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Other People’s Children

Other People’s Children

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is a professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

’I don’t know much about Judaism, Rabbi, but I know it shouldn’t needlessly hurt people.” So says a man to me many years ago. His words still haunt me.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Candles: 8:09 p.m. (Fri.); 9:09 p.m. (Sat.); 9:10 p.m. (Sun.)
Torah: Numbers 1:1-4:20 (Sat.); Exodus 19:1-20:23 (Sun.); Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17 (Mon.); Num. 8:26-31 (Sun., Mon.);  
Haftorah: Hosea 2:1-22 (Sat.);
Ezekiel 1:1-28, 3:12 (Sun.);
Habakuk 2:20-3:19 (Mon.); Book of Ruth

Havdalah: 9:10 p.m. (Mon.)

He and his wife had been together for twenty years, but never had children. People treated them like Jewish failures.

Not having children is a personal matter — not something lightly untaken launched as lunchtime conversation. So people attacked for childlessness just grin and bear it.

Some want children but cannot conceive or give birth, no matter what they do. Initial sadness becomes outright depression and despair, but social niceties prohibit frank disclosure, so they suffer silently lest the grief of infertility be aggravated by the stigma of infelicity.

Adoption is an option but not for the fainthearted. It is hard to conquer the fear that there is something wrong with you, and the adoption process is complicated, lengthy, uncertain, and expensive.

Then there are increasing numbers of people who decide not to have children — for many reasons which, again, are not the kind of thing you talk about when people give you glances suggesting you are not fully Jewish on that account.

Yes, having children is a mitzvah — usually. The Talmud argues that God created the world “to be inhabited,” so Jews should do their part to fill the world with inhabitants. But life is more complicated than any single rule about it. Especially when it comes to having children, individuals have to apply Talmudic calculus personally and, sometimes, painfully.

Case: A woman suffers from chronic depression. She wonders about becoming a mother.

Case: A man is sure he will make a bad parent. His wife concedes he is right, fears taking on sole parental responsibility herself, and suspects that having a child will destroy the marriage and the child as well.

Case: A couple decides that children are not right for them. They are good people who make a point of serving the world in other ways. 

The judgmentalism encountered by childlessness can be devastating. “I put on armor,” says one Jewish woman, “just to steel myself against what people are thinking.” Another says, “I was relieved to pass my childbearing years, so that I would no longer have to go through the agonizing feeling every day that I ought to ‘rectify’ what I knew was the right decision.”

Exacerbating this latent judgmentalism are the subtle institutional announcements that children are the only ones who matter. Synagogue budgets go overwhelmingly for religious schools and “tot Shabbats.” We send teenagers to Israel, but not ourselves. We favor kiddie holidays like Chanukah; and dilute seders to the Four Questions. Official programs and grants support Jewish parents, but not Jewish adults with no children to be Jewish for. Are Jewish homes just for Jewish kids, who grow up just to make Jewish homes for their own kids, and so on, and so on, and so on?

Fortunately, this week’s sedra offers a corrective. It announces, “These are the children of Aaron and Moses” [Numbers 3:1], but then names just those of Aaron, leading the Talmud to say, “Aaron’s sons are reckoned as belonging also to Moses, because Moses taught them Torah [Sanhedrin 19b]. From this we learn that if you teach Torah to other people’s children, it is as if you had borne them yourself.”

Maimonides writes, “If you teach a person a single thing that raises that person’s level of understanding, it is as if you were that person’s parent. That is why Scripture calls the disciples of prophets the ‘sons of prophets.’”

People who want children should have them if they can and if it is the right thing to do. But many can’t; many shouldn’t; many don’t. People who can’t, shouldn’t, or don’t are not on that account second-class Jews.

Going childless is hard enough in a society where everyone is “supposed” to have them. We should be careful not to make it harder still, because Judaism shouldn’t needlessly hurt people, should it? 

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at the Hebrew Union College in New York. He lectures widely around the country and is the author of “100 Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation” (Bluebridge Press). 

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