I must admit – I know of no specific teshuvah or halahah on this particular topic. Jewish tradition has much to offer related to an already married couple that cannot conceive, but I have never read anything related specifically to the question you raise. From where I sit at the table of Judaism, a woman who has had cancer and can no longer bear children can certainly date and marry if she chooses.
In making a values-based decision about how to proceed, it seems that there are several important concepts; happiness, honesty, respect for life, fullness of heart.
Although certainly child-rearing is one potentially important part of partnership, clearly there are many couples that choose not to have children or are unable to have children for a variety of reasons. This does not invalidate their relationship or their love. If people choose to come together and build a family, that is a beautiful thing. In fact the Bible acknowledges that, at least for many people, being partnered – regardless of children – is a preferred way of life. Certainly, many people who are interested in marriage will also be interested in becoming parents. Especially today, when so many new technologies allow for the birth of children outside of traditional procreation, honesty going in to a relationship is crucial. A person entering the dating/matchmaking world should have thought through these difficult questions. Although it is important to have an open mind and to be open and responsive to the needs of your partner, it is also important to know your own boundaries and to have a clear sense of what you are open to.
For a young woman who has gone through so much and has survived cancer, Jewish tradition would offer words of comfort, support and blessing. I hope that if it is her desire, she is blessed with the happiness and joy that comes with the wedding canopy and that her partner is worthy of a woman who is clearly a woman of valor.
What does Judaism say about dating and matchmaking after a young woman has had cancer and can no longer bear children?
Short Answer: The young woman under discussion should be encouraged to seek a match, should be up front with matchmakers and prospective suitors in appropriate fashion about her reproductive limitations, and Hashem should bless her with the strength of character and support of hope and faith that she will find her bashert. She should also be encouraged to seek the support of a good counselor/therapist to help her overcome any fears and insecurities and surmount the feelings of unfairness and personal hurt that she may experience toward God, life in general, and people, like myself, who want to be helpful but may not always say the right thing. This young woman should also be counseled, along with her future spouse, all in due time, to explore the prospects of experiencing the joys (and travails) of parenting through adoption.
Long Answer: What is the purpose of marriage? In speaking of the union of the first couple, Adam and Eve, the Torah says: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). In commenting on the phrase, “vehayu le-basar echad – and they shall be one flesh,” Rashi, the medieval Northern French Bible commentator, explains: “and there in the child they produce together their flesh becomes one.” Ramban, Moses Nachmanides of 13th Century Spain, takes issue with Rashi’s intriguing interpretation and prefers a more figurative reading. Ramban speaks of the uniquely strong bond of companionship that forms between husband and wife, one that turns two biologically unrelated individuals into a new family unit. While Rashi suggests that (at least one of) the primary reasons for marriage is reproduction; Ramban points to companionship.
The great 12th Century Spanish codifier, Rambam, Moses Maimonides, wrote a book called the Sefer HaMitzvot that enumerates in exquisite detail what commandments comprise the 613 mitzvot. Positive commandment #212 is listed as the commandment with which God charged all generations of humanity through his initial address to Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and multiply: (Genesis 1:28). Positive commandment #213 is listed as the commandment to get married. Although some authorities, in the spirit of Rashi’s commentary cited above, understand the act of marriage as only a holy prerequisite for fulfilling the mitzvah of reproduction, Maimonides and others, in the spirit of Ramban’s commentary cited above, find independent, essential value in the exclusive bond of companionship that we call “kiddushin – sanctified marriage.”
There is little question that we affirm the view that first and foremost the purpose of marriage is to create a supportive life partnership between husband and wife. Thus, Jewish law mandates marriage for people unable to reproduce: infertile men and women, post-menopausal women, as well as for individuals who have already brought children into the world.
It should also be noted that there is a Talmudic line of interpretation that defines the obligation of reproduction in the aspiration as much as in its fulfillment. The Talmud (TB Shabbat 31a) envisions that when we pass from this world and stand in ultimate judgment before the celestial court, one of the questions that we will be asked is, “Did you occupy yourself in the mitzvah of reproduction?” The Talmudic commentator, Rabbi Simchah Eidels, Maharsha, explains that the Talmud here recognizes that not all individuals will be able to biologically reproduce, for whatever reason, so what God expects of each of us is to try to the best of our ability to occupy ourselves in continuing the world for future generations. If we cannot biologically reproduce, following Maharsha’s reasoning, we can still adopt an orphaned child, or we can financially support the upbringing of children without parents, or we can become teachers and raise up the next generation.
It should also be strongly noted that the Talmud defines parenthood not only in the biological sense, but in some ways even more strongly considers the person who raises a child to be the determinative parent.
However, as encouraging as I have tried to be in this explication, it would be misrepresentative of Jewish tradition if I did not acknowledge in this excursus that Jewish law would obligate a fertile man principally to seek out a fertile mate, and that chronic infertility is a legitimate, if not compulsory, reason for divorce within Jewish law. In practice, however, people do marry with fore-knowledge of fertility challenges and limitations, and I do not know of a single instance of a couple who divorced for the direct reason of one of the spouse’s infertility.
Genesis 2:18 states, “It is not good for man to be alone.” There is deep and abiding wisdom in this verse. Jewish tradition recognizes that people are generally happier when they are in community and interacting with one another. Modern scientific studies on happiness support his wisdom. Thus, whether or not a woman can bear children should have absolutely no effect on her ability to date and marry. If she wants to find a partner, then she should date and marry.
If the couple chooses to have children, they have the option of adoption. Jewish law regards adoption as an equally viable option for having children. Children adopted in to a home are regarded as the children of that couple. If not born to a Jewish birth mother, they can be easily converted, and they carry the name of their adoptive parents. Lots of resources exist to help a couple on their adoption journey. I traveled this road myself, and am happy to answer any questions.
Do not let an inabilty to have biological children get in the way of finding love and creating a family.
This is a heart-breaking question. A woman has survived the threat and fear that accompany cancer and has undergone dramatic treatment that has left her unable to bear children. The diagnosis and treatment has already disrupted her life. Now she, or someone on her behalf, must question the ways in which this disease will affect her life going forward – specifically, if our Jewish tradition will support her in establishing a home to be shared with a loving partner.
It must be acknowledged that the Torah makes a powerful connection between marriage and procreation, “be fruitful and multiply”. Mishnah Yevamot preserves a dispute between Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai as to how many children a man should sire in order to fulfill that obligation. The truth, then as now, is that not every couple is capable of bearing children for a variety of reasons. The Tanakh records the tales of a number of women, including Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson's mother, Hannah who were unable to bear children until they were miraculously blessed by God. Today one cannot rely on such miracles.
We would be wrong, however, in defining marriage solely by the act of procreation. The Sages acknowledge that companionship, joy, and unity of the family are essential elements of marriage. These are the qualities stressed by the last of the Seven Blessings of the marriage ceremony:
Praised are You, who lights the world with happiness and contentment, love and companionship, peace and friendship, bridegroom and bride...
The non-orthodox world includes these elements of marriage in a variety of egalitarian wedding contracts, ketubot, which can be seen at various sites on the web.
The wedding blessings also ask God to bring joy to the two loving friends who are standing under the huppa, the wedding canopy, as God delighted the first couple in the Garden of Eden. It is this aspect of marriage, an egalitarian covenant of lovers, that I would emphasize. Several writers, including Arthur Waskow and Rachel Adler, have found in the Song of Songs, the most intimate of the books of the Bible, a model for a marriage that cultivates love and passion in a setting of holiness. I would hope that every marriage begin with this holy passion and that children follow, when possible. It is the love, companionship and friendship which will sustain the couple in the long run.
The Sages were not blind to the question you ask. They addressed the question of what a person should do if they were in a marriage and discovered they could not bear children. Their answer was to remain married, to increase peace in the household and in the world. They point to the ultimate truth – the blessings under the huppa begin a family, two loving people committed to each other by love and devoted to building a home that is as full as possible with friends, family, community and more.
I wish the woman of this question many blessings in the years to come. May you be blessed with health and loving companionship.
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