HMS 5765-19: Judaism and Sex II: Procreation and Birth Control

Lessons in Memory of my brother Dale Alan Konigsburg

February 7, 2005 – Number 5765-19

Judaism and Sex II: Procreation and Birth Control

The first commandment in the Torah is given on the sixth day of creation. Humanity is commanded to “be fruitful and multiply”. In Judaism, it is a positive mitzvah to have children. The Talmud, in typical rabbinic style, asks the question how do we know when we have fulfilled this mitzvah? Their answer is that the mitzvah of P’ru Urvu (procreation) is fulfilled when a family has two children, a boy and a girl. This implies that if both children are the same sex, then the mitzvah is not fulfilled until there is at least one of each sex in the family.
This mitzvah was taken very seriously over the centuries. Any couple who did not have children after ten years had the option of divorce so they could remarry and have children. While this was indeed grounds for divorce, and in some cases, couples did end the marriage in order to have children, still, many couples found other reasons to stay married. Divorce was seen as an option but was not required. There is a famous story of a couple who went to the Rabbi for a divorce because they were childless. The Rabbi insisted that they have a party to end the marriage in the same way they had a party to begin the marriage. The husband, at the party, to show he was not angry at his wife promised her that she could take anything from the home that she desired. When he fell asleep later, she had him moved, bed and all to her father’s house. When he awoke she told him that of all the things in the house, HE was the one thing she wanted to keep the most. The went back to the Rabbi that day and affirmed their marriage.
The interesting twist on the Mitzvah of P’ru Urvu, is that this mitzvah is assigned only to men. Men must have at least two children, one of each sex. A woman is not so obligated. Why were women released from this mitzvah? I think it is a response from the Rabbis that pregnancy and childbirth are inherently dangerous for a woman, in fact, it could be fatal. The Rabbis could not require a woman to so endanger her life. In ancient times a man could have more than one wife, and indeed, the bible records marriages for the sake of having children (look at Jacob’s complicated marital life). By Rabbinic times multiple wives are no longer suggested and by the middle ages, it is expressly forbidden. What makes this twist in the law interesting is the implications regarding birth control.
Judaism has long noted that sexual activity is pleasurable even without the possibility of having children. Women and men were supposed to have happy and joyful sexual lives even if they had reached a time in their lives where sex would no longer lead to pregnancy, or even if medical reasons made fertility impossible. Sharing sexual pleasure with or without the possibility of having children is also a positive commandment. Birth control, therefore, is permitted in Judaism. It should be noted that sexual relations should only be between a husband and a wife. Adultery is a capital crime and pre-marital sex is not considered appropriate behavior.
Jewish Law has long favored barrier methods of birth control (diaphragms, foams etc.) used by women. This is because, as noted above, the man has a commandment to have children, not the wife. Therefore she can block his attempts if she so chooses. In today’s day and age, when there is a possibility of sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS/HIV it is important, if there is any concern for health, that condoms are permitted and may be required. If a disease is know to infect one party or the other, abstinence may even be required to protect the health of one’s partner.
Abortion is never permitted as a form of post-facto birth control. Abortion is permitted only when there are issues regarding the health of the mother. In cases where there is danger, the fetus, as potential life, is terminated to save the mother, who is really alive. Psychological health is also considered when assessing an abortion. Since every situation is different, the Rabbis leave the individual decision to abort or not, to the woman in consultation with her doctor and her Rabbi. Only when they deem it medically necessary, can an abortion be performed.

Next week: Judaism and Sex III: Modern Sexual Issues

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