אכלה בשוק, גירגרה בשוק, הניקה בשוק – בכולן רבי מאיר אומר תצא
If a married woman ate in the street, or walked with her head held high in the street, or nursed in the street - in all these cases Rabbi Meir said that she must leave her husband.
In the penultimate page of Gittin, the Talmud discusses immodest behavior. Rabbi Meir declared that three displays are so immodest that any wife who expressed them should also be suspected of adultery. One of these behaviors is "nursing in the street." As a consequence, if a wife were to breastfeed in public, she cannot stay with her husband because of the possibility (- or is it the probability? -) that she had also committed adultery.
Let's clear one thing up right away. Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah rejects the position of Rabbi Meir, as does the definitive Shulchan Aruch (אבן העזר ו, טז) :
רמב"ם הלכות איסורי ביאה פרק יז הלכה כא
יצא קול על הבתולה שהיא בעולה אין חוששין לה ותנשא לכהן גדול, יצא עליה קול שהיא שפחה אין חוששין לה ותנשא אפילו לכהן, יצא לה שם מזנה בעיר אין חוששין לה, ואפילו הוציאה בעלה משום שעברה על דת יהודית או בעדי דבר מכוער ומת קודם שיתן לה גט הרי זו מותרת לכהן שאין אוסרין אשה מאלו אלא בעדות ברורה או בהודאת פיה
...if a husband divorced his wife because she transgressed Jewish practice or because she did a repulsive thing - and he died before he was able to give her the Get (Bill of Divorce), she is permitted to marry a Cohen [who is normally forbidden to marry a divorcee]. For we do not forbid a woman to her husband for any of these reasons unless there is clear evidence, or she admits to it herself (Mishneh Torah Hil. Issurei Biah 17:21).
As we have noted many times, societal definitions of immodest behavior change over time and between locations, and are continuing to evolve. Perhaps no better example of this evolution are attitudes towards breastfeeding in a public space. Rabbi Meir's attitude, while it may appear extreme, was in fact one that prevailed until recently in many cultures - especially our own. (That is why Pope Francis made headlines two years ago when he encouraged mothers in the Sistine Chapel to nurse their children.)
Public Breastfeeding laws
1. THE US
In a 2013 review of breastfeeding laws in the US, researchers at Harvard noted that the majority of states have legislation permitting women to breastfeed in any location and exempting breastfeeding from indecency laws. However, less than half the states require employers to provide break time accommodations, prohibit employment discrimination based on breastfeeding or offer breastfeeding women exemption from jury duty.
Currently, women who breastfeed are exempt from public indecency laws in 29 states in the US. Fewer states - only nineteen - have laws encouraging or requiring provisions for break time and private accommodations where an employee can express milk or breast-feed. But 15 of these 19 states do not require breast-feeding provisions if doing so "would unduly disrupt operations". These laws not only make the lives of breastfeeding mothers (and their children) much easier; evidence suggests that state laws that support breast feeding are associated with increased breastfeeding rates - and the health benefits that follow.
2. THE UK
In the United Kingdom, breastfeeding in public was addressed in the Equality Act of 2010. Under this legislation, treating a woman unfavorably because she is breastfeeding is sex discrimination and against the law. The Act protects nursing mothers in public places such as parks, sports and leisure facilities, and when using public transport. They are also protected in stores, restaurants, hotels movie theatres (known as "cinemas" there), and gas stations. In Scotland it is a criminal offense to try to prevent a woman from feeding a child under two in any place in which the public has access and in which the child is entitled to be. Anyone who tries to do so can be prosecuted under the Equality Act.
A 2007 survey of pediatricians, family physicians, and gynecologists in Israel concluded that physicians had a positive disposition towards breastfeeding but that their knowledge about it was somewhat low. The authors noted that "it is highly important to increase physicians’ awareness of breastfeeding women’s needs," though they did not address the issue of nursing in public. A 2004 report from the Kenesset (עידוד הנקה בישראל) noted that only 32% of Jewish mothers were breastfeeding their infants a six months, (compared with 50% of Arab mothers,) but the report did not address nursing in public. In 2013 a bill came before the Kenesset to protect women who nursed in public spaces. The bill has not yet become law, but its supporters hope that it will be resubmitted in the current Kenesset.
Breastfeeding in Public - One Rabbi's Responsum
Rabbi Brad Artson of the Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles has written a thoughtful תשובה (responsum) on the question of breast feeding in public. "When it was possible to avoid baring the breast," he wrote, reviewing several talmudic passages, "it seems to be the preferred approach of the rabbis. Forced stripping [which was part of the Sotah ritual] was a sign of humiliation. And, finally, the rabbis dispute whether or not such an act as public breast-feeding is a sufficient cause for divorce (ultimately deciding that it is not)." He concluded his twelve page responsum (which was approved 14 to 3) with these words:
Reading the sources in the light of these considerations, I understand halakhah to permit public breast-feeding, including in a Beit Midrash or synagogue sanctuary during a worship service, so long as it is done in a modest, subtle, and dignified fashion. (This requirement would be met, for example, by using a cloth or towel to cover breast and baby, by the maternity shirts specially made for this purpose, or by nursing in the rear of the room.) It is also preferable that Jewish institutions provide places where mothers who prefer to nurse in private may do so.
Many synagogue arks are emblazoned with the words דע לפני מי אתה עומד , know before Whom you stand. In Torah study and in prayer, we are in the presence of the One whose salvation is intimated through human nursing:
לְמַעַן תִּינְקוּ וּשְֹבַעְתֶּם מִשֹּׁד תַּנְחֻמֶיהָ לְמַעַן תָּמֹצּוּ וְהִתְעַנַּגְתֶּם מִזִּיז כְּבוֹדָהּת
"That you may suck, and be satisfied with the breasts of her consolations; that you may drink deeply, and be delighted with the abundance of her glory.”
Jewish institutions, in particular, have an obligation to welcome, facilitate, and support nursing mothers and their babies.
These are words that Jews of any and all denominations should get behind.