The Rabbi In My Bedroom

When I got married, there were a million things on my to-do list. There was one thing, one pretty important thing, which fell through the cracks. Or more honestly, I dropped it through the cracks. I was so uncomfortable with this task, that I was too paralyzed to deal with it. Six months after our wedding, my husband turned to me and asked that fateful question: Did we ever get an exemption, a heter, from a rabbi to use birth control? No. We had not.

When my kallah (pre-wedding) teacher told me to ask my local Orthodox rabbi about birth control, I was not thrilled, to say the least. The first commandment that Jews are given is to “be fruitful and multiply,” or in other words, to have children. This teaches us that we should not impede the creation of a baby. So, many Orthodox rabbis highly discourage the use of any contraceptives. If a couple receives permission to delay starting a family by using contraceptives, the rabbis usually allow this for only six months to a year. And to give you some perspective, as I write this article, I still have four years of school ahead of me. While there are certain leaders who have disagreed with rabbinical control of this issue, such as Rabbi Moshe Kahn, this is nowhere near the norm, and definitely not the opinion of my local Orthodox rabbi.

I am a modern Orthodox woman in my 20s. I went to yeshiva day school, studied in seminary for a year, and was very active in my college Hillel. I keep the laws of family purity and am very strict about observing the laws of Kashrut and Shabbat. And someday, God willing, I would love to raise a beautiful and religious family that includes a number of children. But right now, I am extremely busy in graduate school. Right now, we do not have the money to support a family. Right now, neither my husband nor I are psychologically or emotionally ready to have a baby. And honestly, why is anyone allowed to make that call besides us? This is not the same as many of the other halakhot (Jewish laws) that guide our lives. Unwanted pregnancies negatively affect mothers and children, as they are both subsequently at greater risk for illness and death (Felipe Russo, 2002). Unwanted pregnancies are also linked to social problems such as divorce, poverty, child abuse, and juvenile delinquency. Choosing to start a family is not only a religious issue, but a major life choice that could harm both parent and child.

So, after plenty of thought, I apprehensively decided to deal with this dilemma. I did what any normal woman would do: I asked my friends. And I purposefully asked friends of mine who I considered to be more observant than I am. The first married friend I asked told me that she and her husband had not asked for permission from a rabbi either. They thought that since all their married friends were on birth control, then they could be too. The second friend I asked was engaged, and she told me that she was avoiding the exact same task I had. The third friend I asked told me that her husband had asked a rabbi for permission to use birth control, and they were given a six-month exemption. And this friend and her husband returned to their rabbi at the end of the term and told him they needed more time.

When I started on my fact-finding mission, I felt very badly about myself. I felt like a bad Jew because I was not comfortable putting my future in the hands of a man; a man who would never give birth or understand what it meant to be a working mom. I felt like the rabbis did not have my best interests at heart, rather prioritized their own agenda of adding more Jewish babies into this world. Through my investigation, I learned that I am not the only woman who feels this way. If I had the ability to ask hundreds of other independent-thinking and modern women, I would bet that many of them would agree with me. The standard needs to change: religious women, together with their husbands, should be entrusted with the right to make this life-altering decision for themselves. Most religious women want to have children; they just may want to do it when they are ready, not when the rabbi thinks they should be ready.

Do you want to know what my husband and I decided to do? If we took it upon ourselves to ask a rabbi and follow his ruling, or if we took the issue into our own hands? Well, that’s between the two of us. As it should be. Now I charge you to think about this issue critically, to talk to your spouse, and be an educated consumer. And I hope you do not feel as lost and alone as I did for a very long time.  

Interested in discussing this topic? Join us in New York City in March for a conversation about “Jewish Legal Approaches to Birth Control and Abortion.”

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