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Each One an Entire World

A Jewish Perspective on Family Planning

by Laurie Zoloth

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"Three million and three hundred thousand Jews lived in Poland before the
war, three million died. Two million eight hundred and fifty thousand
Jews lived in Russia. More than a million died. The synagogues stand
empty now, our brothers and sisters were murdered everywhere in the days
of destruction."

"Let us say Kaddish not only for the dead, but also for the living who have
forgotten the dead. And let the prayer be more than a prayer, more than
lament; let it be outcry, protest and defiance. And let above it all let it be
an act of remembrance."   
 Elie Wiesel (1999)                                                                                    

Every spring, just after the celebration of Passover, Jews commemorate
Yom HaShaoh (The Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust.) It is a new
holiday, made distinctive by new ritual: in the United States, the
community gathers in the evening, and for the next twenty-four hours,
reads lists of names of the dead. It continues overnight, by the light of
memorial candles, at dawn, and into the evening darkness of the next day,
in synagogues and on college campuses: the names, the ages of each one,
one by one, specific: the listing of the children is particularly
poignant. The tradition is to stand and listen, and take a turn in
speaking a name, knowing that even in 24 hours, even reading every hour,
even with one's entire community, one cannot hope to list them all.

Why begin a discussion on a Jewish perspective on reproductive health,
ethics, and family planning policy with this story?
In a world clearly facing significant, vexing issues with justice, with
environmental challenges, with a steady increase in human population and
consumption, and significant shifts in world wide fertility, why not
begin the discussion of Jewish ethical and religious perspectives on
family planning with a far more general description of Jewish
perspectives on reproduction, contraception, abortion, families, and
health?

Tradition, location, polity, and text

This chapter will argue that to fully understand, describe, and reflect
on Jewish perspectives on reproductive health and ethics calls for a
clear understanding of both history and text. A Jewish contribution to
the debate on family planning is based both what is written and what is
preformed. Normative Jewish practice is one that is based on a
textualized reasoning: an analysis of the problems of a tangible sensory
and social world. Hence, both the concerns of historical context and the
rigor of traditional canonical texts create social policy. When new
historical situations arise, and the daily enactment of community and
faithfulness shifts against political, scientific, or physical
contingencies, a process of heightened discourse reshapes the new
enactments. In critical ways, the questions of the environment, of
population are in constant flux. For Jews, the cultural and economic
realities of modernity affect religious practice, social justice and
ethical norms. Family life, families, childrearing, and sexuality are
part of the practice of religion. In reflecting on Jewish ethics, one
considers the whole of human activity and the whole of the community as
well: women as well as men are moral agents, the lifeworld of the family,
of women and of children, are central concerns of religion. This
discourse is primarily contained in the extensive literature of debate
and exegesis of the rabbinic literature, which is primarily although not
exclusively collected in a set of volumes called the Talmud. It is a
record of an oral discourse, in which contention and casuistic narrative
ethics both determines and discuss the Hebrew scriptures and struggle to
apply them to daily life. In an elaborate linguistically complex oral
debate, later codified in the written Talmud, the teachers of the period,
described 613 commanded acts named as "the mitzvot. " (200 BCE to 500
CE.) Both the study of this linguistic world, and the ongoing efforts to
shape and be shaped by the practice of the commandments defined the moral
universe of observant Jews in the centuries since this time.

Jewish law develops in the 1500 years since the redaction of the Talmud
by an ongoing series of "responsa" to questions about the legal code
discussed in the Talmud. Difficult cases of social crisis of all types
are brought before decisors and scholars who ruled on the facts of the
cases, on the methodological principles of logical discourse and on
certain key principles of relationships in the familial, ritual, civic
and commercial spheres. Each commentator is discourse with those who
came previously, and yet is confronted by changes in context: political
and cultural shifts as well as scientific understandings that could not
have been available to previous generations. This process of query and
response continues into the present. Nowhere is this more publicly
evident than in the rapidly changing field of reproductive health.

Statement of the problem

This chapter will argue that we face a time of intense historical
challenge in halachic Jewish thought and in the Jewish polity. It is a
time of serious environmental threat to a shared global environment
world, and necessitates call for a reclaiming of a central rabbinic texts
by creative re-reading. Here, I will make the claim for a particular one:
placing the parent-child relationship, in particular the nursing
relationship (and all that this meant thematically,) at the center of the
texts about birth control, allows Judaism to contribute creatively and
substantially to the critical issues of population, family policies and
imperiled world resources.

My thesis is this: First, there is nothing new about survival as an
issue for the Jewish community. The question of survival is at the heart
of the covenant with the God of Israel. Second, women’s position as
prime moral agents in the covenant is central to the textual account of
Jewish survival in which childrearing at the core of the spiritual
activity of much of Jewish ritual life. Third, how the “faithful remnant
of the People Israel, always understood liturgically as small in numbers
but as universally critical in the larger human fate, is preserved is a
deep concern for Jewish thought. The tension between the promise of
fecundity and maintaince of covenant in the Biblical account, and the
realities of the fragility of Jewish existence in exile is at the core of
a theological and social struggle. Finally, that the Jewish tradition
itself is suggestive of a principle for Jewish views on the ethical
problem of population and family planning. Such a view forms the duty
toward the a specific future in the presence of a specific other. Each
child calls on each parent to enact a duty towards her, of providing a
world of abundance and generosity and attention. In fact, much of Jewish
law is a discourse on how to provide and maintain such a world for a
Jewish child faced with injustice, exile and danger, hence by extension,
a world of justice for each human child.

The collection of essays in this book is devoted to seeking traditional
reflections on the call for family planning, abortion and birth control.
It is a task undertaken out of a sense, emerging from a long history of
concern about "over-population" of the globe, that we live in a world
that is unable to sustain human society, a world burdened by scarcity of
water, food, clean air, and arable land. This analysis understands that
population growth alone is not the only issue, and that careful
innovations in how we use the earth we live on will need to be made by
all. In fact, even if world population stabilizes at present levels, the
question of how to share the already crowded and degraded world
environment persists.

How are Jews, such a infinitesimal part of the world population, part of
this problem? First, in many of the venues that Jews find themselves,
the burdened cities of the Diaspora, and the small densely populated and
fragile desert environment of Israel, we are already struggling with
serious issues of water scarcity, pollution, and air quality . Second,
since Jews have strongly made the claim that minorities who have been
persecuted ought to be allowed to procreate in larger numbers as a kind
of reparative justice, consideration of the case of the Jews after the
Shoah warrants special attention. It is important to understand the
justice and limits of such a powerful claim. Third, many American Jews,
like American Christians and Muslims, and Hindus and Buddhists, live as
Americans, consuming resources of the world at rates wildly
disproportionate to others in developing countries, and hence must ask
ourselves what the faith commitments we live by say about such
consumption. Finally, since Jewish texts are at the heart of an
Abrahamic tradition that is shared by Christians and Muslim, a Jewish
perspective on these Jewish texts can make a unique contribution in and
of themselves, offering new considerations on families and women which
lie at the heart of the debate. The reproductive health of families,
women and children is key to the discourse of ecology and population--and
it is religion that exercises one powerful influences over the meaning
and intention of the well lived life, of families and of a just response
to the use of the earth.

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