Genesis and Infertility

Noah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Nov 1, 2003 / 5764 | Torah Commentary

My aunt and uncle never had children. In a very real sense, my sister and I were their surrogate family. We visited them often, stayed with them in the summers and loved them dearly. In Germany, my uncle had been a textile salesman. When they came to America in 1937, he decided to work with dogs, his lifelong passion, rather than fabrics. Eventually, they acquired a kennel for dogs out in Yaphank, Long Island, and quickly endowed it with renown by dint of hard work. They boarded, bred and even showed dogs. My aunt raised many a litter of puppies on the bottle. The key to their remarkable success was their love for the animals, which they parented like children. Their small home always had room for a dachshund, poodle or German shepherd. In our apartment, not far from a secretary built in 1883 in Germany which stood in their home, we have a black and white photograph of my aunt and uncle seated in there yard surrounded by two of their beloved shepherds. I cherish their memory for many reasons, not the least being the creative way in which they overcame the void at the center of their lives.

Infertility is a major motif of biblical literature. The list of woman who endure hardship conceiving is long and distinguished – Sarah, Rebecca, the nameless mother of Samson and Hannah, the mother of Samuel, the prophet. The Bible is full of pathos. Reality seems to mock the ideal. The very first commandment of Scripture to Adam and Eve and repeated to No·ah after the flood in almost identical language, is to fill the earth with progeny (1:28; 9:1). Adam names his spouse havvah, “the mother of all the living” (3:20), despite the ordeal that awaits them outside of Eden. And yet, in the narratives that follow there is a pervasive angst about barrenness. Not infant mortality, surely more common and acute, but the inability to bear children is the focal point, time and again.

In the overture to the story of Abraham at the end of this week’s parashah, the theme is introduced glancingly: “Now Sarai was barren, she had no child” (11:30). The setting is Ur of the Chaldeans in southern Iraq near the Persian Gulf. The brief narrative, however, implies that Sarai’s childlessness runs in the family. Terah, the father of her husband Abram, begets his three sons (Abram, Nahor and Haran) only after age seventy, that is at twice the age of his ancestors. Of the three sons, Abram is childless, and Nahor marries the daughter of another man named Haran, but there is as yet no report of any children. Terah’s youngest Haran, bears but one son, Lot, and then dies suddenly. Hence, at the time Terah enjoyed but a single grandchild.

In his expansive biblical commentary, Don Isaac Abravanel suggests that it is this paucity of progeny that prompted Terah to leave his birthplace and head for the land of Canaan. The Torah relates the departure minus the reason: “Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot, the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there ” (11:31). Distraught by the misfortunes that had befallen his family, according to Abravanel, Terah sought to change his luck by relocating. The fate of the extended family was encapsulated in Sarai’s condition.

But of course, once in Canaan, the future of Sarah and Abraham continued to hang by a thread. Prosperity and power did not bring with them fertility. The divine promise of offspring on the scale of the stars or the sand by the sea only exacerbated the painful reality (15:5; 22:17). Even, if, momentarily, in Egypt and later, under David and Solomon, ancient Israel did reach a level of numerical preponderance, it was not to last; by the time of the restoration under the Persians in the final decades of the sixth century B.C.E., the miniscule number of returning exiles barely filled Jerusalem. The soaring language of Second Isaiah, the haftarah for this Shabbat, foretold of a different restoration in which the endemic state of national barrenness would be terminated forever:

Shout, O barren one,
You who bore no child!
Shout aloud for joy, 
You who did not travail!
For the children of the wife forlorn 
Shall out number those of the espoused 
           said the Lord (54:1)

In truth, except for rare instances, small numbers have always plagued the Jewish people. The precariousness of minority existence with its attendant attrition exacted a steady toll. While no loss comes close to the staggering number of six million Jews killed by the Nazis and their accomplices, our numerical recovery since 1945 has been grievously slow. Professor Della Pergola of the Hebrew University estimates that the world Jewish population in 2002 approached thirteen million or nearly two million more than the eleven million alive in 1945, yet still four million short of the seventeen million prior to the Holocaust. Impeding that recovery is no longer persecution but the consequences of living securely in an open society.

In the United States, according to the recent National Jewish Population Survey, the total number of Jews has dropped over the last decade of the twentieth century by some 300,000 down to 5,200,000. Most alarming in this regard is the widespread pattern of delay in having children. In each of the cohorts from ages 25-29 and 30-34, more than half of Jewish women are still childless, a rate that far exceeds that of their American counterparts. Though the birth-rate does narrow in the next two cohorts, Jewish women bear on the average only 1.86 children as compared to 1.93 for American women. To be sure, neither rate comes close to the replacement rate of 2.1, but when the Jewish average is coupled with an intermarriage rate of 47 percent, in which only 33 percent of the children of intermarried couples are raised Jewish, the long term stability of American Jewry is in serious jeopardy.

At the end of the Havdalah ceremony, which brings Shabbat to a close, it is customary to sing a medieval poem asking for God’s deliverance. The first stanza sets the tone: “May God who separates the holy from the profane forgive my sins and increase my seed and wealth like sand and stars at night.” The urgent specificity of the plea mirrors the fate of living on the margin of civil society. How sad if some 350 years after coming to America, where Jews have achieved a degree of well-being and prosperity unprecedented in our Diaspora experience, we would spurn the religious obligation to reproduce in numbers large enough to flourish communally!

Shabbat Shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat No·ah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.