Must we have children?

Queer Jewish scholar LAYNIE SOLOMAN and feminist writer SOPHIE LEWIS examine a traditional text about childlessness with contemporary eyes.

Solomon: The famous phrase be fruitful and multiply” first appears in the book of Genesis as a blessing given by God to the first humans but was later interpreted by rabbinic commentators as a commandment.

Today, this commandment is typically invoked as the slogan of a conservative theology that understands biological procreation as the most essential form of creation and holds up the nuclear family as the paradigm for human kinship structures.

A very different vision of kinship comes through in Lewis’s 2022 book, Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation. For Lewis, family is “the name we use for the fact that care is privatised in our society,” an institution that, as radical thinkers have argued for centuries, extracts unpaid work, enforces violent intimacies, and suppresses alternative possibilities. Lewis imagines, by contrast, a world of comradely collective mothering “in which all people are cared for by many.”

In our chevruta, Lewis and I explore a Talmudic text from tractate Yevamot that confronts a rabbinic figure who has declined to procreate. Through his example, the rabbis of the Talmud normalise a discomfort with this seemingly essential practice of biological procreation and offer us a way to complicate — and potentially subvert — the status of procreation in the rabbinic mind and in our world.

Lewis: The question I was interested in posing to you is essentially, “Why should we make new human life?” I know the biblical injunction is to “be fruitful and multiply.” Is there a way to do this without necessarily procreating? I’m quite attached to the political and ethical importance of celebrating so-called childless or child-free lives. And there’s stigma and a sense of failure that is unjustly put on people who, for whatever reason, don’t or can’t procreate. I’m curious what the Torah has to say about this.

Must we have children? (Jewish Currents)

Photo: A pregnant woman prays at the Western Wall (Deborah Stone)