The rabbis teach that as a fetus we were much more actualized than we could ever imagine. In fact, we were geniuses!
[During the period of gestation] a light burns above the fetus’ head, and it gazes and is able to see from one end of the world to the other… There is no time during which a person abides in greater happiness than during those days… It is taught the entire Torah, all of it… But as it comes into the air of the world, an angel comes, strikes it on its mouth, and makes it forget the entire Torah (Niddah 30b).
This is a remarkable teaching, reminding us that we do not just learn Torah as humans but relearn it from our fetal days. Further, it reminds us that while the details and applications of Torah are very complicated, the essence of the word of God is very simple. All people can learn just as every fetus was capable of mastering our tradition.
The gestational (the period from conception to birth) development is a fascinating biological process, but it is not linear. First, there is an embryonic stage for 10 weeks during which there all essential organs begin to form. During the fetal period (staring with week 11), the fetus begins to produce red blood cells, make active movements (including sucking motions), hear sounds, and has defined gender, although the fetus’ brain makes up half its size, its eyes remain shut from weeks 11 until week 28, and the lower lung, while developed, will not be capable of air exchange until about week 30. During weeks 31-34, the fetus rapidly stores fat and minerals, and begins rhythmic breathing with immature lungs. By the final weeks of gestation, the fetus has fully grown fingernails, breast buds, and some hair on top of the head. The fetus is now ready to be introduced to the world.
While we see that from a biological perspective a newborn brings a genetic makeup, from a spiritual perspective an infant is a tabula rasa. While a fetus is not considered a full life (and thus the mother’s life takes precedence if God forbid there are complications) that this potential life still has immense value. If one, God forbid, has a miscarriage, we can see that the potential life had great virtue and spiritual value (knew the whole Torah).
Biologically, what abilities do we have when we are born? Anecdotally, many believe that the fetus in the womb is helped by (and reacts favorably to) music, particularly classical music (and Bach and Mozart, at that). However, this theory lacks hard scientific proof. On the other hand, another trait from birth may have been proven. Recently, Finnish researchers published the results of a study to determine whether babies can remember things they heard before birth. During the final weeks of pregnancy, pregnant women listened to a recording of a nonsense word played repeatedly with an uncharacteristic drop in pitch at one point. Then, on an average 5 days after birth, the same recording was played for the babies (with a control group that had not been exposed to the recording). Significantly, all the babies who had heard the recording before birth reacted when they heard the pitch drop in the recording, while the control group did not react. While the sample size was small (17 pregnant women and their children plus a control group), the findings do appear to confirm that the babies retained a memory of something they heard in the womb, although this memory appears to disappear some time after birth. Some learning remains but the Torah is gone!
Interestingly, these findings fit well with the teachings of the rabbis. Perhaps most significantly, though, the rabbis teach us something about how we learn. Torah is about dependence (between the fetus and mother, human and God, people-to-people). We truly learn most appropriately when we learn through humble dependency.
Religion and science appear to indicate that when we are born, our hearts and minds are still wide open and we have the innocence to truly engage in transformative learning. But as the fetus is struck by the angel and forgets all of her Torah, so as time goes on we have a tendency to close our minds to learning. This reminds us that the constant journey for self-discovery, God discovery, and ethical growth is what is most important. Mastery and perfection is just for the fetus.