I have a question that I need to have cleared up. Since I was a little girl, I have not wanted children. I don't feel comfortable around them, and I just cant seem to wrap my head around kids at all. The problem comes in with the commandment of "be fruitful and multiply." What should I do and what does Judaism say about this situation?
[Administrator's note: a related question is found on JVO at http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/question.php?id=185.]
Thank you for your question. Technically,our Sages have taught us that only men are commanded to be fruitful and multiply, not women. Now, while both are necessary to reproduce, it has been explained that the Torah would not obligate a person in a situation that is potentially a threat to health or life. That being said, finding a life partner who also does not want to have children would seem to be an appropriate path for you to take..
However, it might also be important for you to explore these feelings that you have with a competent therapist. Such a person might help you understand the roots of these feelings and may or may not help you overcome them. With a new perspective, you may just be interested in raising a family. And again, you may not. One way or another, if you are not interested in having children, then you are certainly doing any unborn child yourself a favor by remaining careful and living responsibly. Many people find fulfillment and satisfaction in life in ways other than raising children. Volunteering, teaching, donating resources and time and effort, etc. I wish you much luck in the future.
It would be disingenuous to pretend that Judaism is not pro-parenthood. As the questioner correctly states, parenthood is a commandment. Indeed, it is traditionally thought of as the first commandment, because the blessing that God gave to the first humans, as recorded in Genesis 1: 28. Interestingly, the language of that verse is not self-evidently the language of commandment. The biblical words can be parsed as a blessing, i.e. a partaking of some aspect of God's power on the part of created beings. Similarly, a few verses earlier, in Genesis 1:22, God blessed the animals, saying that they shall be fruitful and multiply-- and there is no way to read that as a commandment. Nonetheless, rabbinic tradition construed these words to the first humans as a mandate-- humans not only can procreate, but they ought to, under the correct conditions
That last restriction, "under the correct conditions", may serve as a consolation for the questioner, and also as a spur to further reflection. She might want to explore the psychological roots of her lack of comfort with children-- but regardless, If, upon mature consideration, she is convinced that she would not function well as a biological parent, then she may legitimately conclude that this is one commandment that she will not fulfill in its literal sense. But surely, there are other ways in which she can help secure the future of our human species and, more specifically, of the Jewish people! One need not be a biological parent to be a blessing in the lives of children. Volunteering in any of the many youth-oriented programs of synagogues, or in Jewish parochial and supplemental schools, may give the questioner a way to grow closer to children without the danger of being an unsuccessful parent. Regular participation in the institutions of Jewish life will give the children whom she contacts to see, in her, a worthy model for emulation.
I would imagine that the questioner is of child-bearing age; otherwise, there would not be much point to the question. Her age bracket gives her the opportunity to provide an accessible model of good conduct for children.There are congregations where, unfortunately, pre-bar mitzvah children generally see their grandparents' generation, and not other members of their parents generation, from one shabbat to the next. Steadfast attendance at worship services can function, not only as a mitzvah in its own right, but also as a gift to the children who will be present.
More generally, as our generation is fond of repeating, "it takes a village to raise a child." This bit of wisdom resonates well with Jewish tradition. All of us, as a Jewish community, need to create an atmosphere of ethical choices, of spiritual concerns, and of reverential patterns of religious conduct, to do the work of tikkun olam that is, in a general sense, our gift to our children.
Without in any sense promoting flippancy towards the non-fulfillment of one or another of the commandments, it is nonetheless appropriate to remind ourselves that, in the Rabbinic view expressed at the end of the Mishnaic tractate "makkot", God gave us many commandments to provide many opportunities for the refinement of our character. Instead of seeing "100 % as the minimum passing grade" and being disabled by scrupulousness over the non-fulfillment of every last one of them, we ought to fulfill all the mitzvot that we can, and to seek to perform those deeds with both joy and reverence.
Hopefully, one day in the future, the questioner will be able to look back upon a life of many mitzvot fulfilled, and to conclude that she may not have been the leading lady in the drama of the upbringing of any one family of children, but that she was a critically important supporting cast member in the large-scale drama of the upbringing of the rising Jewish generation.
The easy answer to your question would be to say that you’re off the hook: according to a strict interpretation of Jewish tradition, the obligation to procreate (“be fruitful and multiply”) is incumbent upon men and not upon women. But that response, besides being flippant, is woefully inadequate, because the Jewish tradition on the subject is more complicated than that. (To put it another way, the “strict” interpretation is not always the right one.) Besides, as a Reform rabbi, I’m committed to an egalitarian approach to Jewish religious life, and I can’t very well give you an answer that suggests that women have a different level of obligation than men to fulfill a mitzvah that applies to everyone.
Here’s what I would say to you. Reform Judaism teaches that it is a mitzvah for men and women to bring children into the world. And it is a special mitzvah for us as Jews to bear children, in fulfillment of the ideal of Jewish life and marriage and as an act of faith in God and in our future as a people. To have children is to affirm our commitment to the continuation of Jewish heritage, and it is to say “no” to all the forces that would conspire to put an end to our people.
At the same time, we recognize that no individual should be made to feel coerced into having children. Being a parent, as we know, involves a whole lot more than begetting offspring. Persons who do not wish to assume the duties of childrearing, who “cannot wrap their heads around” the whole idea, should not have children merely out of a sense of obligation. While the Jewish people wishes to insure its future, it should not want to do so at the cost of forcing individuals to become parents before they are ready (if they ever will be ready) to take that step. More than that: individuals who find that they are not prepared to have children should not be made to feel guilty for feeling that way. Each one of us – single or married, parent or not – can serve God and the Jewish people by doing the mitzvot that we are capable of doing. (On all this, see the book Gates of Mitzvah, published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis).
Bottom line: the decision as to whether you should fulfill the mitzvah “to be fruitful and multiply” is a matter for you to decide. While I and others may hope you decide that question in the affirmative, the key thing is that you should become a parent if and only if you are ready and willing to do so. And even if that mitzvah is not one that you will ever choose to fulfill, you are still capable of living a satisfying and fulfilling religious life, of being the best Jew you can be.
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