Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Fruit of the Womb

Should religious Jews have large families? Is this a requirement of the Mitzvah of Pru Ur’vu - to be fruitful and multiply? I’m not here to Paskin on the Halachic applications of this Mitzvah. I leave it for Poskim to do that. But I am here to offer my opinion on the fallout of those Poskim who are Machmir in almost all cases to have large families.

The fact is that it is not a universally held position among Poskim that one must have as many children as possible. There are clearly legitimate Poskim that say that the Mitzvah of Pru Ur’vu can be fulfilled by having one boy and one girl. And some Poskim say that even two of the same sex fulfils that Mitzvah.

What about the typically large families that Charedim because many of their Poskim forbid the use of contraceptives of any kind? Is that a mandate to have as many children as possible?

A controversy developed a while back in Israel. It has been noted by pollsters that the average Charedi family size in key Charedi communities like Kiryat Sefer has diminished ever since then Israeli finance minister Bibi Netanyahu implemented his austerity program which reduced subsidies to large families. The average number of children per Charedi family has since gone down from something like 8 children per family to 7.

One Charedi fellow I know who is critical of the Israeli government whenever he gets the opportunity made a comment along the lines of the following: ‘Where Paroy failed, Bibi has succeeded.’

Obviously he likened Netanyahu’s cuts to Pharaoh’s throwing all newborn Jewish males into the river… a sort of infanticide via a financial sword.

How overly simplistic!

Are women supposed to be baby factories? ... the more the merrier?

I don't think the Mitzvah of Pru Ur'vu requires that every woman must have as many children as biologically possible even according to the strictest interpretation of the Mitzvah. Family size should not be determined by money. It should be determined by the desire and ability of the parents to have and raise children. And certainly not every parent is qualified to have a large family. In fact in some cases parents should not have any children.

I'm not suggesting we should be dictating whether - or how many - children a family should have. It is their individual right to decide that for themselves. But there ought to be some common sense on this issue by parents. And there ought to be some common sense guidance by the rabbinic leaders who dictate those values.

Of course finances should never be the determinant – pro or con. I know quite a few families - both rich and poor - with large numbers of children. Many of those have successfully raised all of their children to be exemplary Jews - all unrelated to their financial condition. And those children may very well in turn have many children of their own - emulating their parents’ good parenting qualities.

But I also know families - large and small; rich and poor - that are dysfunctional to varying degrees. Many of the children in those families have serious emotional problems. In some cases they are worst of the 'kids at risk'.

In other - even non dysfunctional families it is obvious that even a good parent is simply overwhelmed by the number of children they have and just cannot deal with them. And yet they continue to have even more children. How those children will turn out is anyone's guess. Hefkeirus rules in many of those homes.

Bottom line: No parent should have more children than he or she is capable of raising properly. Judaism is not a population machine.

In my view, Netanyahu’s dis-incentive is a good thing. It will discourage those who really don’t want them from having children for the wrong reasons. And for those who want more children they will have them anyway and for the right reasons. Lack of finances will not discourage them. That’s a win/win as far as I’m concerned.