I am a rabbi of a traditionalist bent. I am also an infertile man, and the adoptive father of two children. These various aspects of my identity have colored how I view marriage, masculinity, fatherhood, and God.
When my wife and I were married, we agreed that we wanted a large family. We spoke about four children. Our only disagreement was over how soon to begin. I was ready to try to conceive a child immediately; my wife believed that a couple needs at least a year to work on their marriage before considering pregnancy. I realize now that she was right, yet little did I know that all those birth control pills would be wasted.
Still, that first year was important. Jewish tradition sees two major purposes of marriage. The primary one is companionship and the secondary one is procreation. No couple should ever pursue the procreation part of their marriage until they have put time into the companionship part. Thank God my wife and I did that.
After one year, we threw the birth control pills away and began our quest to have a family. We assumed that it was automatic, the next step in a smooth continuum of school, courtship, career, marriage, and children. Several months went by and nothing happened.
Finally, with the strong suspicion that something was wrong, we set up an appointment at a major infertility clinic. Like most men, I assumed that they would find some medical problem with my wife. After all, wasn’t infertility a woman’s problem? Reflecting this bias, traditional Jewish law (halacha) frowns on sperm tests for men, and permits them only as a last resort. The doctor recommended a sperm test for me, which I reluctantly agreed to. She then came back with the news; my sperm count was so low and my sperm quality was so poor that there was no chance my wife could get pregnant.
There seemed to be little in traditional Judaism to comfort us. We read the Biblical stories of God punishing a woman by closing her womb. We read the Talmudic law requiring a man still childless after 10 years to seek another wife with whom to fulfill the mitzvah of “be fruitful and multiply.” We read modern responses calling artificial insemination by donor an abomination and in vitro fertilization immoral. We felt betrayed both by God and the long rabbinic tradition which claims to speak in His name.
Unfortunately, I was viewing Judaism very superficially. Since then, I have explored those sources in the Jewish religion that can comfort and support an infertile couple. For example, infertility in the Bible is usually not a punishment but, on the contrary , an affliction of the most pious people. None of them passively accepts their infertility. They pray, they seek intervention of holy men, they try a surrogate mother arrangement, they adopt. The lesson of Judaism seems to be that passivity is not a virtue: I do not need to accept my infertility as God’s will and therefore do nothing.
As for the 10-year limit on a childless marriage, I noticed that historically it fell out of practice. Jewish tradition seems to place greater importance on the love, companionship and permanence of marriage, even if that marriage produces no children.
I found little to support the rabbinic rulings on the forbidden nature of unconventional medical techniques in Talmudic literature. For instance, many rabbis (not just Orthodox) had forbidden artificial insemination by donor (AID). Yet, there is a Talmudic precedent for a child conceived in a manner similar to artificial insemination, wherein the child is considered legitimate. The ancient law of Levirate marriage sets a precedent where one man’s seed is used to conceive a child in the name of another man. There seemed to be room for a permissive ruling on AID and other new techniques of conception, particularly where a mitzvah as important as “be fruitful and multiply” was involved. Judaism teaches that if the world is not perfect, our job is to perfect it.
My wife and I were each other’s best friends, and we decided that we would do whatever it took to have the child we wanted. Our goal was a child; we were less concerned with how that child entered our family.
I went through two rather extensive surgeries. They were partially successful, and our hopes were raised again. Yet still my wife did not become pregnant. To our dismay, we discovered that she had hormonal imbalances, and that it was unclear whether she was ovulating. Now it was her turn for drugs, daily thermometer checks, and finally surgery. Still, there was no pregnancy. The medical option did not work for us.
At the height of our medical treatment, we received the most exciting phone call of our lives. A teenager was pregnant in the south, and her attorney was searching for the right adoptive family. Were we interested? An immediate decision was needed. A number of thoughts occurred as we discussed the issue. Could we afford it? Were we giving up on pregnancy? How would we explain it to our parents, who still had no idea about our infertility problems? Yet, we knew these opportunities are rare. We said “yes,” and two months later our son Natan Yosef entered our lives.
As we brought the baby home, we knew that there were issues that must be faced. Most important, the baby’s birthmother was Gentile, requiring a formal conversion. When our son was four months old, we did a symbolic circumcision, immersed him in the mikvah, and gave him a Hebrew name. We then celebrated his arrival with a huge kiddush in my congregation. Three years later, we celebrated again for the arrival of our daughter.
The adoption of our two children was the most wonderful thing that ever happened in our family, not only for my wife and myself but for the four grandparents, the various uncles and other relatives. Yet, once again Jewish tradition had little to say that could guide us.
In exploring Judaism, we discovered that there is great emphasis on bloodlines. Even now, when I chant the grace after meals and come across the part where I bless “myself, my wife and my seed,” I cringe. These are certainly my children, but they are not my seed.
My son, now five, has spoken as young children are wont to do about marrying his sister.I tell him that it is forbidden, although I know that by Jewish law it is permitted. After all, they are not blood relatives. In fact, by Jewish law, even their conversion was conditional upon their accepting Judaism at the age of majority; at 13, my son can protest his infant conversion and retain his Gentile status. I know that if I were a Kohen or Levi, he would still be a Yisrael. I know that traditional Judaism has laws of guardianship but not of adoption. There is not even a word for adoption in classical Hebrew.
I have explored Judaism, searching for strands of the non-biological, such as this beautiful statement of aggada (legend): “The one who raises a child is called the parent, not the one who gives birth.” For me, one of the most meaningful rabbinic teachings says that if one has a choice of rescuing or redeeming a father or teacher, the teacher comes first. “For the father only brings a child into this world, the teacher prepares him for the world to come.”
I have decided that in Judaism, masculinity is ultimately proven not by siring a child but by raising and teaching that child.
As strange as it sounds, there are times I thank God for my infertility. I believe it has made me a better Jew, a better husband, a better father, a better man.
I have become a better Jew in that I have confronted my tradition and found those strands which can give me comfort and strength.
I am a better husband in that I have realized what is most important about my marriage. To quote a term in the marriage blessings, my wife and I have become “reim shuvim,” loving friends.
I have become a better father in that I have realized that the essence of fatherhood is not biological but spiritual.
I have become a better man in realizing that infertility has nothing to do with masculinity. It is unimportant whose seed created these children; what is important is whose love will sustain them.
Rabbi Michael Gold is the rabbi of Beth El Congregation in Pittsburgh, Pa. He is the author of the recently released And Hannah Wept: Infertility Adoption and the Jewish Couple (Philadelphia: Jewish Publications Society, 1988).
by Michael Gold
Baltimore Jewish Family Service, 5750 Park Heights Avenue, Baltimore, MD, 21215. (301) 466-9200. Provides consultation and counseling services to prospective adoptive families.
92nd Street YM-YWHA, 1395 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY, 10128. (212) 427-6000. Offers workshops for couples with infertility problems and those considering adoption.
Stars of David, 24 Lisa Lane, Reading, MA, 01867. A national support network for Jewish adoptive families, with chapters in 21 states.
Mt. Sinai Infertility Information Service, 1 Gustave L. Levy Place, New York, NY, 10029. (212) 650-5994. Provides information on options available to those with infertility problems.
Pregnancy Loss Peer Counseling Project at the Jewish Women’s Resource Center, National Council of Jewish Women, New York Section, 9 E. 69th Street, New York, NY, 10021. (212) 535-5900 ext. 16. Offers telephone counseling and group sessions.
Resolve, Inc., P.O. Box 474, Belmont, MA, 02718. Nationwide referral and information service.