Three Ladies, Three Lattes: When is enough enough?

Pam Peled, Danit Shemesh and Tzippi Sha-ked looks at percolating issues in Israel’s complicated social and religious fabric.

Baby boy (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Baby boy
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
I am a British, religious grandmother living in Jerusalem, where my three children grew up. They are all married; one has four children, one has three and my middle daughter, who lives in a settlement in the West Bank, has just had her fifth child.
Her [the middle daughter’s] husband is a teacher; he earns barely enough to keep the family in food and clothes. My daughter supplements the income when she can, but she’s pretty full-on with the babies.
Where they live, the norm is to keep having children – nine or 10 or even more is not unusual, and she says she hasn’t stopped yet. I think this is simply irresponsible and not fair to the family. We don’t have enough money to help them raise so many kids. Should I risk her anger and tell her?
– Moneybags Mom
Pam Peled: Good luck with this! Having babies is political here: are we multiplying quicker than our enemies/compensating for the Holocaust/simply obeying God? Here’s some basic ammo: “Be fruitful and multiply” is a biblical commandment to Adam and Eve, repeated after the Flood and extended to Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and also Ishmael. There’s a huge rabbinic controversy over whether women, too, must multiply. Maimonides says no. The Tosefta concurs, forbidding men to engender impotence with root-drinks, whereas women can partake to become sterile. The Babylonian Talmud advocates against mandating motherhood; the Palestinian Talmud disagrees.
Don’t mention the Kabbala. Some Jewish mysticism teaches that not procreating is akin to shedding blood, hampering the Messiah and precluding your own soul from heaven. That’s pretty tough pressure.
Israel’s birthrate is the highest in the developed world; our population density is just below that of Bangladesh. Fast-growing populations can spur economies; ours stems from sectors that don’t work much – Israeli Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews. Poor, hungry children are surely not a blessing; who will pay for medical bills and shoes? Too many people make countries unsustainable, as well as families.
Unless you are very rich.
This won’t convince your daughter.
But this might: Beit Shammai rules that having two males (equaling Moses’s sons) fulfills the mitzva; Beit Hillel demands a male and a female. One version requires a son and a daughter, still another a son or a daughter.
That fact might just do the trick, no?
Tzippi Sha-ked: After World War II, the Jewish world was left without a Torah community and our numbers were slashed by a third. We owe a large debt of gratitude to the haredim for replenishing our stock both numerically and with Jewish scholars. Your daughter probably subscribes to this rejuvenation philosophy.
Having said that, the pendulum has possibly swung too much in the other direction; now there is a need to come back to the center, with families financially paying their own way. This is not a spigot that is easily adjustable, but it will take care of itself over time.
Bringing children into the world without a viable economic game plan is not a part of Jewish ethos. It’s not as if Judaism demands irresponsibility.
Having many children in addition to the mandated two for males is desirable, but it’s worth considering the many mitigating factors. Having large families is an individual choice, not mandated by Jewish law. Halacha certainly takes into consideration the wife’s emotional and physical well-being.
It’s tricky telling grown children what to do, but you can discuss the psychological aspects of large families, and the ramifications to others.
I would tell your daughter that her selfless and sacrificing lifestyle is admirable, but there is a cap to what you are able to contribute.
On a national level, I propose government child benefits inexorably linked with a demand to enroll children in schools that sandwich a solid core curriculum within Torah studies.
Danit Shemesh: When I told my mother I was pregnant with my ninth child, she said, “If you wish to end your life, there are easier ways.”
Her worry was understandable. Of course it was almost impossibly hard for me, both physically and financially. Through my children’s endless demands, I understood the meaning of the ugly word “consumers.” They consumed me on every front: money, time, worry, sleep. I forgot what my favorite music was! However, while my mother saw the sacrifice as pointless, I believe it ushered me to my higher self, the self that can give and give and then give some more.
Having babies is the most intimate apolitical actuality. It champions life, promulgates our continuity and defines love and selflessness. The large family educates children toward the giving mode.
Concepts of responsibility and fairness are entirely culturally based. Is money a means or an end? The question remains, when is enough enough? Only each woman can know that for herself.
She is not commanded to “multiply”; her husband is. Being fruitful means actualizing your potential. This ultimately manifests in having children, who are (hopefully) the best version of ourselves.
I stopped after my ninth, but not because of my mother. I simply recognized enough.
Today my mother understands that I did not end my life, I upgraded it. For us, riches are measured by a different scale. Everybody loves children; the only question is how capable we are of receiving the bracha.
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