Do no harm to the childless

Do no harm to the childless

Bamidbar | Numbers 1:1-4:20

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

He and his wife had been together for 20 years but never had children. People treated them like Jewish failures. 

Not having children is a personal matter — not something lightly conversed about. So people attacked for childlessness just grin and bear it.

Some want children but cannot conceive or give birth. Initial sadness may become depression and despair, but social niceties prohibit frank disclosure, so they suffer silently lest their grief of infertility be aggravated by infelicity. 

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

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

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. 

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

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

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

The judgmentalism encountered by childlessness can be devastating. “I put on armor,” said one Jewish woman, “just to steel myself against what people are thinking.” Another said, “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 judgmentalism are subtle institutional signals 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. Official programs and grants support Jewish parents, but not Jewish adults with no children to be Jewish for. 

This week’s parsha offers a corrective; it announces, “These are the children of Aaron and Moses,” but then names just those of Aaron, leading the Talmud to say (San. 19b), “Aaron’s sons are reckoned as belonging also to Moses, because Moses taught them Torah. From this we learn that if you teach other people’s children Torah, it is as if you had borne them yourself.” Maimonides writes, “If you teach people a single thing that raises their level of understanding, it is as if you bore them. That is why Scripture calls the disciples of prophets ‘sons of prophets.’”

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? 

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