Friday, July 08, 2011

Birth Control

How many children is enough? That is the question asked by Ha’artez. It is perhaps the most emotionally laden question that can be asked by a religious family. The question itself is often seen as anti Torah. It is the 3rd rail of Orthodox politics. It is about as taboo from discussion as can be. Most people shy away from discussing it. But I think it needs discussion more now than ever.

First let me say that I am by far not a Halachic expert in these matters. But I do know the basic requirements of the commandment in the Torah ‘to be fruitful and multiply’. One of the main purposes of marriage is to procreate. I believe that according to the opinion of most Poskim it is incumbent for a man to have at least one boy and one girl. Some are even more lenient and say one child is enough. Others maintain that one must continue to have as many children as possible. Birth control then becomes a question of Halacha. When it is or isn’t permitted - and what types of birth control should be used when it is permitted - is a matter for a Rav or Posek to decide.

Women are exempt from this Mitzvah because of the pain of childbirth. But they are encouraged to have children nonetheless. Having children is a blessing that will ultimately bring joy to both parents. Besides it takes ‘two to tango’. That is the only way a man can fulfill his obligation.

Clearly all Poskim will permit birth control when the health of the mother is at stake. But there are other circumstances where there are differences among the Poskim. The one thing that a young couple must never assume is that birth control is always forbidden.

So what is big enough? How many children should a family have? That is an almost impossible question to answer. The number of children a family should have varies widely depending on individual circumstances.

But it is clear to me is that far too many people are being encouraged to have large families despite the fact that they are ill-equipped to raise them. Bringing children into dysfunctional families in order to populate the world with more Jews is not a good idea. Nor do I think that Halacha mandates it. And yet many Poskim who believe that we are forbidden to use birth control do not necessarily look at a family’s dysfunction – which may often be subtle and without a thorough investigation undetectable.

But there is nothing subtle about children in such families who become OTD. Dysfunctional families with many children will often see many of them go OTD.

The argument by these Poskim might be is that children going OTD is not the concern of the parent. His duty is to procreate and have as many children as possible. In the Charedi and especially Chasidic worlds that is the message. Mechanchim constantly tell their students that birth control for financial reasons is no Heter for birth control. Physical or emotional problems may get you that Heter. But the message is clear. Birth control should only be sought under the direst of conditions.

I’m told that not affording children gets an almost automatic psak of no. I don’t see why that should be the case. If the financial pressure is increased isn’t it possible or even likely that the emotional distress will too? Shouldn’t Poskim consider that when a financial reason is given? Financial distress can easily lead to dysfunction. And then there is the matter of placing the burden of support upon the public welfare system. Should that not be a factor as well? Is it a Mitzvah to keep having children knowing that they can only be supported by others?

According to the Ha’aretz article there has been a decrease in recent years in the birthrate among Charedim in Israel. This has coincided with a decrease in the amount of government aid given to large families.

There seems to be an attitude shift. It used to be the case that parents were embarrassed if their families were too small. It was almost as if there was a contest to have the most children. That no longer seems to be the case.

There is an interesting comment on this issue by Rabbi Moshe Grylak, publisher of Mishpacha Magazine in the Ha’aretz article:

A younger man who is very active in the Haredi community, and preferred to speak anonymously, says: "It is known that the great granddaughter of an important rabbi in Bnei Brak told that rabbi, 'I do not want to give birth now' - and he told her, 'No problem, wait for two years.' There is a sense that 'the generations have changed.' One can no longer demand that women have a lot of children and also work from morning to night. More than once you see couples with four or five children, and that is not always because of problems of fertility. Today every rabbi authorizes contraceptives, even after the first child and not just when there is a health problem. If a woman asks for it, it means she's having a tough time.

I think that’s right. The paradigm about having as many children as possible (except for health reasons) is changing. Reason seems to be taking over. Money (or more correctly the lack of it) is becoming more recognized as a legitimate factor in birth control.

The problem is that many young people while still in high schools and seminaries are still being indoctrinated to have large families. It will take some time I suppose for those Mechanchim to catch up with the realities that some Poskim currently see. But it’s a start.