Who hasn’t found themselves in social settings with people who feel familiar, but who in fact are total strangers? As we find ourselves making small-talk, we often engage in benign questions that range from, “What do you do for a living? Where did you grow up? Do you know so-and-so?” Sometimes, we’ll dig a little deeper and ask about educational backgrounds and camping experiences (inevitably followed up by more “do you know so-and-so” queries). And, if interests are piqued and an opening presents itself, there may be questions posed about a significant other, children and the like.
It’s this last set of questions that has the potential to create awkward and even painful situations. In my experience, it is always best to let the other person share that information unprompted on his or her own, and, if I somehow feel compelled to reciprocate in kind, I will phrase the question as “tell me about your family.” Asking any more feels like prying, and may be an especially sensitive topic for people facing fertility issues of their own.
I guess because I am an Orthodox woman, people think this is an area into which they are allowed to pry.
In many a conversation about raising families, I recount the times I have been asked, often in an accusatory tone, why I have “only” two children. I guess because I am an Orthodox woman, people think this is an area into which they are allowed to pry. It is a question that I find incredibly rude and personal. I’m proud of the family I am helping to raise. And, when people sheepishly say to me they have “only” one, two or three children, my response always includes “don’t say ‘only’ – you have X child/ren!”
I find this line of questioning to be deeply offensive – especially when it is followed with an admonishment that women are falling down on their religious duties by not abiding by the Biblical imperative “to be fruitful and multiply.” Yet one has to look no further than the Four Matriarchs – who no doubt did not have access to any modern birth control techniques – to see that the notion of large families (certainly not from one mother) is not always reflected in our history, even before hormone-based pills, patches or IUDs.
One has to look no further than the Four Matriarchs to see that the notion of large families is not always reflected in our history.
Indeed, our Scripture describes to us that Sarah struggled with infertility until the age of 90, when she birthed Isaac. Rebecca had a pair of twin boys, Esau and Jacob – and then no more. Leah, the most fecund, had Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun and a daughter, Dinah. And finally, Rachel gave birth to Joseph, and then after a number of years, had Benjamin, whose birth caused her death.
Beyond informing us of the number and names of children of various Biblical personalities, the Bible does not go into any detail about other related issues – miscarriage, still birth, babies who died shortly after birth, or even the number of infants and children who died from disease and malnourishment. So why was there a dearth of very large families? Did the matriarchs exercise other forms of birth control? The Bible doesn’t say, but of course, anything is possible.
What is clear is that though there was angst on the part of the matriarchs who wanted to plan out their families, there is no judgment about them having “only” one or two or seven children. None of us questions whether or not our ancestral mothers fulfilled their duty to “be fruitful and multiply.” (A side note: Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk clarifies in his commentary the Meshech Chochma that this commandment applies only to men because a person cannot be commanded to do something that would jeopardize his/her life.)
Words matter and even a small word, like ‘only’ has the potential to do extensive harm.
The fact is that in so many Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox circles, you will find countless Sarahs, Rebeccas, Rachels and Leahs – none of whom are considered disappointments. I’m not advocating for people to model their own families after those in the Bible; polygamy and concubines are dated and no longer accepted practices, to say the least. Instead, those who use religion as a basis to critique families that are smaller for any reason should look no further than the Bible as a rebuke to their argument. Whether we are meeting someone for the first or the hundredth time we should be more mindful about the questions we use for banter. Words matter and even a small word, like “only” has the potential to do extensive harm. Awareness and intentionality must be the norm even during the most casual of conversations.
Daphne Lazar Price is the Executive Director of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.