Population Ethics: III. Religious Traditions: C. Jewish Perspectives

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated


Pronatalism is the contemporary word describing the classic Jewish tradition regarding fertility. To begin with the religious component of the Jewish culture, procreation is counted as a positive mitzvah (a commandment or virtue), given pride of place at the top of rabbinic formulations of Bible commandments. P'ru ur'vu ("Be fruitful and multiply," or better, "Be fruitful and increase"—more arithmetic than geometric) in the first chapter of Genesis is a general blessing to other creatures; for humans, it is a behavioral imperative to reproduce. Bible commentators explain this difference in terms of the human differential: The command mode is needed because humankind, created in the image of God, might seek to devote itself entirely to the spiritual and intellectual, and might neglect the material and physical. Accordingly, Scripture thus negates the antiprocreative or celibate views of some cultures. Alternatively, the commandment addresses the fact that only humans are aware of the consequences of sexual activity; they might seek to avoid the attendant responsibilities of procreation while indulging the sexual drive.

On another level, a rabbinic Bible commentary observes that, throughout the first chapter of Genesis, the seal of approval—the announcement that "the Lord saw that it was good"—is repeated for each element of creation. But after Adam was created, "the Lord said, 'It is not good that man [Adam] should be alone.'" Only that which can endure is good; if humankind does not procreate, it will not endure.

Nor will God himself endure, according to the Talmud, without us to acknowledge him: "Not to engage in procreation," we are told, "is to diminish the Divine image." That is why the verse "for in the image of God has He created man" (Gen. 9: 6) is followed immediately by the reaffirmation of Genesis 9: 7, "Be fruitful and increase" (Yevamot 63b). More to the point, when the later verse (Gen. 17: 7) introduces the Lord who will be "thy God and [that] of thy 'descendants after thee,'" the Talmud asks, "If there are no 'descendants after thee,' upon whom will the Divine Presence rest? Upon sticks and stones?" (Yevamot 64a). Without human progeny and continuity, there is no one to worship God. Without the physical body, there is no soul.

The biblical commandment is, as usual, spelled out in its details in Mishnah and Gemara, the two components of the Talmud, setting forth the halakah, the definitive legal ruling as formulated by the Codes. The halakah of "be fruitful" requires that a couple replace itself, that is, give birth to at least a son and a daughter. Having several sons or several daughters still does not fulfill the commandment. Yet, after the fact, the Talmud counts "grandchildren like children," so that parents with progeny of just one gender can be reassured that their children's children will help them measure up. Actually, even two children of different genders are only the bare minimum; in Maimonides' codification, the effort to procreate must continue. In Tosafot, authoritative critical commentaries from medieval France printed on the margin of the Talmud, the fear is expressed that letting the minimum number suffice could result in ethnic extinction (Bava Batra 60b). Infant mortality, as well as the possibility that the offspring may not live to adulthood or not reproduce, requires that more than one son and one daughter be conceived and born.

The duty to go far beyond the minimum has its rationale in the rabbinic dimension of the procreative mitzvah, where it is called, in brief, la-shevet or la-erev. (Deriving legal teaching from biblical books other than the Pentateuch is termed "rabbinic"; only the Five Books of Moses are the source of law called "biblical.") The biblical support for the first, la-shevet, is Isaiah (45: 18): "Not for void did He create the world, but for habitation [la-shevet] did He form it." The second, la-erev, comes from Ecclesiastes (11: 6): "In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening [la-erev] do not withhold thy hand [from sowing], for you know not which will succeed, this or that, or whether they shall both alike be good." These verses strongly suggest a moral imperative to continue beyond the minimum.

The broader dimension of the mitzvah is very much an operative part thereof. To illustrate its legal implications, a Sefer Torah (scroll) belonging to an individual requires special care and may not ordinarily be sold for its proceeds. There are two exceptions: It may be sold (1) to finance tuition for the study of Torah, and (2) to dower a bride and thus enable her to marry and procreate. What if she already has a son and daughter? The power of the rabbinic extension of the mitzvah is now seen in the ruling that a Sefer Torah may be sold to finance the remarriage of that woman, so that she may fulfill la-shevet or la-erev.

The traditional pronatalist stance is vividly evident in modern-day rabbinic rulings with respect to reproductive technology. Just as illness or pathology are the targets of Judaism's mandate to heal, whereby Sabbath and dietary laws—and the rest of the Torah—are to be set aside to allow healing procedures to do their work, so barrenness and infertility are seen as pathological states to be overcome by aggressive therapies that may also supersede ritual laws. This equation of barrenness with illness means that fertility problems are to be overcome by such exigencies as in vitro or in utero fertilization, even artificial insemination or gestation by a host mother, for cases in which usual (or "natural") conception and birth are not possible. The principle of the primacy of fertility as a desideratum in a pronatalist tradition is given concrete form by the contemporary application of these legal provisions.

Another technical detail of Jewish law places the mitzvah (commandment) of procreation on the man rather than on the woman, though of course both are needed for procreation and both share in the mitzvah (virtue). This position may have its basis in the theoretical permissibility of polygamy or polygyny, whereby a man could marry more than one wife, but both paternity and maternity would still be known. The husband has to "worry about" the mitzvah's accomplishment. An actual sex-role difference derives from the "Be fruitful and increase" of Genesis, which goes on to say "Fill the earth and conquer it." The male is the conqueror, the aggressive one; the female, as the more passive, should not have to "go seeking in the marketplace" (Yevamot 65a). If that observation is rooted in anthropology, an explanation based more on ethics is offered by a Bible commentator of the twentieth century, Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohen (d. 1921): Both the pain and the risk of childbearing are borne by the woman, not the man. Since the Torah's "ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace" (Prov. 3: 17), the Torah could not in fairness command a woman to undergo pain and assume risk; this must be her choice and it becomes her virtue. For the man, exposed to neither pain nor risk, there is both the command and the responsibility to heed the command (Meshekh Hokhmah to Gen. 1: 28).

The discussion of what is and what is not a commandment refers to the formulations of the Sinai Covenant, which did in most cases reaffirm the pre-Sinai imperatives of Genesis, and as such applies only to the covenanted Jewish community. What of the rest of the world? A system called "the Seven Commandments of the Children of Noah" was discerned by the Talmudic sages; it is derived from God's charge to Noah after the flood and applied to his descendants in the world at large. These commandments include basic moral imperatives against murder, incest, cruelty to animals, and a directive to establish general law and order. Hence, the Sinai legislation cannot be imposed on mankind in its specifics. Many Jewish teachers see the thrust of lashevet as generally applicable, for that biblical verse holds forth the telos, or ultimate end, of the earth, that it be inhabited and populated.

Attitudes toward procreation among Jews were not, of course, shaped by the law alone. Pronatalism partakes of the personal and cultural: In the face of all God's promises, Abraham protests to God (Gen. 15: 2): "What canst Thou give me, seeing that I go childless?" The anguish of the barren woman is a recurrent theme in the Bible and beyond. On the other hand, fecundity is the most cherished blessing, exemplified idyllically in the Psalmist image (Ps. 128) of one "whose wife is a fruitful vine" and whose "children are as olive plants around the table" and whose ultimate satisfaction is the sight of "children [born] to thy children."

The natural impulse was buttressed by a national one. Historical circumstances of frequent massacres and forced conversions, with their resulting decimation of Jewish communities, added the impulse to compensate for losses to an existing instinct to procreate. The yearning for offspring was deepened, addressing positively the need to replenish depleted ranks. This contrasts to the response of despair reflected in an antiprocreative stance taken by some Christian sects in the face of evil. The Gnostics in the first century, the Manichees in the fifth century, and the Cathars in the twelfth century are among the groups that taught and lived by the belief that procreation is to be avoided in a world of evil unredeemed. Apprehensiveness about the eventual wellbeing of offspring, the Talmud teaches, should not be a reason for not bearing children. This was King Hezekiah's worry, to which the response of Isaiah (38: 1–10) is understood to mean: "The secrets of God are none of your business. You fulfill your duty [of procreation]" (Berakhot 10a).

In the post-Holocaust days, both the individual and the Jewish collectivity have been encouraged to make up for the physical losses of that tragic period. Nonetheless, realization of this impulse or teaching has not been evident across the board. In fact, the Jewish birthrate in the United States and other developed nations in recent decades was lower than, or as low as, that of the rest of the population. Upward socioeconomic mobility, and an increased pursuit of secular education and professional opportunity, has kept the birthrate down in assimilated families. Jews have, in fact, been visibly active in the movement for zero population growth, advancing a cause they consider ecologically necessary. Reform and, to a greater extent, Conservative Jews generally answer to the influence of Judaic tradition alongside social considerations, while Orthodox families register the highest rates of reproduction.

Contraception and Abortion

Sentiments toward procreation go hand in hand with views and practices of contraception and abortion. The halakah of contraception includes both the problem of method—whether or not a particular means completes the sexual union, or is not onanistic—and of motive—whether medical reasons or convenience are determinant. Contraception is clearly permitted where medically indicated, with even the less preferable methods. For nonmedical reasons, only methods such as rhythm or the pill may be used, providing the motive is acceptable. The preferable methods, such as the pill or Norplant, are not occlusive and not onanistic because sperm has an unimpeded trajectory. Coitus interruptus and the use of condoms are the least acceptable methods. But where AIDS, for example, is a threat, the condom's prophylactic properties take precedence, on the Talmudic principle that "[avoiding] danger is more serious than [avoiding] transgression" (Chulin 10a). This clear, medical permission means, incidentally, that in marital relations contraception is to be preferred over sexual abstinence.

Medical reasons are essentially what govern resort to abortion. The distinction is made between murder and killing of the fetus: If abortion were murder, it could only be considered if the life of the mother were at stake; as killing, or taking of only a potential human life, it can be considered to save her health or well-being, emotional as well as physical. As with contraception and pronatalism, Orthodoxy takes a less liberal position on abortion in theory and in practice than do the Conservative and Reform alignments.

The voluminous Responsa (formal replies to queries by rabbinic authorities) on these subjects are addressed to the individual couples and to their queries in deed. Global questions are also addressed, such as population control for ethical reasons as a concern for humanity and for available resources. The counsel of one rabbinic authority invoked the notion of "lifeboat ethics," whereby the lifeboat in which we all find ourselves, like Noah's Ark according to a Talmudic observation, must be kept from sinking as a result of overpopulation. The solicitude in halakic legislation for the welfare of existing children and their mother, before adding to one's family, was also invoked to argue for ecological responsibility.

Birthrate and the State of Israel

Advocacy of world population limitation is not contradicted by efforts to raise the Jewish birthrate. To the extent that growth globally threatens human well-being and Earth's ecology, it is an imperative concern for us all. But the Jewish people, constituting less than 1 percent of the world's population, would not adversely affect that picture even if their numbers doubled. Replacing Jewish losses would not upset the geophysical numerical balance; it would merely keep Judaism alive. Other minorities should similarly be allowed to maintain their existing numbers. Jewish aspirations, as reflected in synagogue liturgy, are not to become predominant in the world, but merely to "preserve the remnant of Israel."

That liturgical phrase refers, of course, to the People of Israel, but the State of Israel reflects similar concerns. At least one reason for the state's establishment in 1948 was demographic. When Palestine was ruled by British mandate, a "white paper" was issued that severely limited immigration by Jews, even hapless Holocaust survivors and internees of Europe's displaced-person camps. Whatever else sovereignty and independence provide, here they were necessary primarily to remove quotas and barriers to Jewish immigration.

After Israel was founded under the sponsorship of the United Nations and Jewish refugees were admitted, interior population growth was encouraged. The Hebrew word for immigration is aliyah, or ascendance to the Land of Israel. Now a new term was coined—aliyah penimit, or internal immigration—to refer to new births in Israel, encouraged as a patriotic act to build the nation and its defenses. Also, since the very raison d'etre of the establishment of the state was as a restored homeland and a haven of refuge, the Law of Return was promulgated. It called for the "ingathering of the exiles," inviting Jews to be rehabilitated in their ancestral home, and granting them automatic citizenship upon their arrival.

The politics of population power have been evident not only in control of the disputed territories of Judea and Samaria (West Bank) but also in Israel proper and in the peace efforts begun in 1993. Nationalists express the concern that a disproportionate increase in the Arab birthrate or Arab immigration could effectively dissipate the Jewish character of the world's only Jewish state. On the other hand, during the early 1990s, massive absorption of Jews from the former Soviet Union and from Ethiopia took place; this influx demonstrated the profound demographic and cultural, as well as political, consequences of population factors.

david m. feldman (1995)

SEE ALSO: Abortion; Adoption; Coercion; Embryo and Fetus: Religious Perspectives; Eugenics and Religious Law; Feminism; Fertility Control; Freedom and Free Will; Genetic Testing and Screening; Harm; Infanticide; Informed Consent; Judaism, Bioethics in; Justice; Life; Natural Law; Race and Racism; Rights, Human; Sexism;Women, Historical and Cross-Cultural Perspectives; and other Population Ethics subentries


Feldman, David M. 1968. Birth Control in Jewish Law: Marital Relations, Contraception, and Abortion as Set Forth in the Classic Texts of Jewish Law. New York: New York University Press. Also in paperback as Marital Relations, Birth Control, and Abortion in Jewish Law. New York: Schocken Press, 1974.

Feldman, David M. 1986. Health and Medicine in the Jewish Tradition: L'Hayyim—To Life. New York: Crossroad.

Gold, Michael. 1988. And Hannah Wept: Infertility, Adoption, and the Jewish Couple. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.

Goldstein, Sidney. 1992. "Contemporary Jewish Demography." In Frontiers of Jewish Thought, pp. 157–177, ed. Stephen T. Katz. Washington, D.C.: B'nai B'rith Books.

Rosenthal, Gilbert S. 1969. Generations in Crisis: Judaism's Answers to the Dilemmas of Our Time. New York: Bloch.

Tobin, Gary A., and Chenkin, Alvin. 1985. "Recent Jewish Community Population Studies: A Roundup." In American Jewish Year Book, 1985, pp. 154–178. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.

More From Encyclopedia.com