The Talmud relates the unusual tale of a rabbi whose sex life becomes a little more public than he would have liked. In it, a student named Rav Kahana tries to prove the point that there is Torah in every area of life. He concludes that there is even Torah in the bedroom – and decides to learn how his rabbi has sex. Rav Kahana hides under the rabbi’s bed and waits. He is stunned when his rabbi comes in and begins chatting and laughing with his wife – and that they rather enthusiastically proceed to intercourse.
After the rabbi and his wife are done having sex, Rav Kahana comes out from under the bed. The rabbi is outraged and tells Rav Kahana to get out. Rav Kahana responds: “This too is Torah, and I must learn it.”[i]
Rav Kahana isn’t wrong. There is Torah and holiness in sex and procreation, and they are worthy subjects of Jewish education.
But friends, please don’t get any ideas. Adult Education is at East End Temple on Thursday evenings from 6:30 – 7:30, and our Business Ethics Lunch & Learns are held monthly in Midtown. Both opportunities are to be enjoyed fully clothed.
When the Talmud was compiled fifteen hundred years ago, sex was understood to be simple. In fact, its descriptions are an oversimplification. People got married young, with tremendous social pressure to procreate and remain in heterosexual relationships. LGBTQ people were pushed into loveless marriages and not yet recognized as sacred people made in God’s image. Women did not have roles that extended far beyond the bearing and caring for children or the household in which they resided. Fathers were not believed to be co-parents. People were seen in gender binaries. Nobody had heard of the idea that a person could be asexual in orientation.
Yet even with its pre-modern simplicity, the Talmud treats sex and reproduction as an open conversation. It is one with which we should reengage.
As most of you know by now, God willing, we are expecting a new addition to the East End Temple Family at the end of December. Mirah and I are very excited, and we are grateful for the outpouring of love that we have received.
Yet, if we are to delve deeply into the Torah of our intimate lives, it was not so easy for us to reach this stage. Both Mirah and I were Student Health Educators in college – paid to teach Sex Ed to our fellow students. We knew everything there was to know about how to avoid unwanted pregnancy. But when it came to getting pregnant on purpose, we found it to be harder than expected.
More than some who are here but far less than others, we waited month after month to get pregnant. We read books, tracked temperatures, and drank pomegranate juice. We probably had a chemical pregnancy along the way that lasted just long enough to get our hopes up. We consulted fertility specialists and underwent testing. Mercifully, our doctors told us that there was nothing wrong, but that sometimes it just takes a long time.
Getting pregnant was not so easy for us, even as people who are privileged in so many ways. We are married, we are healthy, and we are straight – giving us the unearned physical potential to conceive together as a couple. We have great health insurance that covered nearly all of our medical costs, and the financial means to make up the difference. We are connected – and probably jumped the line to meet with one of the country’s top fertility doctors. We have a strong relationship that could endure however long we needed to try.
So many others have suffered far more than we did, often in silence. The social stigma associated with reproductive challenges can silence us when we most need support from friends and family. Even when we do speak up, it is difficult to find words to describe the pain of miscarriage, fertility treatments, pregnancy complications, or the process of surrogacy or adoption. In addition to the inherent feelings each of these experiences conjures, we face isolation.
Jewish tradition speaks in multiple voices about what a couple should do if they cannot conceive at all. We hear them each year in the story of Hannah on Rosh Hashanah and Sarah in the early chapters of Genesis. Hannah is overwhelmed in silent grief, while Sarah laughs aloud as a means of coping with her pain. Their disparate responses mirror the ways in which we cope with hurt that resides in our intimate lives.
The related pages of Talmud also drip with pain and grief; dreams unrealized and norms that would be difficult to implement. Before the time of hormone shots and in vitro fertilization, gestational surrogacy, sperm donors, marriage equality, and new pathways to adoption, several texts from the Babylonian Talmud suggest that after ten years of trying, a couple should separate in order to try to have children with new partners.[ii] It is a tragic suggestion – and one that probably caused real relational tragedies in the past. It prioritizes having children over having love and suggests that at their core, relationships are only an instrumental good.
This fixation on physical reproduction stems from the first commandment of the Torah, that people should “be fruitful and multiply.” Yes, it does come first chronologically. But it is only one out of 613 commandments, and there is a growing case for its reinterpretation.
A Midrashic tale from Psichta de Rav Kahanah does not cast aside the first mitzvah, but shows why relationships are about far more than procreation.[iii] It recounts the story of a man in Sidon who was married for ten years without having any children. He and his wife came to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai to divorce, as was customary in the case of infertility. The man said to his wife: “Take any precious object that I have in my house – and take it back with you to your father’s house.”
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai then advised the couple to separate only after enjoying a festive meal together, mirroring the one that they shared on their wedding day.
The wife prepared a feast and gave her husband a great deal to drink. Before he knew it, he fell into a drunken slumber. Once he was asleep, she beckoned for her servants to take him to her father’s house.
In the middle of the night, the husband awoke and asked where he was. His wife replied, “I took what is most precious with me back to my father’s house. There is nothing more precious to me than you.”
The story then provides a Deus ex Machina resolution. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai prays for the couple to conceive – and they magically do.
A deeper reading of the text puts aside this simple conclusion and focuses on the relationship between spouses. The wife took a brave stand against a tradition that reduced marriage to the act of procreation. Her husband responded. Their story is one of virtue, whether or not it actually resulted in children. In fact, it illustrates with piercing clarity the barbarity of separating loving partners simply because they cannot or do not have children.
In our contemporary society, the new ways in which we can have children are a source of relief and joy to many individuals and couples. But we often forget that not everyone wants to be a parent. Those without children often face stigma and discrimination.
There is reason to believe that our ancient sages fixated on procreation because of the era in which they lived. Their time was filled with disease, infant mortality, strife, and famine. They so feared that human beings would cease to exist that they focused on creation of one sort to the exclusion of all others. Today it is overpopulation that strikes fear in our hearts. The reality of our existence has entirely changed, and our interpretations of the first commandment should, too.
Genesis Chapter 1, Verse 28 reads:
וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָם֮ אֱלֹהִים֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לָהֶ֜ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃
God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.[iv]
We should begin by reading this verse within the context of the chapter of Torah in which it is found. Genesis Chapter 1, which we recall on Rosh Hashanah, is not just about reproduction, but about the creation of the world in all of its varieties. Yes, God does create human beings and exhorts us to procreate. But God does not spend all seven days creating human beings. Just a fraction of one of them.
The message in this framing of Genesis 1 is clear: we as humans are made in God’s image and imbued with the power to create. But we are imbued with the power to create in more than one way – not just biologically.
We have the power to create relationships. We have the power to create art. We have the power to create new technology. We have the power to create new uses for existing technology. We have the power to save lives. We have the power to transform the natural world. We have the power to create social movements. We have the power to create through introspection and the paths we take towards spiritual fulfillment. We even create ourselves anew through the act of resting and remembering Shabbat.
The moment we ignore one form of creation for the sake of another, we erase six days of creation for the sake of a single one. In doing so, we limit the scope of our lives and very understanding of the world around us.
פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ (P’ru u’r’vu) should no longer be translated as a command to “be fruitful and multiply.” It should be understood as a command to “Be fruitful in a multiplicity of ways.”
Rosh Hashanah is the day that commemorates not merely God’s ability to create, but also our own. Today is the day when we ask: What will I create this year? What will I build, what will I support, what will I establish that will endure and have meaning? What are the ways I can achieve this act of creation, and how can I help others achieve their respective acts of creation? What can we create together? Will my creation itself grow and multiply? Will it live on after I die?
Harah means pregnancy, conception or gestation….Olam really means eternity…. [Therefore] Harat Olam means very literally, “pregnant with eternity….
Or rather, an eternity filled with infinite possibility. Rosh Hashanah is a day “pregnant with possibility.”
Our tradition wisely dedicates a day each year for reflection on all of the ways in which we are filled with hope and expectations. We enter it together. May our introspection this Rosh Hashanah help us engage in new acts of creation, whether or not they produce children.
May we live into a year that is pregnant with so many different kinds of possibility.
[i] This entire story comes from Talmud, Tractate Berachot 62A. The translation is adapted from Sefaria.org.
[iii]My translation adapted with modest changes from Dr. Judith Baskin’s: https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/infertile-wife-in-rabbinic-judaism
[iv] Sefaria translation: https://www.sefaria.org/Genesis.1.28?lang=bi&with=Tur%20HaAroch&lang2=en.
[v] Rabbi Rachel Barenblat: http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2008/09/the-birthday-of-the-world-pregnant-with-possibility.html
[vi] Rabbi Rachel Barenblat: http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2008/09/the-birthday-of-the-world-pregnant-with-possibility.html