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Each One an Entire World

A Jewish Perspective on Family Planning

by Laurie Zoloth         
page 6

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Laws of "family purity"

In large part, the sexual and social activity of women and men within
families was structured by the practice of the laws of niddah. In
traditional Jewish households, women and men do not have sexual contact
for two weeks of each lunar month, based on the menstrual cycle of the
wife. When she is menstruate and for a week after she is no longer
menstruate (checked daily by the women and verified by her). After this
period, she goes to a ritual bath, called a mikvah, in which she first
bathes carefully, for cleanliness, is checked by an attendant, and then
immerses herself in the waters of the ritual bath, while saying special
prayers. Modern scholars argue about the meaning and intent of this
practice--for some, it marks the deepest moment of estrangement within
the tradition, a ritual to mark the negative, objectified and degraded
way that women are oftentimes seen in talmudic literature--degraded and
made dangerous by her very blood. For others, the practice is a positive
and powerful social construction that allows for women to live within
marriage without the being always the object of sexualized attention, for
a valuing of both sexual and non-sexual companionate relationships in
marriage, and an ongoing strategy to enhance sexual anticipation. In this
later understanding, the ritual is an enactment of the realization that
she has in some way "touched" death--her menses marks the non-pregnancy
of that month, a kind of a loss, a theoretical death. For the second half
of the month, sexual relations are to be enjoyed fully, and are, in fact,
mandated. Infrequent sexual activities are ground for divorce, on the
part of either the man or the woman, and the schedule of the minimal
frequency is described in the Gemora.

The centrality of children and childhood education

Considerable care is to be given to each child. Normative duties are
also described: each child is the responsibility of the parents until he
or she is no longer a minor. Until that time, even the responsibility of
the responsibility of the enactment of the commandments is the task of
the parents. And the careful education of each must be attended to as
well: each father, or mother if the father is not able, must teach each
child Torah, a trade, make sure the child has a marriage partner, and
finally, some add, must teach him how to swim! It is a considerable
investment of time and social resources: hence the need, as in our texts,
to allow each child the best start.

The rupture of modernity

Against this ordered world, modernity and the Haskalah or the
intellectual shift following the Enlightenment created a significant
threat. Even prior to the Shoah, Jews were leaving the daily rigor of
the practice of mitzvot for a generalized American-informed liberal
Judaism. Reform and Conservative Jews drifted away (in some cases fled)
from the practices of family life, and of the constraints on passions:
keeping kosher, keeping the Sabbath, and the practice of mikvah with its
implications that women and men would lead radically separate lives even
within marriage. Jews lived in large part in cultures swept by the same
demographic forces as the other populations they lived within, and
consumed in large part as others did. Issues of empowerment and education
for women affected all sectors of the Jewish community.

But the Shoah accelerated some processes of change, and obliterated
others: after the great loss of rabbinic leadership, the broad range of
divergent scholarship and the broad knowledge of textual sources are far
more constrained. For many non-religious Jews, the rupture of the Shoah
creates deep unease about the ideas of faith commandments, or the sacred,
much less a powerful and loving God--what remains is an allegiance to
Israel, and a certainty that the Holocaust must be remembered--and both
of these are issues of physical survival, arenas in which Jews can feel
constantly at risk. For many secular Jews, Judaism itself is an enactment
of attention to these two issues.

For Orthodox and neo-Orthodox, what is at stake is the betrayal of
modernity itself. For many, this has meant a reassessment and a
re-embrace of traditional European practice, a practice in some circles
that is nearly completely interpreted by authoritative rabbinic
authorities since many have no history of familial customs or context.
For many, the practice of Judaism is concomitant with an affiliation with
the moment in Jewish history just prior to this betrayal: the late 1800s,
when European Jewry enjoyed a growing community, and benefited from 400
years of stability and intense and creative interpretive study. This was,
not coincidentally, the period of the most rapid demographic growth and
the highest fertility as well. Jewish families, like all European
families had on average 6 children. Affiliation with this moment is
clearly understandable. But this period was not typical of other
periods of Jewish history: not in Biblical text, nor in Talmudic texts,
nor in earlier periods in Europe—all, of course. equally valid emulative
moments for custom, costume and halachic standards. Large families were
not a demographic option for human populations prior to modernity, were
not seen as a strategy for Jewish survival.

In the contemporary period, the post-Shoah Jewish community after the
costly and tragic failure of modernity, the deconstruction of the
universal narrative have called into prominence a significant turn
towards the most conservatizing elements in the tradition. This is
utterly understandable, albeit a limiting of the deep and rich
possibilities in the tradition. In many circles, faithful Jews perform
this faithful continuity by literally wearing the garb of that earlier
century in which they flourished. It will come as no surprise that since
that period (c 1877) was one of a heightened fertility rate, and family
sizes were large, the aspect of life is rehearsed as well. Some Orthodox
communities have among the highest birth rates in the world.


This chapter is a partial effort to critically reflect on the central
thematization of Jewish family policies in the contemporary period. And
indeed, in the face of arguments for a reparative, post-Shaoh family
policy made so strongly, by so many diverse elements of the Jewish
community, one can defend a strong case for the argument of
exceptionalism. But there are both theoretical and practical limits to
this argument, and ultimately, it fails to reflect fully the rich and
complex cultural and textual world of Jewish tradition.

First, we cannot bring back the lost world of Eastern European Jewry,
calling after them by a genre of faithful, ritualized enactment of an
imagined past. To be sure, wearing the clothes of the past, or performing
the beloved moment of the past over and over has always been a limited
part of rabbinic Judaism. The tradition maintains traces of this
everywhere, in the liturgy, in the Passover Seder, in the Yom Kippur
liturgical choreography where one re-enacts via prayer, the Temple
sacrifice. But all of these acts are self-conscious, transparent, aware
of the call and necessity of modernity, the need for continuity and
memory, aware of their strangeness and of the need to return to the world
of work. Held in tension with such enactments are two moral constraints,
the necessity of tradition, and the necessity of an ongoing, mutable
discourse that simultaneously participates in and seeks to interpret the

Let us be clear: Jews did not survive the terrible, genocidal losses of
the past by population increase. In fact, there is nothing in the textual
account to suggest this, and the only time that Jews increased fertility
was right along with all other Europeans at a time of relative peace.
How did Jews respond to other catastrophe? With education, with the
small but tenacious beit midrash the house of study, which was the
educational innovation at the time of the worst previous crisis for the
Jewish people. The mandate of procreation begins in Genesis, in which
the central drama of the first narrative is the struggle to define
humanness as distinct from that which is animal. Here, the text is clear:
we are not the ones who swarm, we do not, after our creation "swarm" over
the earth, and make "each to his kind" in an anonymous way. We are born
each into a genealogy and a name list, each particular one created, as
Maimonides reminds us, "as if a whole world is created." This is not a
call for multiplicity—it is rather a call of respect and attention to

If childbearing is worldmaking, then the notion of acting like God
begins to shape the gravitas of the enterprise: what would be more
important that making an entire world? It is this particularity, and not
abundance that is stressed--it is not enough to be fruitful, one is also
entasked, and it is the ability to meet the demands of the task that is

Further, in countless other texts, what is key is not fecundity or
numbers of persons, but the enactment of justice--the common good is not
created by women's ability to make many children in an of itself but in
her ability to create a household of justice. In such a household, her
hands, beyond obligations to her "own" children, "stretch out to the
poor and her palms to the destitute."

What would a normative policy be?

Given this argument, how can we envision a family planning normative
practice that is both respectful of tradition, exquisitely sensitive to
history and memory, and protective of women in the way that halachic
texts remind us is key? Let me suggest a feminist Who_are_we that is
consonant with our tradition, yet aware of our currant situation.
First, such a norm, to be authentic, must be advocate procreativity.
Children and families have and will stand at the center of Jewish
practice. This should be taken, I believe to encompass the entire
obligation toward the next generation. We can robustly reclaim the
narratives of adoption in service of this goal, and of the primacy of
education, as in the texts that stress that having students is also akin
to childrearing.

Next, any such practice would be regulated commitments to long term
family relationships—not only between couples who intend to be parents,
but to the task and duty of being grandparents, uncles, aunts, and kin.
It is self-evident within the tradition that children need long-term
commitments from parents, and from the larger families who nurture,
support and celebrate the continuance of family life. Real reproductive
choice, means that the Jewish community needs to pay serious attention
to how family life is supported and how women, in particular within
families can lead live enlivened by the delight of the Torah in the ways
similar to men--this means strategies for the very study of texts that
could open the world of the textual tradition of the very issues we have
briefly explored.

Such a norm would understand the historic place of non-procreative
sexuality, in that any norm that is truthful to the tradition must
contain within it a delight in the erotic and sensual aspects of
sexuality as well as the procreative ones. This is in large part the
point of the textual issues about obligation and its limits. The Jewish
tradition contains complex and conflicting views on this--some frankly
patriarchal, to be sure, but others that are deeply curious, insightful
and liberatory for both women and men.

Finally, justice constraints need to be a part of our reflection on
families. In a clear way, Jewish tradition does not focus on rights but
on obligations and duties: hence for Jews the question needs to be
reframed in this way: what are the obligations about reproduction, family
planning, contraception and abortion? How can we struggle to be faithful
Jews and faithful citizens to the world, indeed, live as if chosen, not
for our oppression, but for the "light" carried in the Torah, which is to
say, the long history of meaning and language that the textual tradition
presents us with. Jews in most of the Diaspora and to a far lesser
extent in Israel consume like all Americans, using many times more
resources, water, land, energy and food than our counterparts in Africa
and Latin America. This alone raises questions of justice (not to mention
the self-interest that is a part of ecological concerns) Justice means
that within families, resources will need to be regulated by needs of
childrearing, health and education. Justice considerations will mean that
a communities resources also need to be meet—we need to ensure that every
larger families do not overwhelm a communities ability to care for the
poor, and to respond to call for justice outside the community as well.
In calling for serious reflection on our aspirational goals for family
planning and reproductive health, we need to call for more study of the
complex matrix of competing textual history in this arena. In particular,
we need to re-center the metaphor, and the practice of the protection of
the nursing infant to allow for careful spacing between children, on
behalf of both the women and of each child. As this chapter
demonstrates, the textual resources for compassion are already fully
intact within the tradition. Even if women understood and practice only
the restrictions on becoming pregnant while nursing, allowing for a
slower pace of childbearing, this would be a tremendous change for many
women and would certainly allow for the careful attention to each child.

Finally, we must come to some understanding about the historical
question of the legacy of the Shoah, where we began this chapter. Like
others in this volume, Jews press for unique claims for our people, our
tribe. At the deepest level these claims are understandable. A claim of
this sort carries, however serious responsibilities: the obligation for
social justice runs as deep as the right for survival. It must be
acknowledged that the tension about Jewish survival is one of the deepest
themes of Judaism--a fear that Abraham is never completely free of is the
doubt that his line will continue. Yet volume of children is never the
issue—as a proof text I can offer the fact that Abraham has many other
children, with other wives—yet it is not they, but only Isaac, one boy,
that matters, and this is a theme that is repeated throughout Genesis.
Endurance, we are carefully reminded, is the work of the faithful
remnant, continuity, to teaching the child the meaning of the covenant.
Less than half come out of Egypt with Moses, fewer than 15% may have
survived the Romans, but what remains is a community with a narrative, a
law, and a discourse, and that is what matters when survival is at stake.

Against destruction there is only the commanded life of faith, argue the
prophets, but it is elaborated by the rabbis who carefully debate the
details this life, of blood and birth and nursing babies, along with
ritual and prayer in the catastrophic social and environmental collapse
after the Second Temple. There we see the important suggestion, calling
for further study of the question, of the primacy of the nursing mother,
and there we see also the certainty of the need for tikkun olam, repair
of the whole world, not only the Jews in the world, always the imperative
of the Torah. As Jews in our period struggle with ever deeper issues of
scarcity and limits, and Jews now re-learn to care for an Israel whose
survival is precarious, whose every hill, every wadi, every tree matters
deeply, a literal as well as a spiritual Israel whose survival is not
ensured by creating more and more Jewish bodies, unless each one carries
the knowledge, and commitment to the tradition that marks them as Jews.
This is why Jewish tradition counts teachers nearly as important as

In rethinking Jewish ethical discourse on reproductive health and family
planing, like all ethical discourse, we must reflect on the complexity
and the power of the practice we pass on and create in language, responsa
and the struggle with our texts. And it is these texts that demands that
the generations continue in a world of justice, as clearly as they
insist we support and nurture each child—this is the legacy and a heritage that can participate in the salvation
of the world.


The author wishes to acknowledge the invaluable research support of Janet
Danforth, as a graduate research assistant in the Spring and Summer of
2000 at the University of Virginia, and the support of San Francisco State University.

Dr. Laurie Zoloth is Professor of Social Ethics and Director of the Program in Jewish Studies, San Francisco State University. She is President-Elect of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities and is also the co-founder of the Ethics Practice, a group that has provided bioethics consultation and education services to health care providers and health care systems nationally. She has taught, researched and published extensively in the areas of ethics, family, feminist theory, Jewish studies and social policy. Her book, The Ethics of Encounter, on justice, health policy, the Oregon health care reforms and the ethics of community was published in the fall of 1999. She is on the national advisory boards of a number of organizations and associations and is a member of the editorial board of Shofar, The Journal of Clinical Ethics and the Second Opinion.

Dr Zoloth is a member of the board of directors of The Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics where she serves as a Participating Scholar and principal contributor to the Sacred Choices project from which this chapter has been taken.

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