When I signed up for my bridal counselor’s course, I remember joking that if nothing else, it would provide material and inspiration for the blog. Well, I was right! It already inspired this one, and now I want to write about a topic we’ve been discussing over the past couple weeks: family planning.
Can Orthodox Jews “plan” families?
In all fairness, can anybody? 😉 The term “family planning” implies that we actually have control over how many kids we have and when. On some level, modern medicine makes this possible–when all goes well. But there are so many things that are out of our control. There’s a woman in my community who had five kids and got an IUD to “close up shop”… and then got pregnant.
Conversely, I know several people who tried to have a baby for years and went through varying degrees of pain and suffering before finally having one. One woman I know went through years and years of treatments and lost many pregnancies (including two pairs of twins born too early) before finally giving birth to a healthy child.
So before I get into this I just want to put out there that we have so much less control over these things than we think we do, and it’s important to keep that in mind.
Now. Given that you are Catholic and probably know that there are issues with contraception in some religious circles, you may have wondered if we have similar restrictions.
Let’s start from the beginning.
Like, literally the beginning.
And God created man in His image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the sky and over all the beasts that tread upon the earth.”
“Be fruitful and multiply” is considered by traditional Judaism to be the very first mitzvah in the Torah. But like everything in Judaism, we have to work out the specifics! What exactly is the requirement here? Who is obligated? Under what circumstances?
So, according to the Sages, only men are obligated in this mitzvah. That may seem strange, since, I mean, most of the burden of creating new life falls on women as a matter of biology. The Sages explain that pregnancy and childbirth are dangerous, and the Torah does not command us to do something that would endanger our lives. Obviously, however, men cannot fulfill this obligation without women! But this difference has practical implications, as we shall see in a moment.
There is a debate about how many children one is required to have to fulfill the obligation. The generally accepted opinion is at least two–one boy and one girl. Obviously, we have no control over the gender of the child, and we’re only required to do what we can… but yes, technically this means that even a man with ten sons has not fulfilled the obligation!
In general, the attitude in Jewish law is that we should have as many children as we can. The Talmud points out that each child conceived is potentially an immeasurable contribution to humanity, and we never know what potentially great person we may be barring entry to the world by preventing a pregnancy.
Therefore, we are not supposed to use any form of contraception unless it is necessary.
But, obviously, there is a wide range of opinions on exactly what qualifies as a necessity.
On the most stringent end of the scale, you will find rabbis who rule that it is only permitted to use contraception when getting pregnant would endanger a woman’s health. This is why families in the ultra-Orthodox community tend to be so large. There has (thankfully) been increased awareness in the area of mental health in recent years, so even on the most stringent end of the scale, rabbis are recognizing anxiety, depression and the like as health hazards that qualify as reasons to prevent pregnancy.
Some rabbis rule that even without a specific diagnosis of a mental health disorder, the increased anxiety or depression the parents might experience from being overwhelmed is reason enough to use contraception. The couple’s financial situation may factor in on this as well, especially when having another child might compromise the quality of care the other children receive or, again, the mental health of the parents. Education is a factor too: Rabbi Moshe Feinstein famously ruled that young couples who are still studying in college may use contraception until they complete their studies.
On the most lenient end of the scale, some rabbis rule that no special reason is needed for contraception; that it is permitted as long as the couple intends to eventually have children.
Then there comes the question of what kind of contraception can be used. Not all forms are permitted. Firstly, there is a separate mitzvah prohibiting sterilization. So any form of contraception that is permanent, such as tubal ligation or vasectomy, is forbidden. (Though I think the former may be permitted under extreme circumstances. And of course any life-saving operation is permitted even if it may cause infertility.)
Secondly, because of the fact that it is men who are obligated in the mitzvah of having children, halakha is stricter about contraceptives that interfere with the male end of things. “Fortunately,” medicine has traditionally placed the brunt of the burden of childbearing or lack thereof on the woman anyway, so the most common forms of long-term contraception–pills and IUDs–are permitted, as well as other forms of hormonal contraception and spermicides. Barrier methods are more problematic, depending on the type, but some authorities permit the use of the diaphragm or cervical cap. Refraining from relations on the fertile days of the woman’s cycle is theoretically okay, but kind of a bummer for women who keep the laws of family purity, since it adds more days of abstinence to what was already practically half the month. So women who choose to practice fertility awareness (that is, charting their fertile signs) for contraception often end up using some other method during their fertile days.
So… the decision to prevent pregnancy is even more complex for a religious Jewish couple than it is for your average couple. No method is 100% effective; every single one has disadvantages, from minor inconveniences to severe health risks; and besides, we have to balance our cherished value of growing our families and expanding the Jewish people with consideration for our physical, emotional, and financial well-being–while having no way to know for sure how one will affect the other. I know from experience that it’s impossible to predict the effect a pregnancy might have on the family. There’s this generally accepted idea in mainstream society of two years or so being the ideal “spacing,” but it depends on so many things… the kids’ personalities, health issues, sibling dynamics, etc… and none of these things are static.
So it can actually be a really tough decision.
In Orthodox Jewish circles, family planning is considered a very private thing. So it’s seen as rather intrusive to just ask someone outright when they are planning on having kids, how many, when they plan to have the next one, etc. Personally I don’t really mind discussing it with people I trust, but most people can’t really comprehend how complex an issue it can be, and that can be kind of frustrating for me.
As you know, we also have a custom not to tell about a pregnancy in the first three months. In the Chabad community, the norm is to wait five months. But as I told you once, my attitude about this custom has shifted a lot over the years. The reason for the custom is that most miscarriages occur in the first three months, so there’s superstition around it. But there is also a practical explanation: if something happens to the pregnancy you don’t want to have to explain to people about it.
Personally? I found the secrecy in the first trimesters of my pregnancies to be a special kind of torture. Here I had this wonderful news that I couldn’t share with people, but also I was feeling horrible physically and couldn’t explain to anyone why or get the support I desperately needed. Even if I don’t believe in superstitions, it’s a societal norm, and I was concerned that people would feel weird about my telling them I was pregnant before 12 weeks or so.
But when I was 10 weeks pregnant with R2, a misunderstanding led to a rumor in my extended family that I was pregnant. (My parents and siblings already knew.) It was such an awful feeling that I had no control over this information; it was as if I had failed to keep a secret I didn’t even want to keep in the first place.
To top it off, I have two friends who told me about their pregnancies early on and then had miscarriages; if they hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t have been able to support them through it.
So in light of my experiences, I don’t think much of this custom and believe that parents should share their news whenever they darned well feel like it.
Now, as you know, ultrasound has made it possible to find out the sex of the baby fairly early on in the pregnancy. I think as a kind of holdover from the norms about maintaining the air of mystery around pregnancy, in the religious community it is far more common than in the secular world for parents to choose not to find out the sex of the baby. But more often, in the religious community parents will often find out the sex of the baby–and then not tell anyone what it is until the baby is born. Personally, I can’t really comprehend the point of this. If you are telling people you’re having a baby, why should you care whether they know what sex it is, especially when you, yourself, know?! On the contrary–let them know so they can plan for a circumcision ceremony if necessary, and/or buy you gender-appropriate gifts ahead of time!
People are weird.
So that’s all for this topic for now. Stay tuned, because in a future post I’ll be tackling a related, but more controversial issue: the Jewish attitude towards abortion. 😉