Toldot and Alternative Families

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

Commentary on Parashat Toldot, Genesis 25:19 - 28:9

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
children-regardless of their marital status and sexual orientation–remain outsiders in all but the most avant-garde synagogues and activist Jewish organizations. Childless adults treated as full participants in Jewish life remain the exception, and thus the Jewish community tends to lose these people from the rolls of temple membership.

What of the Jewish championing of classic feminist ideas that a woman is much more than a baby machine; that anatomy is not destiny; that a woman defines herself not primarily through her family but through her deeds and ideas? Even today, motherhood and fatherhood in the Jewish community are both idealized and romanticized. Now as much as ever, family and parenthood are the primary cultural institution where individuals look to find personal fulfillment, happiness, and love. Most contemporary Jews cannot imagine finding such rewards without children; many find it difficult to consider doing so without their own genetic children to realize the wish to pass Judaism, love, and genes mi-dor I’dor (from generation to generation).

Our community has done only an adequate job providing support for the infertile. Chapters on infertility in mainstream Jewish parenting books remain either absent or in the non-normative category even though infertility is rife. Nina Beth Cardin has written Tears of Sorrow, Seeds of Hope (second edition, 2007), a spiritual companion for those grieving infertility, pregnancy loss, or stillbirth. This book belongs in every Jewish library, and in time, its messages will perhaps pervade Jewish culture. Yet even in this book adoption is discussed only as a last and unfavorable alternative. Meanwhile, responsa literature and halachic interpretations have strongly jewish parentingsupported artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization for heterosexual couples facing infertility because of the strong drive for Jewish continuity. Such a notion of Jewish continuity is not only religious, but also biological. There is more support in the Jewish institutional world than in Christian communities for reproductive technologies, apparently because many Jews believe Judaism is inherited as much as taught.

The definition of family in the Jewish world, it seems, clings to a model of parents who have genetic offspring. For example, in a study reported in 1991, researchers who surveyed a sample of male college students found that the Jews considered it more important than did the Christians that children be conceived by themselves and their spouse, rather than adopted.Bonnie Ellen Baron and Lawrence Baron refer to that survey in the ground-breaking book Lifecycles, edited by Rabbi Debra Orenstein (1994). In their article “On Adoption” they explain that while there are some biblical precedents for adoption (Mordecai was the guardian of Esther; Sarah initially seeks to adopt Hagar’s son), Judaism never has strongly encouraged it. They speculate that “Jewish law lacks a formal procedure for adoption because of the primacy it biological kinship in determining a child’s inheritance rights and religious and tribal status” (p. 28). true in spite of the primacy of tikkun olam as an embedded value among Jews.

How can we identify ourselves as a community of tikkun (repair) without commitment to adopt children who languish the world without loving parents?  Adoption support is rarely modeled by leaders. A remarkable exception is Yosef Abromowitz and Rabbi Susan Silverman, a couple who direct Jewish Family and Life! and began a family with biological offspring but also fulfilled a dream to adopt children born in Ethiopia.

“lm ken lamah zeh anochi?” (If this is so, why exist?)” was Rebekah’s question that continues to bedevil Jewish adults who hope to parent but are unable to carry a pregnancy to term. Has feminism not brought us better questions and better answers? Have modern, forward-thinking Jewish communities failed to provide real alternatives to a dilemma of meaninglessness in the absence of genetic heirs?

Toldot poses the question of meaning. If we answer that we exist only to fulfill impulses througn children, we have failed Judaism and feminism. If we answer that we exist for tikkun, to nurture children–biological, adoptive, and those we teach, mentor support–then we will have succeeded far more in realizing the sacred goal of mi-dor l’dor, from generation to generation.

The product of fourteen years of work and the contributions of more than 100 scholars, theologians, poets, and rabbis–all of them women–The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is a landmark achievement in biblical scholarship and an essential resource for the study of the Bible. For more information or to order a copy, visit

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