Monday, June 14, 2010

The Jewish family: cultural context of birth control and divorce

Today I would like to jot down some thoughts on a contemporary phenomenon in the Jewish community, the soaring rates of divorce and artificial birth control, which are wrecking havoc in our homes.

Both divorce and birth control have always been the two "allowed undesirables", tolerated when there was no other choice. Birth control was practiced, generally, to avoid harm to the woman's health, and divorce was resorted to when all attempts to make peace failed. Because there are certain grey areas concerning both divorce and birth control and when those two are allowed, today we see a rising tide of both ruining marriages and preventing conception, even though the religious laws have remained largely unchanged.

For example there are people who say divorce rates are higher in the Jewish community because couples marry young, completely ignoring the fact that when marriage age was traditionally younger, divorce rates were actually much lower. People simply did all in their power to avoid divorce, instead of ruining their families for reasons such as "incompatibility" and "not feeling fulfilled".

Preventing conception, too, was practiced in certain circumstances, but it was never prevalent to deliberately, purposefully and continuously detach the intimate act in marriage from the possibility to create life. Today, most Orthodox rabbis are adamant that the first pregnancy, at least, should not be prevented for any but serious health reasons, yet many young couples clamor they must "get to know each other" and achieve certain financial goals. Marriage is thus turned into an arrangement of personal gratification. The knowledge that if you get married you must be ready to raise a family is in the process of being lost.

There's also a rising tide of people who no longer bother to find out where they stand according to halacha (Jewish Law), and no longer seek rabbinical advice, which might easily lead to practices that are strictly forbidden.

It also leads to situations when, if there's a young couple married for some time with no children, people gossip about them surely not wanting to have a baby instead of thinking that perhaps there might be a problem (after all, fertility is not to be taken for granted, even for young people), and praying for them to be blessed with children.

There's the letter of the law, which may say something is not strictly forbidden, and there's the Jewish spirit that has always seen family as one of the highest values and children as a blessing. In the past, no one was much interested in the letter of the law and in how far they can push it, but today, it seems people are very eager to do just that: to see how close they can come to being Westernized and secularized in their values, while still being considered Orthodox by the letter of the law.

It doesn't help that many modern Orthodox Jews go to secular universities where they are brainwashed that large families are bad for the economy, especially if the mother stays home and doesn't "contribute" by having a job. By all manners of twisted reasoning, they make us forget that we need more Jews, not less.

It always seemed so reckless to me when people talk about how many children they want, compared to how many rooms they have in the house and depending on when they want to complete their PhD. To me, it always seemed like tempting God's wrath. Don't get me wrong, I realize that the perspective of having a baby can be daunting, especially if you've just been introduced to the joys and burdens of motherhood in the first place and now have to think of letting another little one in your life. However the thought of rejecting a blessing should be daunting, too. We can't think we will be able to have another baby "later" whenever we want.

I've read a story about the rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu zts"l, one of the greatest rabbis of Israel who sadly passed away recently. It said that one day, two couples came to see him for counseling on the matter of birth control. One was a woman who already had fourteen children and wanted more, but her husband felt it was too much. The other was a woman who had two children and had burst out crying, saying she can't possibly handle more. Before talking to the second woman, the rabbi in his wisdom let her meet the first one.  I can imagine they had quite a conversation. That surely gives a matter of perspective, doesn't it?   


Angela said...


This is also an issue in the church. Some families embrace as many children as G-d will bless them with but more often you see families using birth control after they have had the children they are willing to have.

What breaks my heart is to hear mothers say (often in front of their children) things like "I should have stopped after the 1st one". How horrible to tell your children that you wish they had not been born. They are trying to be funny but I do not find it humorous at all.

And as for divorce, the church looks no different than the rest of the world. What it comes down to is that people don't want to let G-d be in control of their lives. Giving up that control means that someone knows better than they do. If we could all just submit to His will and follow His commands, He would bless us greatly.

Mim said...

Hi Anna,
Thanks once again for a thought provoking post.
I have a beautiful 3yr old boy and my husband and I have been trying for another baby every since but unfortunately it seems it is not to be just yet. I have encountered so many comments like "oh you are being so wise to wait" or "good on you for saving up before you have a 2nd".

I always set them straight that we would love another baby regardless of being tired/financial/etc

It is really hard knowing not only that we are unable to conceive again (yet!) for some reason but that most peole seem to assume it is by choice.

Blessings to you and your family, and praying that your new baby is growing healthy and strong in your womb.


Serenity Now said...

Hmm, I know this post is about the Jewish religion, but I still feel the need to chime in. My husband and I lived 4 hours from each other until we got married. Because of that, we decided to wait on starting a family. The reason being that we wanted to make sure we were connected and settled and had a good stable marriage. That first year or two can be tough on most people, and having a baby can make things even tougher. I think the year we had a baby was a HUGE challenge for us, and I'm SO thankful that we had so much time together first to help establish effective communication skills and patience. We actually ended up waiting 4 1/2 years and then it took a year to get pregnant - so we had six years together before our amazing son was born. I don't consider being on birth control for those 4+ years to be "rejecting a blessing" but rather giving us the time we wanted and needed together to give our son a good foundation. The best gift we can give him in life are two parents who love and respect each other, and who are married! I can think of alot of big issues that would we would have struggled with if we'd gotten pregnant right out of the starting gate. I like having a peacefull, calm and happy household and I'm not so sure it would have been that way in the beginning when we were still trying to figure each other out.
Just wanted to chime in from a different perspective. Some people have babies right away and do great - but for us, we definately feel it was the right thing to wait. Not for career or money or housing purposes, but for our own relationship.

Tia said...

I must be reading this wrong. There must be an intent and message that I am not getting.

Are you really saying that birth control causes divorce? That not having children leads to divorce? Or, is even a contributing factor?

That is...grasping at some giant invisible straws.

If I am wrong, I apologize. But, if I'm interpreting it makes no sense whatsoever. It is trying to make circles out of squares.

Lena said...

We turned into a selfish nation of people. Instead of wanting more children, we want more clothes, more cars, or more vacations... every couple now days decides for themselves how many children they should have, and sadly even the churches dont teach young couples in how to see children as blessings instead of as burdens.

Lena said...

An interesting view on how people view children... :)

Analytical Adam said...

I also wanted to say in the shul I grew up the Rabbi was against this idea of have 2 kids and a dog or 3 kids and a dog.

However, on the issue of divorce he has been very liberal.

Furthermore, while he has a very large family he has done little to help those who are less connected and are not from well know Rabbinic families get married or help bring healthy trust between men and women.

Furthermore, his wife was in Mathematics before she get married and she is the daughter of a famous Rabbi's who likely was somewhat of a feminist as many men in position of authority are sad to say as feminism was started my men who wanted to rule over other men and have women only listen to them and not have other male influences.

Mrs. Anna T said...


I'm not saying birth control causes divorce, though I do believe birth control and divorce are two sides of the same coin - people becoming more self-centered. However my main point was that both birth control and divorce were allowed, strictly speaking, by the Jewish Law, yet in the past people avoided them as much as possible and now people seem to want as much authorization to use birth control, and are divorcing left right and center.

Gothelittle Rose said...

Don't think I'm Pro-Birth Control or pro-family-limitations, because I haven't finished forming my opinion on the matter... I'm just curious here on what people would think of my mother's choice.

My mother and father used birth control (NOT The Pill, but a barrier method) when they were not trying to conceive. Whenever they felt like having another baby, they stopped using it. She almost immediately got pregnant. My mother and father are an extremely fertile pair.

She had five children. After the fifth, she felt 'done', satisfied deep inside. Until that point, she'd always known she wanted another.

My mother had some problems with her final two pregnancies, and the last one especially was very hard on her. I'm secretly glad that she didn't have as many kids as she was physically capable of having.

What about breastfeeding for contraception? She breastfeed over a year for all of us, but her cycles always returned at around six months even if she was feeding us at night (coslept with all of us, I think, some of us at least).

We were each spaced about 3-5 years apart.

As I said, I haven't fully formed my opinion. Right now, though, I'm following my mother's lead, which is to use non-hormonal contraception between children to space them sufficiently to give my body a break while always being open to 'accidents' and always obeying the natural urge and/or God-leading to have another.

Anonymous said...

natural family planning is an acceptable way to space children without artificial contraceptives or barrier methods. it improves the marriage greatly, because of the regular periods of abstinence and the trust which must be fostered between the partners.

you know the old saying "absence makes the heart grow fonder," well, abstinence makes the heart grow fonder too! haha.

anyway, the jewish law of family purity is beautiful and does wonders for spousal respect and honor.

those who are not familiar with it should really look into it.

have a great day!

Mrs. Anna T said...


I agree about the abstinence period; it indeed does something very special for the marriage.

Anyway, if you are familiar both with the concept of Jewish family purity, and with NFP, you probably realize those two aren't exactly compatible for a woman with normal average cycles. While NFP calls for abstinence during the fertile period, Jewish family purity calls for abstinence during the *in*fertile period (menstruation and seven days after it), thus greatly contributing to women's health but making it so that the peak of married love is precisely at the moment when conception is most likely to happen.

Theoretically it's possible for a Jewish couple to practice NFP, but that leaves only a very short window of time to be together each month, which isn't healthy for a marriage.

Gothelittle Rose said...

Speaking up again!

I find that Jewish sexual restriction interesting. In Leviticus, it seems that the woman is unclean for seven days during her period and for any time beyond that when she has a discharge. How did it happen that this was extended to seven days beyond the end of the period, instead of just the seven days after its start?

Mrs. Anna T said...

Gothelittle Rose,

Just reading the text of the Torah provides an incomplete picture. There are many commentaries which were passed on orally at Mt. Sinai, and later recorded by our sages in the Talmud when they were in danger of being forgotten (around the time when the second Temple was destroyed). This is one of them.

Analytical Adam said...

I don't see when the PILL should ever be ok. This was why the pill was created according to this site.
sad #3 invention. Isn't that terrible. From the site.
"Enovid, a drug the FDA approves for menstrual disorders, comes with a warning: The mixture of synthetic progesterone and estrogen also prevents ovulation. Two years later, more than half a million American women are taking Enovid. In 1960 the FDA approves Enovid for use as the first oral contraceptive."

The pill is a synthetic drug.

And further the torah is very much against intimacy JUST for pleasure and I see no reason if the male or the female uses contraception.

Intimacy without consequences is bad for male-female relations and bad for both genders as they view the other gender as nothing but a sex object.

Further, let us say you have 5 kids and you really can't afford more kids. Should you just a drug then to have pleasure. I don't think so. If you are struggling maybe other people have it worse and just focusing your own pleasure is bad. One of the biggest drags on the economy is low birth rates as a small younger population is bad for an economy so if you really can't afford to have children maybe you're inability to have this pleasure would help you focus ON OTHERS who may be doing worse then you or may have no children or be unmarried which many unmarried people and certainly divorced people is bad for an economy. If things are tough you SHOULD NOT be so focused on your own pleasure. I think is bad and doesn't just hurts a relationship between a husband and wife but turns them into people that are in their own world and don't see their own struggles within a bigger picture and leads them to be uncaring towards others which I see a lot of with people who think they are religious.

So really I see NO REASON EVER TO take the pill unless it was for a medical condition but not to stop ovulation.

The fact that most Rabbi's feel there are times the pill is OK after you had a boy and a girl which amazingly isn't being fruitful and multiplying just having 2 children but anyway this shows a lack of understanding of why created sexuality and viewing a woman using contraception as "Passive" which is classic feminism that women are always victims but they aren't. They are chosing to block sexuality to be used for it's higher purpose or doing it at the request of their husband which isn't right either. How is this different then wasting a seed which isn't ok after you had 2 children.

I really would like to know Mrs. Anna when it would be OK to take the pill for the purpose of blocking the chance of being pregnant. A lot of times I don't read responses and maybe that is rude but in this case I would like to know when it would be OK because I don't see it. You can tell your husband I don't understand how ANY RABBI could ever make it ok.

A lot of times I don't check responses to what I write but in this case really Mrs. Anna I don't see any case where it should be OK to take the pill for the purpose of preventing a woman from ovulating. That is no different then a man wasting his seed. Allowing this shows how feminist thought has crept into Judaism which to be fair has existed throughout the exile.

Analytical Adam said...

ON the issue of divorce it WAS ALLOWED but the man had to compensate the women for violating this contract as the torah does believe in contract law (in fact contract law comes from the bible) and you signed a contract for life unless she did something really bad like adultry and this was proven which is a legit reason for divorce (for women as well since that may be a case doesn't deserve compensation) and I understand why the torah viewed adultry as a capital crime although since so many people do it we don't do this today.

But regarding the pill there is nothing in the torah that would allow this other then feminist ideology (or for a medical condition but not for the purpose of preventing yourself from ovulating) that feminism believes women are passive and victims and somehow preventing themselves from ovulating through synthetic drugs is ok even though a man wasting his seed is NOT OK AND IS NEVER OK although their purpose is the same.

Gothelittle Rose said...

"I really would like to know Mrs. Anna when it would be OK to take the pill for the purpose of blocking the chance of being pregnant. A lot of times I don't read responses and maybe that is rude but in this case I would like to know when it would be OK because I don't see it."

I can answer this one for you. :)

I was put on the pill when I was younger for a dual purpose: To treat my endometriosis, which caused near-daily severe pain, and to prevent pregnancy meanwhile, which could have been deadly. Since then I have had two beautiful, healthy children, and have done so without endangering my own life or health. (For those of you who look up info on the disease... the pill was only part of my treatment.)

I would not abort a baby for my own health, and I would not take that pill for nothing but blocking pregnancy because the hormones mess with you in other ways. But I really don't see the evil in blocking pregnancy for serious medical purposes. And if the hormones that block the pregnancy also treat the medical condition...

Mrs. Anna T said...

Adam, I wish I had time to respond more in length, but since I can't, I'll just say this: I won't deny the rabbinical attitude towards the Pill is very problematic. Halachically, the Pill is the most easily allowed contraception method because it constitutes no barrier and its use can usually be reversed easily enough. I'm afraid that because the Pill is so convenient, the rabbinical community does not wish to learn about adverse effects it may have on women's health.

Upper West Side Mom said...

As a member of the university educated, Modern Orthodox crowd in the US the majority of the working mom's I know are working because they have bills to pay. The vast majority of the Modern Orthodox community is self sustaining. They don't take hand out such as section 8 housing, food stamps and other welfare benefits.

The Modern Orthodox community also pays their school tuition and make sure that their Rabbi's and teachers get paid a decent wage. This is not the case in many of the more right wing communities here is the US.

I belive that living well above the poverty line is the responsible way to raise a family and birth control is part of that equation. Having 14 children and one chicken to feed them with just does not seem like good parenting to me.