Toldot and Alternative Families

Rebecca's question continues to bedevil Jewish adults who hope to parent.

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Barrenness remains a social stigma--particularly in the Jewish community, which holds that the first mitzvah in the Torah is p'ru u-rvu (be fruitful and multiply). Full integration and acceptance in the Jewish community often revolve around family life. The Jewish community has grown more open to gay and lesbian families in recent years largely because many such couples have been able to become parents--some through adoption or prior heterosexual reproduction, and more recently through artificial insemination. Yet adults in their thirties, forties, and fifties without
children-regardless of their marital status and sexual orientation--remain outsiders in all but the most avant-garde synagogues and activist Jewish organizations. Childless adults treated as full participants in Jewish life remain the exception, and thus the Jewish community tends to lose these people from the rolls of temple membership.

What of the Jewish championing of classic feminist ideas that a woman is much more than a baby machine; that anatomy is not destiny; that a woman defines herself not primarily through her family but through her deeds and ideas? Even today, motherhood and fatherhood in the Jewish community are both idealized and romanticized. Now as much as ever, family and parenthood are the primary cultural institution where individuals look to find personal fulfillment, happiness, and love. Most contemporary Jews cannot imagine finding such rewards without children; many find it difficult to consider doing so without their own genetic children to realize the wish to pass Judaism, love, and genes mi-dor I'dor (from generation to generation).

Our community has done only an adequate job providing support for the infertile. Chapters on infertility in mainstream Jewish parenting books remain either absent or in the non-normative category even though infertility is rife. Nina Beth Cardin has written Tears of Sorrow, Seeds of Hope (second edition, 2007), a spiritual companion for those grieving infertility, pregnancy loss, or stillbirth. This book belongs in every Jewish library, and in time, its messages will perhaps pervade Jewish culture. Yet even in this book adoption is discussed only as a last and unfavorable alternative. Meanwhile, responsa literature and halachic interpretations have strongly jewish parentingsupported artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization for heterosexual couples facing infertility because of the strong drive for Jewish continuity. Such a notion of Jewish continuity is not only religious, but also biological. There is more support in the Jewish institutional world than in Christian communities for reproductive technologies, apparently because many Jews believe Judaism is inherited as much as taught.

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Rabbi Valerie Lieber

Rabbi Valerie Lieber is the spiritual leader of Temple Israel of Jamaica, a Reform congregation in Jamaica, Queens. She is also a member of the board of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice in Manhattan and is on the executive committee of the New York Association of Reform Rabbis.