I suppose we could create a Jewish alternative to the baby shower by having a party for the mother wishing her well, and then a baby shower after the birth of the baby."
"As to what to buy?" the rabbi added. "Stocks."