Religion has an influential role in the decision to bear children. In Enough of Us: Why we should think twice before making children, we examine religious motivations for procreation. In this column we’re going to look at Jewish positions (no pun intended) on choosing whether or not to have children.
In Jewish Orthodox tradition, halakhah is the complete body of rules and practices that Jews are bound to follow. According to these rules, it’s simply not OK for a man to ejaculate outside of the vagina. A man sins if he “spills his seed upon the ground.” Although birth control is permitted under certain circumstances, the use of condoms is not allowed because it will result in destruction and/or blockage of the passage of the seed. Clearly, there is a “halakhic obligation to procreate.” (Judaism 101: Kosher Sex – www.jewfaq.org/sex,htm)
Birth control is permitted in halakhah, as long as couples are committed to have at least two children, one of each gender. This complies with the oft quoted phrase, “be fruitful and multiply,” because offspring are considered to be blessings. Birth control is not acceptable in order to remain childfree.
Given that in Orthodox Judaism bearing offspring is pretty darn mandatory, how do religious couples cope with the possibility of being childfree by choice? In the March 5, 2012, the “Lady Mama” entry at www.ladymamale.blogspot.com, an orthodox married woman speaks out about reaching age 30 and still waiting “for the desire to have a child.” “In our day and age, I do not think it’s fair to make women like me feel there is something wrong with us just because we don’t have the ‘maternal instinct.’ It’s not fair to tell us we’re ‘overthinking’ the whole having kids thing. How can you not with such an important decision that not only impacts the rest of your life, the lives of all those around you, but most importantly the life of this innocent bystander who did not ask to be born.” Here is a woman who is thinking twice, in spite of her religious influences, however she struggles with the emotional pain of being orthodox and childless.
Twenty women responded to this post. Several commended the writer on her honesty. These responders wrote statement such as how lucky this writer’s children will be to have such a “thoughtful mother,” and “I respect you for publicizing your choice and wish more people in the orthodox world could be more open minded.”
One respondent said that this article spoke to orthodox women who already had a “houseful of kids,” and felt guilty about not wanting to continue to multiply, yet struggled with the halachic obligation to be fruitful. “It will help me with my decision,” she wrote.
An advocate of having children said “if you don’t have children you will never learn a certain type of giving or love that can only be found between parents and their children. “
Another dissenting voice said: “True in the end, we don’t know how kids end up.” She cites an ancient king who, “decides not to have children since he knows his son will be wicked. But he is punished for that, since that is not his concern. His job, as a man, is to have children. Everything else is out of his hands.”
It seems God dictates that couples are simply supposed to procreate without thinking twice about the long-term consequences. Reform Judaism allows for some opposition to the standard orthodox position on childbearing, but permission to be childfree by choice is not spelled out. This aspect of Judaism sees scripture as a guide, rather than as rules to be followed without question, and allows for the development of personal beliefs within a caring community. The reform movement allows females to become rabbis, and for those who intermarry to be part of the Jewish community.
“Modern” Jews believe that the benefits of birth control (female health, family stability or disease prevention) uphold the commandment to “choose life,” which trumps “Be fruitful and multiply.”
The Reform Movement’s openness may allow for a sliver of light to shine through partially closed blinds. It invites less judgment than Orthodox Judaism, and more discussion, about how there already is enough of us, and why we should think twice before making children.
Since Judaism is the foundation of western religions, we wonder how much influence its laws have had on the compulsion of so many to birth first and ask questions later. As for those who believe we should be fruitful and multiply, we ask, “Until when?”
After all, we have to stop sooner or later; the Earth is only so big.