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Dr. Ruchama Weiss  

 

The rabbinic domination of the womb

By turning biblical blessing 'be fruitful and multiply' into a commandment exclusively for men, rabbinic sages turned act of giving birth into a battlefield.

Published: 10.20.14, 15:57 / Israel Jewish Scene

'May this renewed year be a good one'

(Adapted from the Rosh Chodesh blessing)

The amazing amount of strength and optimism contained in the thought that life is cyclical makes it possible for us to return every year to the starting point to repair and to hope that this year our actions will justify the divine decision to create us in His image.

 

 

In the "Bereshit" Torah portion, we are joyous for creation and burst forth in a song of praise for the creation of mankind (Genesis 1:27-28):

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"And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them. And God blessed them; and God said unto them: 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps on the earth.'"

 

God will very quickly come to regret this. Already in the next Torah portion, "Noach," we will address human violence and God's deceptive desire. But this past Shabbat is the starting point, "Bereshit," and we are praising the creation of humanity.

 

Is 'be fruitful and multiply' a commandment?

In light of the widespread engagement in the commandment "be fruitful and multiply" in our generation and its positioning as a central and unbound commandment, it is important to note that originally, in the "Bereshit" Torah portion, it is not a commandment but rather a blessing (Genesis 1:28): "And God blessed them; and God said unto them: 'Be fruitful, and multiply.'"

 

Just as God does not command us to conquer the world and rule over creation, instead blessing us with this ability, He also does not command us to reproduce, rather blesses us with this ability. This blessing of fertility was of course equally given to Adam and Eve together.

 

If you aren't convinced, go ask the fish

Only a few verses before Adam and Eve's blessing is the description of the creation of the fish and their blessing (Genesis 1:21-22): "And God created the great sea-monsters, and every living creature that creeps, with which the waters swarmed, after its kind, and every winged fowl after its kind; and God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying: 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.'"

 

When God stated the first time (and the second) "be fruitful and multiply," He intended to bless us not to be alone and, for a change, He did not think then about any commandment.

 

Sages insisted on turning blessing into mitzvah

"A man shall not abstain from the performance of the duty of being fruitful and multiplying, unless he already has children. As to the number of children, the School of Shammai ruled: Two males, and the School of Hillel ruled: A male and a female, for it is stated in Scripture (Genesis 5:2), 'Male and female He created them...'. Men are commanded to fulfill the mitzvah of propagation, but not women. Rabbi Yohanan ben Beroka says both are commanded because regarding both of them He said, 'God blessed THEM and said to THEM 'be fruitful and multiply.'" (Mishnah Yevamot 6:6)

 

Here the rabbinic sages turn a blessing into a commandment and therefore delineate its boundaries - two sons according to the School of Shammai, and a son and a daughter according to the school of Hillel.

 

In the above cited Mishnah, the rabbinic sages then proceed to debate a question that at first glance seems absurd, whether only men, or women as well, are obligated to fulfill the commandment to propagate.

 

The creation of families of 10 and 15 children is the product of three problematic decisions. The first is the rabbinic transformation of fertility from a blessing to a commandment. The second is the choice to override the position held mutually by the Schools of Hillel and Shammai, according to which bringing two children to the world is sufficient (even when one wants to achieve the gender combination requested by the rabbinic sages and a few more than two births are required, there is definitely still no need to have fifteen children).

 

The third problematic decision is the choice of doctors and legislators who collaborate with this fertility race, and frequently in conflict with their professional obligations, even in conflict with the demands of halachic adjudicators, not to hold the health of the woman and the family as their chief concern.

 

How to be 'fruitful and multiple' without a woman?

It is incredible to think that the act identifiable more than any other with womanhood, giving birth, is transformed into an exclusively male commandment. What were the rabbinic sages trying to gain from this inversion? We have before us a story of male domination of the female body. Woman create life inside their bodies, while the men do not.

 

The male ability to reproduce is dependent on the woman's consent to "host" his seed in her body for nine months. The woman's role in bringing life into the world is lengthy, complex, and visible for all to see, while the man's contribution is brief and hidden. This creates an uncertainty in the male who can never know for sure if the woman was faithful to him or not, and if her child is really his child as well.

 

Attributing the commandment to men alone is the rabbinic response to their feeling of dependence on women and is intended to, even in this pathetic fashion, to invert the status of the female creators: We men are responsible for the creation of life, not you women.

 

One man (who requested to remain anonymous) raised the possibility with me that this position creates for men mobility in marriage and limits the possibility of marital mobility for women. This theory is supported by the Mishnah (Yevamot 6:6): "If a man took a wife and lived with her for 10 years and she bore no child, he may not abstain any longer from the duty of propagation, and he must take another wife."

 

If the women were commanded to "be fruitful and multiply," they would also have the privilege of divorcing their husbands after 10 childless years, or even marrying another man in addition to the first infertile husband. Whoever is commanded to "be fruitful and multiply" also benefits from special accompanying marriage and divorce privileges. Perhaps that is the reason the rabbinic sages chose to exempt women from the commandment of their life.

 

The benefits of being exempt

A Talmudic story, surprising as always, describes the difficult and painful marital debate around the suffering of women giving birth and the irony of the exemption from the commandment to "be fruitful and multiply" (Babylonian Talmud 65B):

 

"Yehudit, Rabbi Chiyya's wife, had a painful and difficult delivery. She changed her clothing and came before Rabbi Chiyya in his house of study. She inquired of him, 'Is a woman commanded to be fruitful and multiply?' He answered, 'No.' She went and drank a sterilizing drug. He eventually learned of her actions and said to her, 'I wish you had born me one more pregnancy.'"

 

From the story's Talmudic context we learn that the painful and difficult delivery of Yehudit was connected with twins born with great difficulty. Either way, the Aggadah before us confronts the tension between "difficulty in childbirth" that solely belongs to women and the commandment "be fruitful and multiply" that is attributed by the rabbinic sages as only belonging to men. From her suffering to their appropriation.

 

A woman that changes her clothing (or adorns herself as in the Aggadah of Cheruta) does not fool her husband, as he would recognize her in her new clothing as well. By changing her clothing, just as with the change in location from the home to the house of study, she is telling him that she is coming before him this time as a "different" woman. She does not come to him as his wife, rather as a litigant in his rabbinical court. She understands nature well, culture is what they understand, and she comes to benefit from the gap that the rabbinic sages created between nature and culture.

 

Battle between women and men: Zero-sum game

The painful, insulting meeting between the woman suffering from her deliveries, with men who appropriate for themselves childbirth leads to a simple solution: She is not obligated, she will not deliver. The same mouth that issued the decree distancing her from the mitzvah, permitted her usage of the sterilizing drug. And the sad and abusive man from the story's end, he is the rabbinic sage who understood that his attempt to dominate the female body is what led to the tragedy that befell him.

 

From the moment the sages decided to dissolve the covenant of their common mission, they turned the act of giving birth into a battlefield, into a zero-sum game. When there is no covenant, then there is conflict. Without compassion for the suffering of women, there is no cooperation from them.

Lo and behold, Chiyya does not accuse his wife of committing a transgression. He knows that with his words and his halachot he permitted the sterilizing drug she took. His pain is a personal pain, not halachic anger.

 

Yehudit changed her clothing as a sign of the estrangement created by the rabbinic house of study between husband and wife and between woman and her body. And the moment that her rabbi-husband ruled that the commandment belongs only to him, he isolates her womb from him and leaves behind his wife to fend for herself.

 

Where is Yehudit when you need her?

How did we get to this situation wherein male domination of the female body is overflowing? With the coordinated assistance of the Halacha and medicine, women in our generation are "succeeding" at giving birth to an inconceivable number of children. Fertility treatments are resulting in twins and triplets even to those families with plenty of children.

 

Women's bodies are collapsing from the pain and suffering of the difficult deliveries, and unfortunately the "pro-life," anti-abortion organization Efrat exists with no opposing "Yehudit" organization that would wisely utilize rabbinic legal rulings on the topic of "be fruitful and multiply"; a women's organization that would prioritize putting women's life, women's physical and psychological health, as well as the health of the family above halachic adjudicators and religious politicians unhealthy and obsessive pursuit of fertility and propagation.

 

Translated by Uzi Bar-Pinchas

 

Click here to read this article in Hebrew.

 

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