First comes marriage... Then comes baby?
Not every religious newlywed couple wants to start a family as soon as honeymoon is over. In light of problematic alternatives, Bar-Ilan University convention focuses on halachic perspective towards family planning, as more rabbis see way to approving birth control
Children are a blessing, or so people say, but when and how many to have – that is a different kind of blessing all together. Considerations like career, self-fulfillment or making the most out of your relationship, are causing young couples to postpone the idea of expanding their families.
This decision has additional implications in the religious community, where children aren't just a blessing – they're a commandment.
Many young couples within the religious sector find themselves struggling with the issue after their marriage. On the one hand, thoughts over absence of maturity or lack of readiness to begin a family for various reasons, linger in couples' minds. On the other hand, the fear of violating a halachic decree hangs over the couple's heads. This is where an additional factor in family planning enters the fray: The rabbi.
Dr. Harel Gordin presented the halachic point of view on religious couples' decision to postpone pregnancies at a Bar-Ilan University convention on 'Fertility, Halacha and Family Health' Sunday.
"The Jewish viewpoint is that the supreme purpose is creating a family and bringing children into the world," said Rabbi Gordin, a teacher at the Machon Lev institute and the Lipschitz College.. "This is the infrastructure for human development. This destiny was determined as a commandment and is an important Jewish value.
"The dilemma arises when couples wish to marry and yet they feel they lack the maturity in their relationship to raise children. They are still looking to mature and grow, both within their relationship and on a personal level.
"Jewish law adjudicators also stand before a major dilemma: On the one hand, a wish to enable personal fulfillment out of an understanding that fulfillment is an important factor, yet at the same time, religious couples wish to fulfill their relationship in accordance with halachic law."
This is a relatively new dilemma. In previous centuries, women had little opportunity for self-fulfillment, so they did what their mothers did before them – sat at home and raised the children.
"The feminist revolution demands a change in perception when it comes to halachic questions," says Rabbi Gordin. "The question isn't whether they can be allowed to not have children, rather should postponement through accepted methods be allowed if it enables couples to marry early in spite of the fact that they lack the maturity needed to raise a family."
The convention was organized by the Department for Gender Studies in cooperation with various women's organizations. Dr. Ronit Ir-Shai, one of the organizers from Bar Ilan University, said that the commandment to procreate does indeed reflect values that are central to Jewish culture, but through the generations the halacha knew how to balance interests and needs and the value of a commandment.
"This can be seen in the responsa literature which takes things like livelihood, domestic peace and education into consideration," Ir-Shai noted.
She added that: "We aren't challenging family values; we are trying to examine a variety of considerations that need to be taken into account in a reality where women don't always feel the need to define themselves in relation to fertility. Medicine is improving, as is the woman's status. Our convention is trying to create a more complex image than what the halachic discussion is trying to define when it states that large families are the ultimate family structure."
Better than alternatives
"These questions were raised 30 years ago, but the whole issue was discussed behind closed doors," Rabbi Gordin clarifies. "The responses were more conservative because at the time, the issue was dealt with in greater severity.
"In contrast with the public image, halacha is very dynamic, today more than ever before. There is a greater understanding of the implication of the alternatives – like postponing marriage or developing intimate relationships without marriage.
"This is why there are adjudicators who prefer to allow couples to fulfill their love within the framework of the halacha, recognizing that these couples want children – and allowing them to postpone family expansion for a limited timeframe – one or two years."
So it's a conditional postponement?
"The adjudicators can't force it. He mainly advises," notes Gordin. "Couples who seek council are only interested in following the halacha. It is true that there is a policy of encouraging family expansion, out of recognition of the sacred value of parenthood – but when a couple comes to me for advice, the first thing I do is listen and examine their needs.
"Following the halacha – especially when it comes to intimate issues of family and fertility, is a personal choice. Anyone who makes the decision to seek advice from a rabbi usually belongs to the segment of society where there is existential tension between traditional thought – and a degree of liberal thought."
These days, rabbis often try to create a balance between rabbinical advice and halachic advice. When does the rabbi stop being a religious authority and when does he become a professional consultant.
Family planning falls into this category: "These days there are many people who wish to make their own decisions, refusing to automatically obey the rabbi's opinion," notes Rabbi Gordin. "It used to be clear that you relied on your rabbi, but today, the rabbi needs to present the sources and origins of his decisions. And yet, the more the couples are involved, the more significant the halachic execution – grounded and profound."
Rabbi Gordin describes a situation where many couples come in for a consultation but prefer not to receive a halachic ruling from the rabbi. They want him to explain the possibilities and see them as equal partners in finding a halachic solution.