Obligation to Multiply

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RABBI JEFFREY ARNOWITZ REFLECTS ON WHETHER JEWISH WOMEN SHOULD BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE FOR “BEING FRUITFUL” AND ADDING MORE JEWS TO THE WORLD.

We at 614 wanted to get a rabbi’s take on whether Jewish women have any kind of ethical obligation to procreate for the sake of their family or the Jewish community at large. Yes, we know there is no one rabbi who can speak to this issue on behalf of all rabbis (as if!), so we chose someone—Rabbi Arnowitz from the Conservative Congregation Beth El in Norfolk, Virginia—who we knew would have strong and interesting viewpoints that added to the overall conversation. I met Rabbi Arnowitz this fall while doing a 614 salon event in his community, and I respect his belief that "the rabbi’s role is to plant seeds of inspiration and identity and to find imaginative ways to bring spirituality to diverse members of the congregation and community." Below is our interview.


In general, what do you think of this idea of parents/grandparents offering to pay for their daughter/granddaughter to freeze her eggs? Is it pushy? Generous?


It just so happens that I am answering these questions while preparing for Rosh Hashanah services and reading about the fertility issues of our foremother Sarah, in the Torah readings, and Hannah, the mother of Samuel the prophet, in the haftarah. It seems clear that concern about children and a woman’s ability to bear them has been a cultural and religious concern of our people from our very inception. One thing I have noticed in these texts is that these are complicated issues with farther reaching implications than what might immediately be seen. For example, in her desire to have a child, Sarah has her maidservant Hagar act as a surrogate. However, after the birth of Isaac, trouble ensues, including the exile of Hagar and her son Ishmael from Abraham’s house. Hannah strikes a deal to give any child she bears to God, a parting that must have been very difficult when the time came. So, perhaps the question is a little too simple. Whether an offer from grandparents to pay for egg freezing is generous or pushy, a breach of privacy or a clever solution to the issue of aging, depends a lot on the dynamics of the family, the wishes of the woman involved regarding children, and the reasons for her not having children yet.

Give us an example of when it’s generous and not pushy…

The AP recently reported on a mother who carried a baby for her daughter who was no longer able to do so because of complications from cancer. I read it, stunned, at the generosity of the mother, the trust of the daughter, and the possible implications for their future family dynamics. It was clear, in this case, that this was a great gift on the part of the mother. Of course, it is not hard to imagine another scene where parental strategizing about their daughter’s reproductive life is an excessive intrusion and a veiled way to increase pressure on their daughter. The only possible conclusion is that every case is different and that the key to answering would be the manner, context, and intention of the offer—not always easy to tease out, and very easy to misunderstand.


Do you think that egg freezing is a potentially good solution to bringing more Jewish babies into the world? Why or why not?


Like so many issues, it is easy to see the good in the abstract of this idea, but it gets more complicated in individual cases. I will never forget being in a class with Rabbi Elliott Dorff, a preeminent authority in medical ethics within the Conservative movement and beyond, during my second year of rabbinical school. He stated bluntly that young Jewish adults were not making enough babies, and that this was a developing existential threat to the future of the Jewish people. As a recently married man without children, I recall being rather taken aback by the idea that my reproductive life was the business of anyone other than me and my wife. On the other hand, as a leader of a Jewish community, I understand his concern.

So, I believe that the key is balance. As a people, there is nothing wrong with feeling anxious about the continued growth and survival of our people and, therefore, about birth rates. However, we also must remember that our right to worry, while appropriate in the abstract, ends at an individual woman’s body or a couple’s choices regarding family planning.


Is there a better strategy than egg freezing when it comes to growing the Jewish community?


Perhaps a better one would be to educate young Jewish men and women about the possible complications for reproductive life as they age, as well as for the future health of their children (A recent study shows that aging men also have an impact on the likelihood of future issues for the child.) Then, the Jewish community needs to provide the support systems required for couples and individuals who choose to have children earlier (i.e., childcare alternatives, stipends for childcare, and support for single mothers who choose to "go it alone").


Do you think Jewish women are in some way obligated to the Jewish community to have babies and raise them to be Jewish? Why or why not?


I firmly believe that a woman’s reproductive choices are her own. There is a religious principle that it is good to have children, but that idea predates Jews. The very first command from God to Adam and Eve is piru u’rivu, loosely translated: make babies. But Adam and Eve were not Jewish. They predate Abraham and Sarah by 20 generations or perhaps more. Still, a general command to humanity to procreate does not obligate an individual to do so. Of course, if everyone decided not to have children, we’d have a problem, but I don’t think that’s the issue in reality.

If a Jewish woman decides to have children, I hope she would raise them to be Jewish out of pride in her heritage and because Judaism provides a framework to make life more meaningful and purposeful, but that’s not an obligation. Jewish parents are obligated to love their children, to raise them to know right from wrong, to be able to support themselves and to have the skills to survive and prosper—that last is based on a Talmudic obligation to teach your children to swim—I believe that a firm religious foundation is an essential part of all of that, and it is clear that our basic teachings promote that as well.

Some people believe that freezing one’s eggs is a family decision (because it’s something grandparents and parents desperately want so badly) and not just an individual decision. Thoughts?

A woman’s body is her own and so are her eggs. To paraphrase Khalil Gibran, our children may be from us, but they are not us. And their children, even pre-conception, are really not us. No matter how badly we might want something from or for our children, we must understand that they will live their own lives. We can teach and beg and cajole regarding the decisions they make about this or anything else, but when it comes right down to it, our children are people and they will make the decisions they think are best, even when we "know" they are wrong. No job requires more grace to accept the things we cannot control than parenting, no matter the age of our children.

Any advice for how a Jewish woman who opts not to have kids for whatever reason can handle judgment from her family and community?

Close friends to support her, a strong backbone, and a glass of chardonnay as needed.

About the Author

author_rabbi_jeffery_arnowitzRabbi Jeffrey Arnowitz
Rabbi Jeffrey Arnowitz became the rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Norfolk in 2011. He came to Norfolk from Congregation Beth El in Voorhees, New Jersey, where he served as the associate rabbi from 2003 to 2011. He received his Bachelor of Science degree, summa cum laude, from the University of Pittsburgh, majoring in child development and childcare, a social work degree. While studying, he worked with special needs students at local Hebrew schools, including tutoring for bar and bat mitzvah preparation. After college, Rabbi Arnowitz studied at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem before beginning his rabbinic studies at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where he was ordained in 2003. Rabbi Arnowitz and his wife, Tami, have three sons: Elijah, 7, Simeon, 4, and Gabriel, 2.

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