My Father, My Judaism, My Childlessness

An extract from Elliot Jager’s newly published book, The Pater:

For years, every Rosh HaShana I would sneak a glance at Lisa as the story of Hannah was intoned; she’d be stoically scanning her prayer book as though the narrative had nothing do to with us. The tension between fecundity and barrenness is a fairly constant, I’d say almost obsessive, biblical theme. Will Abraham and Sarah conceive a child? Will Isaac and Rebecca? In fact, from Genesis through Chronicles, the Hebrew Bible does not record a single instance where God turns a deaf ear to the prayers of a barren couple. Not once.

Yet it is telling that there are no explicit references to male infertility in the Bible. The biblical characters who bear the brunt of the angst associated with childlessness are women. Conveniently, every biblical husband of an infertile wife can demonstrate his virility and fecundity thanks to having at least one other, fertile wife in reserve.

Genesis actually offers a precursor to the Elkanah-Hannah romance in describing Jacob’s enduring love for the infertile Rachel over the fabulously fruitful but unloved Leah. And still, Rachel pleads with Jacob, “Give me children, or else I die” (Gen. 30:1). Sure enough, and in the fullness of time, Rachel does give Jacob his favorite son, Joseph (number 11, if you’re counting sequentially). Tragically, however, Rachel is destined to die giving birth to their second son, Benjamin.

It is all the more striking, then, that in Jewish tradition it is not Leah (and certainly neither of the concubines Bilha and Zilpa), but Rachel who is the maternal heroine, her burial place a destination for Jewish women from all over the world.

She overcame infertility – even if it killed her.

Time and time again, throughout the Bible, barrenness is depicted as divine punishment. Take the convoluted story of Michal, which, like the story of Hannah, also appears in the Book of Samuel. “Now Michal daughter of Saul had fallen in love with David…” (I Sam. 18:20). It’s not every day that a woman’s love for a man is unambiguously documented in a biblical narrative. But there it is.

Sensing a threat to his power, Saul forces David to flee the royal court. Michal lies to her father by not admitting that she helped David escape. Next, Saul gives Michal to Paltiel, though the Talmud would have us believe that their
relationship remained unconsummated. David returns to claim Michal after Saul is killed in battle – apparently because it makes good political sense given her royal lineage. Paltiel takes this turn of events badly.

As the narrative unfolds in the second book of Samuel (6:20–23), Michal sardonically criticizes David for his ecstatic dancing – or was it sexual exhibitionism – during delivery of the Ark of the Covenant from Hebron to Jerusalem. The two have a heated public spat, after which the Bible relates: “And Michal, Saul’s daughter, never bore a child until the day she died.”

Of course, David’s other wives did.

The rabbis of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 19b) try to reinterpret the narrative. Some have her adopting her sister’s children; another tradition holds out the possibility that she was able to bear children after all. Still, the message lingers: not having children is meant as some kind of divine retribution.

Throughout the centuries of Jewish civilization, making babies has always been the first imperative. The Jews are the children of Abraham. In the canonized Jewish texts, the Jewish people are repeatedly referred to as the sons and daughters of Israel. Our common destiny is as Klal Yisrael. Membership is open. There is a process by which non-Jews can join – though different Jewish tribes disagree about the membership rules. Nevertheless, once you’re in, you become part of the family. Judaism is a culture rooted in the Land of Israel, the covenant idea, peoplehood, polity, the Hebrew language, and, to an extent, ethnicity. It is also a religion. In Judaism as a Civilization, 1934, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan (1881–1983) tried to pull all these strands together by conceptualizing Judaism as an “evolving religious civilization,” wrestling with God, nationhood, and ritual in a never-ending search for meaning.

Truth be told, though, that search for meaning is made incomparably more complicated for those without children. Abraham himself confronts this dilemma when he challenges God: “What can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless?” (Gen. 15:2) And when the Jewish national condition seemed most bleak, the ancient prophets invoked childlessness as their chosen metaphor. The prophet Isaiah, for example, likened Zion’s distress during the First Temple period to infertility: “Sing, O barren one, You who bore no child!”(Is. 54:1)

When there are good tidings, however, God’s countenance is directly tied to the blessings of a fecund womb. The Psalmist intones, “Sons are the provision of the Lord; the fruit of the womb, His reward” (127:3–5).

God Himself fertilizes Mother Earth with water and rivers. He instructs and blesses humanity, created in His image, to “Be fruitful, and multiply” (Gen. 1:28).God is the quintessence of creativity; He wants us to be like Him.

The Midrash in Genesis Rabba links infertility to death based on the placement of two Bible passages: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God made He man” (Gen. 9:6), which is immediately followed by “And you, be fruitful, and multiply; swarm in the earth, and multiply therein.” This teaches, according to the Midrash, that failure to bring children into the world is a form of suicide, if not murder.

There’s a lot of back-and-forth in the Talmud about whether the “Be fruitful and multiply” commandment falls singularly on the shoulders of the man. The Mishna in Yevamot 65b is explicit: “A man is commanded concerning the duty of propagation, but a woman is not.

”Naturally, that hardly settles the matter. Talmudic discourse is dialectic – like an arrow observed flying in mid-air. The final word is elusive.

Elliot Jager with Simon Hattenstone, Be Fruitful and Multiply!, is at Jewish Book Week on 21 February 2016.

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