Monday, April 02, 2007
Once we were slaves - Pesach 2007

It is the first night of Passover tonight. On this night, we are reminded that we were once slaves.

Though I ceased being a believer many years ago, I still connect very strongly to my Jewish identity. Jewish is who I am, where my roots are and how I formed my core beliefs.

I am an outsider, and an insider at the same time. Sure, there are plenty of non-practicing, secular Jews. Few of them are involved in the Jewish community. Though I don’t attend synagogue, I do keep up on Jewish goings-on. I lived in Israel and continue to study Judaism, even through the lens of atheism. It makes for an interesting take on our culture.

As a former trained student of Judaism and other religions (I have my degree in Religious studies with a minor in human sexuality – studied at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion [HUC-JIR] the reform Rabbinic school in Jerusalem), I can take the study of the laws both from a believer’s perspective (what G-d wants) to the fully academic perspective.

I keep up with a bunch of the big Jewish blogs, Jewlicious, Jewcy, Zeek and others. In so doing, I have come across some interesting debates. One of which is really sticking in my craw right about now. The issue is the one of Jewish natalism. The idea that procreation is a priority.

I will start out with the fact that procreation, on some level is indeed important. I’m sure I don’t need to say that without procreation, none of us would be here. OK. Having gotten that out of the way, my concern with natalism is the issue that women are charged with that particular task. Sure, men help. But there’s a t-shirt out there that says “my dad isn’t babysitting” for a reason. Men, in general, do not have primary responsibility for the raising of children.

Yes. There are indeed exceptions. I am going to talk about the rule.

A woman on one of these blogs bristled that another commenter delighted that the recent war in Lebanon made more babies because everyone was in bomb shelters with nothing else to do. The comments are a debate between, essentially those that believe that we should be having as many children as we can (look at how cute the kinderlach are after all!) and those that believe that Jewish women have somewhat less than full ownership of their reproductive organs.

In the orthodox Jewish community, giving birth to new Jewish children is of exceptional importance. It has gotten to the point among some Haredi, however, that women become baby-making machines and lose control over their reproductive rights entirely. How? They are adult women. They live in the U.S. or otherwise industrialized first world nations.

First off, birth control is allowed under Jewish law. Unfortunately, in Haredi communities, you have to have a sound medical reason for it though that is not necessarily Halachic rule. It always depends on how each individual rabbi or community interprets the law. If the only reason that you want to use birth control happens to be that you don’t want to raise a fifth child, this is unacceptable.

Frum women cannot use birth control without their husband’s o.k. That is forbidden. They can, however go talk to her rabbi and get a waiver to stop reproducing for a while. That’s right. Go to your rabbi and let him know that you can’t take it anymore. Basically admit, “I know all the other women in the community have managed to have eight children and be fine, just fine with it but I can’t do it.” Hmmm. How likely is that do you think?

Jews have lost a lot of generations due to the Holocaust, pogroms and various other anti-Semitic expulsions and eliminations. It is the position of many Haredi that they are remedying these events by having scores of children. After all, the Tanach says, “be fruitful and multiply”. What does that mean though? Is three not enough? Do we need to be procreating until our bodies and minds are so exhausted that the eldest are raising the youngest? Do we get a say at all?

G-d made women to have babies, the orthodox would say. That may be true. If we do use that supposition, then we also have to concede that G-d made men to haul heavy things. However, I have not recently seen any of the men in tzitzit and payes plowing their fields. Again, rule – not exception. I mean, have they even done their own gardening?

Procreation is important for the survival of any people. However, women must have the right not to be incubating slaves to our religion and the men who fill the Battei Din (Jewish legal system).

Again, I am not talking about women who choose to enter the life of orthodoxy and raise a family of six children. My mother wanted six children when she started being fruitful at the age of 23. By the third child however, she had changed her mind and as reform Jews, my parents had no Beit Din to consult, nor the pressure of the families around them reminding them that it was their responsibility to replenish the Jewish people. My parents had two people, each other, to consult. They decided when it was time to stop breeding.

Women around the world do not have the right to control their own bodies, who they sleep with, where and when and whether they produce children from that union. Women who have lost their reproductive rights include more than those in Congo who are raped at 7 years old, child brides in Afghanistan or women in China who have lost the right to have more than one child. It is right here, at the corner of Pico and Doheny that women are slaves.

Ma nishtanah ha'isha hazeh mikol ha'ishot?

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Blogger Jill said...

I'm neither Jewish nor a mother. I do believe in karma and dharma and tikkun olam. So, where does having babies fit in with healing the world? I understand the urge of one tribe or another to have more of their kind in the world. Environmentally, though, it's gentler to the world not to have kids. Men (who are not in a position to produce babies) who think the Non-Men Who Could Produce Babies should be required to produce babies should themselves be redirected to adopt girl babies from the many parts of the world that don't want them. Everybody wins, right?

Blogger crazyauntpurl said...

Thank G-d they must have updated the firewall over the weekend -- I seem to be able to post!

Having said that...

This was such an amazing entry, Faith. So thought provoking! I have a friend who is Christian and has six children, she and her husband follow a belief called "quiverfull" and while many people in their family don't agree with it, one thing I like about their decision is that they as a couple (and with their beliefs and religion) have the opportunity to re-adjust when they feel they need to. It's not some forbidden/mandated thing.

For me I find it odd how many people think it is perfectly acceptable to comment on me and my uterus. Specifically, people who think it is A-OK to ask me why I haven't had kids, why my ex-husband and I never had children, if I plan to have kids ("Hey, clock is ticking, better hurry up!") etc.

When did it become all right to ask me such a personal and private thing?

Your entry here made me wonder if it hasn't always been a pervasive thing ... folks trying to tell women to have babies. If maybe it isn't so uniquely and deeply ingrained in our species that when women buck the (human path) trend and want to hold onto their eggs, so to speak, it makes folks uneasy and they want to start mandating stuff.

P.S. Do you say "Happy Passover" just like people say "Happy Easter" or is this a solemn, non-happy holiday?

Blogger Orangeblossoms said...

I am so intrigued with the ways in which we enslave ourselves and others. . . especially post-liberation, though one could argue that liberation is such a long process that it takes generations to live into it. I always expect that liberation will bring more equality within a community and deeper solidarity with others who are oppressed, when often it seems that the opposite is true: further insularity and different forms of oppression intensify, externally and internally. Some say that it is all in the name of mainainting tradition and community. I guess I'm enough of a post-modern Christian that I don't understand the depth of the importance of this-- only that it is important, essential to some.

Blessed Passover to you. . .

Blogger Faith said...

Definitely you can say Happy Passover.

Blogger Lisa said...

I'm suppose to worry about Orthodox women's reproductive rights? Have you ever been to Kingshighway in Brooklyn or taken the Q train. They're not terribly worried about their own reproductive rights. Perhaps because they're not aware of any kind of feminist ideology regarding reproductive rights. No one is holding a gun to their heads. They can opt out. Here is a link to one who did.

btw: good documentary.

Blogger Faith said...

Lisa - You don't have to worry about Ortho women's reproductive rights.

As Richard Dawkins points out in the first chapter of the God Delusion, however; many of them don't know that they CAN opt out, the community pressure and childhood indoctrination is so incredibly fierce. I am glad that some of them do.

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