The Tough Relationship Between Judaism and Infertility
by Rabbi Carrie Vogel
Rabbi Carrie Vogel is the Assistant Director of Youth and Family Education at Kehillat Israel, in Los Angeles, California. Rabbi Vogel was ordained from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and she also received a Masters in Jewish Education during her time there. She and her husband, Brian, are working with the Independent Adoption Center to grow their family through open adoption. For more information, check out their IHeartAdoption and Facebook page.
Dear Well Meaning Members of the Jewish Community,
Please stop asking me when I am going to have a baby. (Or assuming I don’t want to have a baby. Or, for that matter, assuming that I do want to have a baby.)
Our tradition loves few things more than an adorable, Jewish baby. I too loved reading All-Of-A-Kind Family as a child, imagining what life would be like with all of those siblings. I too revel in the joy of holding a week-old baby while I announce their Hebrew name and welcome them to the Jewish community. And I too find it adorable when our preschool director sends onesies with our school’s logo to all new babies born in our congregation.
Fertility is a common theme in our biblical narrative. Columns of parchment are filled with genealogy listing who begot whom, and most families described have more than two children. In building a Jewish people, we needed a lot of, well, people. But growing a tribe was not so easy for all of our biblical ancestors. Abraham and Sarah scoffed when it was predicted they would have children late in life, Rachel, despite being Jacob’s favorite wife, had difficulty becoming pregnant and Hannah prayed so fervently for a baby that those watching thought she was intoxicated. In the end though, Sarah, Rachel and Hannah all gave birth to healthy baby boys – Isaac, Joseph and Samuel, respectively.
The message is that if you pray hard enough, if you want it badly enough, if you are the most dedicated Jew that you can be, then you will be rewarded. This theology presents a special kind of challenge for those unable to conceive, no matter how much prayer and science we combine. Despite being a progressive Jew and despite coming to our decision to adopt in a thoughtful and reflective way, I am not afraid to admit that these texts are still difficult for me.
When I teach Torah to the students in our congregation, I remind them how our biblical ancestors also make mistakes and have faults. It is for this reason that we continue to identify with them because their characteristics are our characteristics. And yet not all of our experiences are represented in the vast canon of our tradition. Things that we might assume would historically happen with relative frequency (for example, actual infertility or infant mortality) are generally absent from our texts. So while we may be able to come to terms with theologically challenging stories, I still struggle to find stories of this genre that I can connect with.
Additionally, for a people who places so much emphasis on community, one of the more challenging aspects of infertility is the feeling of isolation that most people experience. It is an emotionally complicated, physically draining experience and for most, the feeling of failure is very powerful. My point is, it is not the kind of thing I would bring up in the carpool line when a parent asks, “How are you doing?” And even if I were comfortable sharing, we are a people who love to give advice and with all due respect, this is not really an area where I want to be getting personal recommendations from my congregants!
This topic is personal for me but it is also personal for many, many others in the Jewish community who remain silent. To be the inclusive Jews that many of us feel we are, we must think broadly about what that means and address our assumptions. While it can be a simple curiosity to ask if a woman is or wants to be pregnant, it can also be especially hurtful in communities of all faiths which place such a priority on “the next generation.”
Alternately, the adoption community has been like a wetsuit – something which has provided buoyancy and protection as we float down this uncharted river (uncharted for us). The support group which our amazing agency runs, subscribing to brilliant and honest blogs likes Kristen Howerton’s “Rage Against the Minivan” and Carrie Goldman’s “Portrait of an Adoption,” and reading Nia Vardalos’ Instant Mom have filled much of the void I felt I was enduring on my own. These outlets have given me a rich perspective and the motivation to illuminate the world of adoption for my own community of family, friends and congregants.
It is because I have sat and listened to others’ stories and nodded my head silently in agreement. It is because when I finished reading Instant Mom I immediately went back to the beginning and started reading it again. It is because we need to open the arms and minds of the Jewish community even wider. It is for all of these reasons that I feel compelled to share our story, in the hopes that we can provide buoyancy for others.