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Each One an Entire World


A Jewish Perspective on Family Planning

by Laurie Zoloth         
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Notes on the history of populations —
the demographic shifts and their meaning

Let me begin the discussion by reflections on the historical idea of
overpopulation itself and on the way that our society speaks of
rights-claims that tends to shape our relationship to that idea.
Before 1800, the world population grew only slightly, at a steady, but
incrementally slow rate. Since the 1800s, the world population has been
growing exponentially. This was certainly not framed as a problem by
many, since Europeans, including Jewish leaders, understood the world as
intended for increase, available for full human use, in fact invoking
Biblical references to "fill the earth and subdue it" in service of
expansion. But the sudden population increase—called the first
“demographic shift”— was not the result of a change in fertility
patterns, but in mortality patterns of early childhood. The early modern
period enabled strategies for preventative health, clean water, and pest
control that allowed many more children to survive to reproductive ages ;
increased food production allowed for more robust offspring; and this
reduction in mortality altered the basic social reality of families.
What followed the population increase, in every society, transculturally
and transhistorically, with a few notable exceptions, was called the
second “demographic shift.” This shift becomes apparent after a
transitional period that lasted between 100-25 years (100 years in
Europe, 25 in countries in the developing world.) Fertility patterns
changed in response to the decreased threat to childhood—one did not need
to give birth to many children in order to assure the continuity of
family or lineage. Parents begin to conceive smaller families, in essence
counting on each child to reach adulthood safely. This is not only an
historical or European phenomena. This has occurred in nearly every
country as modernity, with clear water, vaccinations and antibiotics
arrives, including Latin America, China, and South Asia World—countries
thought to unable to control population . Population overall has begun
to stabilize in many countries: in Italy and Japan, for example, the
negative fertility rate is on a slow decline. While the numbers of
persons and our consumption still threaten a fragile environment, the
specter of unbridled population increases simply no longer fits the new
demographic understandings.

This world wide phenomena of a demographic shift is observed across
religious and cultural differences. Most Diasporic and Israeli Jewish
communities follow similar trends, much to the alarm of the leadership,
both secular and religious, who tend to see the decline, not as part of a
world-wide historical phenomena, but as a special problem for
post-Holocaust Jews. Hence, in many Jewish religious communities,
especially, but not exclusively in Orthodox ones, young parents are urged
to have larger families--and for many, a classically observant family is
typically portrayed as an 19th century one, with many children, as was
(as we see, rather briefly) the case at that period in Jewish history.
Many commentators attribute this norm to the influence of classical
Jewish texts supportive of a generalized pronatalism, and of the
eagerness of Jews to return to what is perceived as authentic Jewish
normative practices, here again, largely understood as the social praxis
of the 19th century. However, let me suggest a concurrent factor—one
that affects even non-traditional Jewish families. For many Jews, the
perceived childhood mortality rate has not yet declined. For Jews, raised
one generation after the Shoah, for Jews who annually (at least) hear the
list of the lost and who are enjoined to remember, the specter of death
and the fragility of the survival of the community creates an emotive,
passionate appeal.

For while there is little in the contemporary ethical literature about
an environmental crisis, there is much about the meaning and the danger
of the current demographic shift in light of Jewish survival. The 1990
Council of Jewish Federations National Population Study showed that
American Jews, once 3.7% of the population were now only 2.4% and that of
that, 52% were intermarried to non-Jews. In these families, only 25% were
raising their children as Jews. Religious Jews only account for 1.9% of
the population. Faced with this decline, Jews are enjoined to "recreate
the nation" in the face of extinction. One finds such language in both
Orthodox and Conservative rabbinic authorities in when they address the
issue of birth control and family policy. Consider the following from
Elliott Dorff:

"Maimonides says, "whoever adds even one Jewish soul is considered as
having created an entire world. This is an especially important teaching
in our time, when low reproductive rates among Jews, caused in part by
their extended education . . . and the late age at which they marry and
attempt to have children, have combined with assimilation and
intermarriage to create a major demographic crisis for the Jewish
community. Nothing less than the future of the Jewish community and of
Judaism depends upon fertile Jews having three or four children per

Dorff continues this theme:

"We as a people are in deep demographic trouble. We lost one-third of
our numbers during the Holocaust. . . . The currant Jewish reproductive
rate among American Jews between 1.6 and 1.7. That statistic means we are
killing ourselves off as a people. . …This social imperative has made
propagation arguably the most important mitzvah of our time. . . .To
refuse to try to have them, or to plan to have only one or two is to
refuse to accept one of God's great gifts. It is also to renege on the
duty we all have to create the next generation. . . "

Elliott Dorff is the leading ethicist and theologian of the Conservative
Movement, a thoughtful, liberal author of the authoritative text for that
movement on matters of sexuality and reproductive health. Dorff urges the
community to offer monetary incentives for such large families, with
private school tuition reduction. He counters concerns about population
and ecology by urging Jews to "support. . efforts in Africa or other
overpopulated countries" to produce fewer children. In fact, in the
Conservative Rabbinate's official policy statement repeats this theme,
consistently articulating a powerful argument heard in the Jewish
community: that the miniscule number of Jews world wide has little impact
on the world population in any way, that since Jews number only .2% of
the world’s population, in essence--this is not our problem.
In the Orthodox community, the same clarity about the need to have more
Jewish children and the link to the losses of the Shoah pervades the
texts: Immanuel Jakobowitz, leading commentator on Jewish medical ethics
and former Chief Rabbi of Britain, in remarking on abortion in Israel,
noted that "abortion deprived the Jewish state of over a million
native-born citizens".

In secular texts, as well, for example, in the social research of Gary
Tobin, author of the Federation’s Report, the attitude is the same:
falling fertility rates and increasing intermarriage can be graphed to
show a point a generation or two in the imagined future in which there
are no Jews at all.

However, as we see, the rates of fertility for Jews are not
exceptional—they are consistent, and have been consistent, with
world-wide trends for populations in modernity with rare exception. For
Jews, then, living in a shared world narrative, not to mention a shared
physicality with the nations of the world is the claim for a s a
legitimate claim? How should Jews respond to the challenge of the
environmental crisis? Can Jews claim an exemption to the need for
environmentally driven population policies after the Shoah? And do Jewish
women have a special and distinctive obligation to have many children to
assure Jewish that is mandated?

For it is the broader constraints that face us that must be held in
tension with this claim. We live in a world facing global climate
changes, critical water shortages, mal-distribution of food supplies,
significant epidemic diseases potentiated by poverty, and a scarcity of
arable land. Far too many children cannot get education in basic reading
and writing skills, and far too many women lack access to even the social
goods promised within their culture, much less to a wider aspirational
goal of universal human rights. For many families, Jews, Muslims,
Catholics, Hindus, Protestants, and other faiths, the imperative to have
children despite a social inability to care for, feed, or house them
adequately is understood as a religious imperative. It is the task of
this chapter to see whether Jewish law, or Jewish history mandates such a

Are Jews exempt from broader concerns about the effect of population on
the environment because of the history of persecution?
Let me now turn toward both arguments for and against this claim and
assess them.


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