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Infertility in the Bible: How the Matriarchs Changed Their Fate; How You Can Too
By Jessie Fischbein
Two of the best-known narratives in the book of Genesis are Sarah's miraculous geriatric childbirth and Rachel's bitter struggle with infertility. Yet in fact, all four of the matriarchs struggled with barrenness: Rebecca was married 20 years before giving birth to twins, while even Leah, associated with fecundity, suffered from secondary infertility.
Jessie Fischbein, a math teacher by profession, found herself contemplating the significance of this thought-provoking pattern while suffering her own painful years of infertility. The hard-won conclusions she reached inspired her to write a sui generis guide -Infertility in the Bible: How the Matriarchs Changed their Fate; How YOU Can Too - in which she addresses all women fighting infertility, from the Jewishly literate to the religiously unconvinced.
Weaving together the insights of the classical commentators with her own, Fischbein posits that infertility was an inherent characteristic of the matriarchs. (Along with the rabbinic commentator Sforno, she reads "And God saw that Leah was hated and He opened her womb" as meaning that even Leah was by nature infertile.)
Fischbein highlights the little-observed point that Sarah only began her efforts to ensure that her husband would have offspring after Abraham was told by God that he would be the father of a great nation. Up until that point, as per the commentators, Abraham and Sarah coped with their childlessness, both busy in their common mission of "making souls," i.e. in bringing awareness to others of God's presence in the universe. Once Sarah found out God's plan for her husband, she asked him to have a child by her maidservant, Hagar. Her primary concern became that of continuing the family line, even at the cost of her own exclusive relationship with her husband.
Taken aback by her own husband's seemingly harsh rejoinder to her famous cry of "Give me children - and if not, I am dead," granddaughter-in-law Rachel starts the spiritual journey that echoes that of Sarah and also results in childbirth.
The first leg of that journey is the realization that women are not created for the sole purpose of bearing children. In Genesis' first narrative of woman's creation, she is named Isha, the feminine of Ish (man), and understood to have the same ability "to understand and advance in the intellectual and moral fields" as a man. It is only in the second creation narrative that she is called Hava, the mother of all living things.
Once Rachel recognizes that there is more purpose to her life than bearing children, she decides that her own destiny is to further the family mission and spread the awareness of God, and then chooses to follow the path set by the matriarch Sarah. She gives Jacob her maidservant as a concubine with whom to conceive a child in whose upbringing she can take part. Rachel has utilized her pain positively, gaining a deeper understanding of herself and of the universe, and changes accordingly, as evidenced in the name she gives the resulting son, Dan, "God has judged me, and also heard my voice and gave me a son."
Fischbein builds on Talmudic sources and interprets Rachel as meaning that God has found her "[n]ot worthy of having her own child, but worthy of participating in the building of the nation." Whereas she once claimed that she couldn't go on if she were unable to bear children, she now feels privileged merely to be the trigger of the child's conception. According to Fischbein, "[Rachel's] willingness to act from this new perspective is heroic."
"There is an odd shame in not having children," Fischbein notes. There exists a sense that infertile women are not deemed "worthy enough" to bear children. The disgrace of Rachel's childlessness, she says, was that it led people to judge her in this way. But then, through her journey of self-reflection, Rachel made herself worthy. Some might feel that Fischbein herself strengthens this underlying sense of "unworthiness" by suggesting that only inner-change will bring about improved fertility.
Fischbein relies on Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik's explanation of suffering whose cause is knowable only to God and, in spite of its crushing effect, offers the opportunity to refine one's character. Fischbein believes that infertile women, in contrast to the fertile, are forced into a zone of self-examination. Dissecting the motivation behind the desire to bear a child - by distinguishing the expected personal gratification of raising children from the realization that actual children will have needs of their own that might contradict those expectations - is the key to undergoing the transformation that might make an infertile woman "worthy" in the Creator's eyes to become a mother. This is not a scientific formula, Fischbein warns, but if it does succeed, one becomes a mother on a higher level of consciousness; if it doesn't, one has still reached a higher level of existence. As Fischbein writes, "I still shudder a bit when I think about me raising children without the discoveries I've made about what I'm trying to get from my children."
Whether most infertile readers would find the technique - introspection, prayer and proactive treatment - that Fischbein has inferred from the Bible helpful is an open question. I myself would probably not give this book to any fertility-challenged acquaintance for fear of giving offense - though Fischbein's cut-to-the-chase honesty would probably preclude that in the reading.
For the wider Jewish public, the book's significance perhaps lies elsewhere. As its title broadcasts, it is somewhat offbeat in the religious genre. Fischbein's intimate, plain-faced style can be jarring - "Okay, go ahead. Roll your eyes at me. But let me explain what I mean." or "Gasp! I know what you're thinking. Does that mean that Leah was on a higher spiritual level than her sister? Not so fast." Her colloquial terminology does give the book a friendlier tone. This is one of the few religious books that can be described as a page turner.
Fischbein is certainly not the first Orthodox woman to tackle biblical commentary at book length (the legendary Nechama Leibowitz not only comes to mind, but is cited), but Fischbein's "guide" may be evidence that the modern norm of religiously erudite women may yet yield a new mode to Orthodox Jewish writing. She unabashedly addresses the weightiest of issues - the meaning of life and of suffering, the nature of God and of prayer. This is post-feminism at its most intriguing.