One of the beautiful things about Jewish life is that much of its traditions and ritual are centered around families and children. But research shows that while 15% of couples of childbearing age face infertility challenges, in the Jewish community infertility rates are even higher. This may be due to several factors: later marriage, the pursuit of advanced education and careers by women during childbirth years and extensive use of birth control for long periods of time.
Growing up among Jews, however, emphasizes the importance of nachas far de kinder (joy from the children) or alles far de kinder (anything for the kids), the social pressure to have children in the Jewish community makes infertility a painful experience for couples without children.
Elie Haller Salomon writes: The words of the Haggadah, “And you shall tell your children,” along with the Seder’s focus on children, can pierce like a dagger through the hearts of those who struggle with infertility. The Seder serves as a direct and painful reminder of what these individuals desperately desire—a family. And so Ellie Salomon, a mother of 4—all conceived through the miracle of Assisted Reproductive Technologies or ART—has launched the “100 Shuls Project” to create greater awareness. And Shaarei Shamayim—along with 99 other shuls across America—has dedicated this Shabbat to Jewish infertility.
On this Jewish Infertility Shabbat I would like to discuss “Assisted Reproductive Technology” and what does Jewish law has to say about it.
One of the great advances in our time for infertile couples is in-vitro fertilization. This can take different forms. The sperm and egg of the infertile couple can be joined outside of the body and reinserted in the mother or a surrogate. The egg or the sperm can be from a donor and be reinserted in the mother or surrogate. This has raised many questions. One example would be the story Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg tells of a woman who called and asked whether the child she was expecting in a few months would be considered Jewish? His response: “If you’re Jewish then the child is Jewish.”
She said, “It’s not that simple. You see, my husband and I are Jewish and we had difficulty conceiving. They took the sperm from my husband and an egg from me and put them in a Petri dish and placed it in the womb of a non-Jewish woman who is getting paid to carry our baby. Does the child follow the biological mother or the gestational mother? What does Jewish law tell us?”
Let me just say that I come from Brooklyn and there they taught us a completely different way of having children! I ask you: What do you think?…How many vote for the biological mother?…How many vote for the gestational mother? Do you know the answer that Jewish law gives? The answer is: we’re not sure! There’s nothing definitive in Jewish law regarding this, and so what we do is we take the child to the mikvah and convert him/her, just in case the law follows the gestational mother. But we don’t recite a blessing because we don’t want to take Gd’s name in vain if the conversion may not be necessary in case the law follows the biological mother.
While in-vitro fertilization has raised a halachic question for Jews, it’s raised an even greater challenge for Roman Catholics and other religious denominations who oppose it. When Nobel Prize winner Dr. Robert Edwards introduced it to the world, religious groups denounced him as a “madman” for trying to play Gd. Medical ethicists declared that this would be the 1st step on a slippery slope toward artificial wombs and baby-farms.
This is part of a mindset that tells us that every new discovery, every technical revolution is an assault on Gd. Let me give you a few examples:
- When the Wright brothers created the 1st airplane there were many who considered it an act of heresy; as they put it, “If Gd meant for man to fly He would have created him with wings.”
- A man by the name of Tagliacci was the 1st to discover the great potential of plastic surgery. Did you know that his bones were disinterred from a Christian cemetery by religious fundamentalists who said this man had no right to a Christian burial because he tampered with Gd’s creation. Just imagine the shock waves in the Jewish community if this way of thinking about plastic surgery had become the accepted norm!
- When the Panama Canal was built, creating a waterway between North and South America, religious groups held mass rallies in protest of what they considered an act of blasphemy. They cried, “What Gd hath put together let no man cast asunder.”
- The discovery of the 1st umbrella was castigated on religious grounds: “If it’s raining, obviously Gd wants us to get wet.”
- And then there’s the Christian Science movement that teaches that we have to accept the reality of illness as being Gd’s will. It must be left to Gd who causes illness to then bring the cure as well.
What does Jewish law have to say about all this? The question is so important that Judaism finds its response in the very 1st commandment given to the Jewish people—a commandment while most widely observed, is the least understood—circumcision. The Midrash (Tanchuma, Tazria 5) tells us that Rabbi Akiva was asked by a Roman: How can you Jews go and alter Gd’s creation through circumcision? It’s as if you were given a beautiful bouquet of flowers and the 1st thing you do is cut off one of the flowers because you didn’t like the way it looks. How dare you tamper with the work of Gd? If Gd wanted man circumcised, He would have created him that way.
The response that Rabbi Akiva gave represents the essence of the Jewish way of thinking: In reality circumcision brings the body closer to completion and perfection. Why wasn’t man born circumcised? Because Gd created man and his world incomplete…imperfect…so that man would then complete the process of creation, making himself complete and perfect. Each human being is supposed to be a shutaf l’maasey v’reyshit (a co-partner with his Creator in the act of creation).
Gd created the world in 6 days and rested on the 7th. Do you know what He did on the 8th day? The Sages tell us Gd gave humans fire—the potential for creativity and change. Unlike the Romans who believed that man had to steal fire from the gods, Jewish tradition tells us that mankind was given the gift of fire from Gd so that he could continue the act of creation.
In discussing a case where one was injured, the Torah (Ex. 21:19) tells us that the one responsible shall pay for the injured’s lost time and healing and uses the doubling of the word for healing: v’rapo yirapey. Why the emphatic doubling of healing? The Talmud (Bava Kama 85a) learns from this that just as Gd heals, we should heal. In other words, we should not think it’s forbidden for a doctor to heal and interfere with Gd’s will that someone should be ill. Rather Gd gives the physician permission to heal.
And this is true not only in regard to injury, illness and science, but in all areas of life—including conceiving a child. I hear people pray that they should be blessed with a child, that their children should follow the proper path, that their business should prosper, or that their relationships be strengthened. These are legitimate prayers, but they’re meaningless unless the one praying is also willing to do his/her share to make it come true.
And so, Jewish law is clear. If you’re having trouble conceiving a child, v’rapo yirapey, go get help! See an infertility specialist. There are all sorts of medicines and procedures that may help. Call groups like https://yeshtikva.org/ that can guide you. Their literature is in the lobby. And know that it if you do, it will be blessed by Gd. Amen!