Imagine if anyone who could achieve 100 on an IQ exam was given a special hat to wear, and you couldn’t top 90.
Imagine if people who possessed at least three friends were admitted to a communal lounge, and you only possessed two friends.
Imagine if everyone could ride the bus regardless of their ability to pay, but those who couldn’t pay were forced to wear a special badge, and you couldn’t pay.
Certainly, it would be cruel to publicly penalize human beings who were disadvantaged in any of the above ways – but we do it, unintentionally, to a specific group in the Jewish community. People who are unable to bear children are often placed on the fringe, made to feel different as well as inferior.
I don’t mean to make childless people sound pathetic, as though they were moping about in a cloud. They are people with lives and families and careers and hobbies. But like everyone dealing with a problem, they still need the community’s awareness and sensitivity.
The communal snub is not intended. No thinking person would ever stigmatize someone for having blocked ducts or a low sperm count, for having been unable to find the right mate until after the biological clock ran out, or for any of the other reasons people are unable to produce children. Nonetheless, I know from personal conversation and observation that the feeling of being on the outside persists and is fed by numerous communal practices, and particularly in the shul environment.
• We loudly admire people’s children, and we highlight their success in our bulletins.
• We talk incessantly about wanting to attract young families, with children, to inject vitality into our shuls.
• We center our communities around schools and youth programs.
• We parade our children around shul, on the bimah, when the Torah is removed and returned, at Adon Olam, and so on.
• We create support systems for singles, for divorcees, for the handicapped and abused and bereaved, but rarely for the childless.
And the unintended offense is in the Torah we teach, as well:
• The rabbi will pontificate on Rosh haShanah about Gd answering Sarah and Chanah and Rachel, and he will praise the prayers of Chanah as though promising that if you, too, would pray as Chanah did, you would be blessed with a child.
• One of our Shabbat songs, צמאה נפשי, includes the exultant line לא כי בנך המת ובני החי, "No; your child is the deceased one, and mine is the live one." In context, of course, the line is not meant to come off this way - but I have been unable to sing that line for a dozen years, since a friend's pregnancy was cut off mid-way.
• We teach classes on raising children, we use child-centered anecdotes and metaphors in our speeches, we deliver derashah after derashah with lessons for educating our youth, repeating incessantly, “our sons and daughters,” “our children,” and so on.
• The rabbi notes that the first mitzvah in the Torah is to procreate, and that one of the six questions we are asked posthumously is, “Did you involve yourself in procreation?”
Each speech and shiur can be a hammer-blow. None of this is ill-intended, and none of it is inherently wrong. We must teach authentic Torah. But we could do better, with sensitivity.
I’m definitely not suggesting that rabbis deliver speeches about childlessness. Every year, when I was in the pulpit, I would think about doing that on Parshat Vayyetze, regarding the rivalry between Rachel and Leah, and every year I scrapped the idea; the topic would be painful and embarrassing for every childless couple in the shul. No, that’s not the right way.
There are right ways, though. I was careful to say “our children, our nieces and nephews, the children of our friends,” when talking about issues relating to kids. I added caveats and disclaimers when discussing the prayers and salvations of Sarah, Chanah and Rachel. I downplayed my kids when talking to people who were not blessed with their own. I reminded myself that had I lived in a less blessed time, I might well have been childless, too, and their pain would have been mine. I encouraged adoption, when I felt it was appropriate. I avoided “Im yirtzeh HaShem by you” as well as kvater opportunities when I thought they would not have been appreciated. And I davened, of course, for those who were trying to have children.
But I know it was not enough; how could it be enough, when people who had done nothing to warrant their childless state came to shul and were inevitably immersed in a child-centered culture?
We need to develop greater sensitivity, and to create institutions that will reflect this; this is why I was glad to receive an email advertising Anna Olswanger's www.yerusha.com, a site advertised as serving “Older Childless Jews” with resources and support. The site’s structure is currently a skeleton, but much more flesh could be added. הגיע זמן, it’s about time.
Of course, www.yerusha.com is a drop in the bucket, and it’s only getting started – but with enough such drops, developed sufficiently, we might yet get somewhere.