Rabbi Jessica Fisher
I recently attended a bris in my community where the mohel announced to the new parents and the whole room, “Raising this child is the most important and impactful thing you will ever do.”
These words were offered to anchor the already exhausted and overwhelmed couple in the sanctity of the job they are embarking upon; the holiness of shaping a person into adulthood; the pride in doing something meaningful and lasting.
At the same time, these are the sentiments that form the foundation of parents’ guilt when they have to work or when they choose to be with friends and not their children. They create the basis of self-recrimination when a child struggles and the parent is made to feel they are to blame. They foment anxiety over not enjoying aspects of parenthood or feeling lonely or isolated in the endless exhaustion of rearing children.
These are also the words that shame those of us who have no children.
The year I turned 30, I was not on any identifiable path to parenthood. I was, however, in rabbinical school and deeply committed to the ways I could and would serve the Jewish people as a rabbi. Until rabbinical school, I experienced my own private grief about not having a partner or kids, but no one had ever imposed those feelings on me or pressured me on my timeline.
As part of a counseling course in rabbinical school, I was assigned a reading where I learned that 13.9% of married women ages 30-34 experience infertility (a percentage that only increases after 35). Thirty years later, the author who shared this data did so again at an all-school gathering, reminding us that women pursuing education were largely responsible for the decline in Jewish population, since the ideal age for a woman to get pregnant is 22. He added, in essence, “Don’t come crying to me when you finish your education and realize you missed your window.”
I was shocked by his callousness and also by the overt implication that delaying parenthood for the sake of education was damaging to the Jewish people — an assertion, overt and implied, reached by many Jewish social scientists, as others have pointed out. Apparently, nothing I could do as a rabbi would ever have the same impact on Jewish peoplehood and the Jewish future as producing babies above “replacement level.”
While the presentation surprised me, the idea that the ideal role of anyone with a uterus is to bear children is embedded in our scripture and liturgy. Even the way many of us have chosen to add women into the daily amidah prayer to make it more egalitarian attests to this role: Three times a day we chant, “magen Avraham u’foked Sarah,” that God is the one who shields Abraham and remembers Sarah. This line about remembering Sarah refers to the moment when God undid Sarah’s barrenness, giving her a child (Genesis 21:1). Every time we recite these prayers we are reifying the idea that a woman’s relationship with God is directly linked to her fertility.
According to the medieval sage Maimonides, “Whoever adds even one Jewish soul it is considered as creating an entire world.” How many times do I have to sit on a beit din, or rabbinical court, before the number of conversions I witness adds up to a child? How many weddings and b’nei mitzvah and tot Shabbats and hospital visits and adult education classes? This is math I should not have to do as a rabbi or as a woman. It is not math we should ask of anyone.
I know I am not alone among my peers in expressing frustration around such rhetoric. If we truly believe that a person’s value is derived from being created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of the Divine, then we need to demonstrate this in the ways we speak and teach about parenthood and fertility, celebrating the role and value of an individual within a community with no correlation to the number of children they raise, how they parent, or how those children connect to Judaism.
While there are plenty of sources in Jewish literature and a range of sociological data that offer all kinds of reasons that Jews should “be fruitful and multiply” — often expressed with urgency after the devastation of the Holocaust — the Torah, our most ancient and sacred text, also presents a model for what it means to be a person without a child who makes a tremendous impact on the Jewish future.
According to the most straightforward reading of the Torah, Miriam, the daughter of Yocheved, sister of Aaron and Moses, does not marry and does not bear children. And yet, Miriam played a crucial role in ensuring the possibility of a Jewish future. She was the sister who watched over Moses as he floated in a basket, the girl who connected Moses’ adoptive mother with his birth mother and the prophet who led the women in joyous dancing when the Israelites finally attained freedom.
In a recent conversation, Rabbi Rachel Zerin of Beth El Temple in West Hartford, Connecticut, pointed out that what is powerful about Miriam is that she appears content with her life. Unlike most of the women we encounter in the Hebrew Bible who do not have children, we never see Miriam praying for a child; she is never described as barren or unfulfilled and yet she is instrumental in securing the Israelites’ — our — freedom.
Through this lens, we can understand that the Torah offers us many models of a relationship to parenthood: Some of us may yearn for it and ultimately find joy in it, some of us may experience ambivalence around bringing children into the world, some of us may encounter endless obstacles to conceive or adopt, some of us may struggle with parenting the children we have, some of us may not want to be parents at all and some of us may experience all of these at different times.
Like Miriam who fearlessly added her voice to the public conversation, we, too, can add more voices to the conversation about Jewish continuity that counteract the relentless messaging that raising children into Jewish adulthood is the most consequential thing we might do.
Yes, parenting can be miraculous and beautiful, something we should continue to celebrate. But we each have so many gifts to offer the Jewish people — our communities just need to create space for all of us to contribute in a broad variety of ways, by making fewer assumptions and speaking about parenthood with more nuance, expansiveness and compassion.
Jessica Fisher serves as a rabbi at Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle, New York.