Toldot and Alternative Families

Rebecca's question continues to bedevil Jewish adults who hope to parent.

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Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

This Torah portion presents the second of three matriarchs who suffer barrenness. In this episode Rebekah and Isaac are unable to conceive for the first twenty years of their marriage (25:20, 26). The Torah uses barren couples as a literary device to demonstrate the miraculous nature of the conception of the patriarchs and the beneficence of God.

urj women's commentary
Infertility in the twenty-first century tells a different story: overworked and overstressed women, late marriage, and perhaps environmental toxins that inhibit reproduction. The economy and culture of Rebekah’s Canaan and our society are worlds apart, yet the emotional reaction to infertility has remained largely unchanged. While suffering from her difficult pregnancy, Rebekah cries out, “Im ken lamah zeh anochi? (If this is so, why do I exist?)” Rebekah herself utters these words after she becomes pregnant. But many Jews ask such a question earlier, when they face difficulty conceiving and bringing a pregnancy to term. Aspiring parents today often suffer a crisis of meaning. Women and men who face infertility may experience devastating depression, anger, jealousy, and deep existential angst. It might seem that feminism would have liberated women from expectations of motherhood. After all, feminists of our age take pride that we are not limited by the narrow definitions of womanhood that characterized Rebekah’s milieu. Yet even in our liberated modern age, women and men usually see biological parenthood as a necessary rite of passage without which they are not considered full adults. Generating a child is a signifier of “true womanhood” and “real manhood” to many.

Barrenness remains a social stigma–particularly in the Jewish community, which holds that the first mitzvah in the Torah is p’ru u-rvu (be fruitful and multiply). Full integration and acceptance in the Jewish community often revolve around family life. The Jewish community has grown more open to gay and lesbian families in recent years largely because many such couples have been able to become parents–some through adoption or prior heterosexual reproduction, and more recently through artificial insemination. Yet adults in their thirties, forties, and fifties without

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Rabbi Valerie Lieber is the spiritual leader of Temple Israel of Jamaica, a Reform congregation in Jamaica, Queens. She is also a member of the board of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice in Manhattan and is on the executive committee of the New York Association of Reform Rabbis.

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