Jewish Infertility Shabbat
Today’s Torah portion begins: Isha ki tazria v’yalda (When a woman conceives and gives birth). Most of us don’t pay much attention to those words because this is the way it’s supposed to be—a woman conceives and gives birth. But what about the woman who can’t conceive or the woman who can but can’t hold a pregnancy and give birth to a healthy child? 15% of couples of childbearing age face infertility challenges, and in the Jewish community it’s 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.
We Jews emphasize 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.
And it’s especially painful on Passover that’s coming up in 2 weeks with its main ritual—the Seder—focused on kids. What if you don’t have a kid to recite the Ma Nishtana, the 4 Questions? What if you can’t have a kid?
One such woman is Rachel Goldsmith of Queens, NY. The Seders became so painful for her and her husband that they took the radical step of choosing to have their Seders alone. She writes: When others heard that my husband and I were having our Seder alone this year, they quickly invited us to theirs, assuming it was because we had nowhere to go. B”H we had invites…Seders across the world are usually held in a room full of happy people, with children running around. But not in our home…My husband and I have reached a point where we no longer want to be bystanders, observing how others hand down the story of the Exodus to their children. We truly long to be teaching our own. When you’re enduring the test of infertility, most holidays are difficult. For me, Pesach is the worst…
I don’t intend to sound bitter or depressing. Sometimes, I am grateful for all the time G-d has given us to devote to building our marriage. I also enjoy the luxury of uninterrupted time to curl up with a book, or (especially before Pesach) having my home remain just as neat and tidy as I’ve left it. But as much as I can try to think about the plus sides, they seem like a small consolation for this very big nesayon (test of faith). So this year, we took back Pesach. Instead of another dreaded year of plastering on smiles and pretending to be joyously celebrating the holiday, we decided to stay home, where we could openly cry to Hashem all we wanted.
Now how sad is that! We can certainly feel their pain. Listen to the words of Elie Haller Salomon: 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—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.
Julie Bindeman, psychologist from Rockville MD, writes about the 4 children of the Haggadah: the 1st is knowing and wise; the 2nd is selfish or wicked; the 3rd is simple or not knowing; and the 4th is silent because he/she doesn’t know what to ask and is just taking everything in. However, this breakdown doesn’t include a 5th child—the one who’s missing, who’s not there! The Lubavitcher Rebbe famously spoke about the 5th son as one who had lost his faith and strayed from being Jewish. For Julie, the 5th child is “the child of potential—the child that those struggling with infertility are working to create or the child that almost was, but the pregnancy ended before its completion.”
The CDC reports that 1 in 8 couples experience infertility and 1 in 4 pregnancies end in loss. It would be foolish to assume that someone struggling with these issues isn’t attending a Seder with you. These struggles tend to be silent and invisible—but are nevertheless devastating. Let me suggest that after reading about the 4 children at your Seder that you acknowledge the infertile Jewish couples by adding a “5th child” to the discussion—their hoped-for child that is not yet there. This will give them a voice and be an act of loving-kindness as you make them feel included in Jewish life.
Some well-intentioned people attempt to comfort the infertile couple by saying: “Just relax, and you’ll get pregnant;” “Gd only gives you what you can handle;” “This is part of Gd’s plan for you” or “Why not adopt?” Hearing such advice often has the opposite effect. Rather than comforting them, these comments make people who are on a fertility journey or grieving pregnancy loss want to retreat and isolate. It confirms that others aren’t able to put themselves in their shoes or understand their pain and only reinforces the need to stay quiet about their experiences.
As I mentioned earlier, Ellie Salomon conceived her 4 children through the miracle of Assisted Reproductive Technologies like 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 raises many questions in Jewish Law. The most obvious is: are Jews permitted to use these reproductive technologies? 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 in the text: 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—a double healing. 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 and illness, but in all areas of healing—including conceiving a child.
Here’s another question of Jewish Law this raises. A woman asked a colleague of mine 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?”
1st of all, let me just say that I come from Brooklyn and there they taught us a completely different way of having children! Do you know the answer? We’re not sure! And so 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.
My friends, the story of Passover leads to the Jews wandering for 40 years in the desert, searching for their Promised Land. This is a perfect metaphor for the journey of a couple struggling to build a family: looking forward with hope… waiting for it to happen…potentially lots of false turns… wondering if or when their family will be complete…until (hopefully) they reach their “promised land” of fulfilling their dream to parent. Whatever their Promised Land turns out to be, may they have a voice at the table. May Gd fulfill their prayers to tell the Passover story to their own children.
Jewish law is clear. If you’re having trouble conceiving a child, v’rapo yirapey, “heal and be healed.” 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. Some of their literature is in the lobby. And know that it if you do, it will be blessed by Gd. Amen!