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Ultraconservatives get it wrong on birth control: Americans should embrace Judaism’s nuanced approach rather than adhering to absolutes

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos

Earlier this month, the perpetual-motion machine that is the Republican Party rested on the topic of birth control. The occasion was a proposal by President Obama that would mandate all employers, including religious organizations, to offer their employees health-care policies that paid for contraceptives. Rick Santorum, a long-time opponent of birth control—he has previously referred to contraceptives as “a license to do things in a sexual realm that are counter to how things are supposed to be”—briefly made the issue his political ramrod du jour before massive outcry forced him to equivocate. But it was former Arkansas governor and one-time Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee who found the mots justes to describe the ultra-conservative sentiment on the subject.

Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Huckabee took that manically triumphant tone reserved for Bond villains and Republican politicians and thanked President Obama for initiating the legislation in question. “You have done more than any person in the entire GOP field, any candidate, has done to bring this party to unity and energize this party as a result of your attack on religious liberty,” Huckabee said. “Thanks to President Obama, we are all Catholics now.”

We are not. If anything, when it comes to the issue of birth control, we’re all Jews, and we pretty much have been for a very long time.

The issue of birth control in Jewish law is—little surprise here—an extremely complicated one. The discussion begins with the very first chapter of the Good Book, which contains the very first mitzvah­—pru u’rvu, be fruitful and multiply—two words that whipped generations of rabbis into a frenzy of interpretation.

The first inherent difficulty with the commandment is that it, unlike many of Judaism’s edicts, is not time-specific. We know, for example, that we’re supposed to circumcise our newborn males on the eighth day, but when precisely are we to begin procreating? Most of us, after all, experience a considerable gap between the moment in which the urge to copulate first strikes—sometime at, say, 13—and the moment in which we actually conceive. And since, according to the Pew Research Center, more American women 35 and older now give birth than do teenage girls—a reversal of the norm of just two decades ago—are we all in violation of the Torah? Some rabbis believe so, but others, including the great Chazon Ish, prefer to keep it simple, arguing that no specific date means we may take our time and that as long as we procreate someday, there’s no need for any of us to do so right this moment.

But what in the meantime? Are we permitted to simply contracept away? Here we run into Judaism’s second principle of family planning, namely the biblical prohibition on spilling one’s seed. This, you may remember, is the sin of Onan, who refuses to submit to a levirate marriage to Tamar, his dead brother’s wife, and chooses instead to sabotage their intercourse by pulling out at the crucial moment and relieving himself on the ground instead. How, then, to avoid replicating his wicked ways? How to prevent both impregnation and aimless ejaculation?

This is where reading the rabbis is a real pleasure. It takes just a few lines of the Rambam on the subject of contraception to realize that the man wasn’t only a terrific doctor but also a lover who’d given the mechanics of intercourse a great deal of thought. And he’s hardly alone: Throughout the ages, talk abides of vaginal canals and cervixes, of pregnancy and lactation, of women’s health and women’s rights. It’s a far more formidable, nuanced, and humane approach than the blunt insistence of many on the contemporary American right that the only Godly answer when it comes to contraception is “no.”

But Judaism goes even further, and it does so, in typical fashion, with a story. In the Yevamot tractate of the Talmud, there’s a tale of one Rabbi Hiyya and his wife, Judith. Having just given birth to twins, and suffered greatly in the process, she decides to put her child-rearing days behind her. Cunningly, she wears a disguise and comes before her husband with a halachic question: “Is a woman obligated to procreate?” Rabbi Hiyya hardly blinks; the answer, according to Jewish tradition, is no, as pru u’rvu is the domain of the man and is focused around the semen and its potentialities. Hiyya replies that the woman is under no obligation, only her husband. Vindicated, Judith drinks a sterility potion.

When Hiyya discovers the ruse, he is distraught, but there’s little he can say without contradicting his own rabbinic judgment. Judith had already given him two sons, which, according to custom, was enough to fulfill the mitzvah of procreation anyway. And as she was under no other obligation to reproduce, she was free to do as she pleased.

In so doing, she joins a long line of women in the Torah and the Talmud who had moved, audaciously, to assert themselves as individuals possessive of agency. Sure, we’ve the Four Matriarchs and their blessed fertility, but also Tamar—who blots the disgrace of Onan by posing as a prostitute and lying with her father-in-law, Judah—and Deborah the fighting prophetess, and Yael, who seduces Sisera the Canaanite and slays him in her tent.

Compare this complexity of roles with Paul’s decree—“man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man”—and it’s not too hard to realize why Catholicism ends up with 1930’s Casti Connubii, a papal decree emphasizing the sanctity of marriage and prohibiting Catholics from using any form of birth control. Protestants, on the other hand, have largely moved away from such strict attitudes; since the Reformation, an alternate view gained traction, stressing the uniting element of sexual intercourse—the emotional and spiritual bonding of husband and wife.

This, I feel safe asserting, is the view most American Christians currently hold, including 84 percent of Catholics who, according to a recent CBS poll, believe that one can use birth control and still remain true to one’s faith. It’s a view that has much more in common with the subtleties of the Rambam than the simple-minded thunderings of Mike Huckabee.

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Chaya says:

What would the Rambam think of the breast cancer conference in Israel that never used the word ‘breast’ and where all of the participants were men?

howard says:

Well… I don’t know about your thesis there. I claim to be a “conservative” Jew, but reading Schacter’s Halachic Elements of Family Planning reminds me that I’m really not. I like halachic reasoning… but if, at the end of the day it reaches a conclusion I don’t like, it’s not going to guide my life.

When taking Jewish tradition seriously, we have options… we can take old rulings seriously but ignore 19th century and later ones… we can take the mode of reasoning seriously but ignore the actual conclusions… we can pick and choose among conclusions… but simply agreeing with the conclusions doesn’t mean that we have adopted the reasoning.

I’m not sure what about that text is refreshing from a modern perspective. Yes, it is less antisex than Christian texts, but is it more pro-woman? Not really.

Aside from the fantasy that Christian America could possibly “embrace” a Jewish approach to sex in a conscious way, how would it do that even accidentally? The Jewish approach is not the same as the Jewish conclusion. The approach is rooted in a kind of reasoning about texts that is completely foreign to most Americans.

Really, in the end the Rambam is a pre-modern, not perhaps unlike Huckabee, and we (me at least) are moderns, and the fact that OUR premoderns came up with more modern sounding conclusions in some areas than their premoderns (Huckabee, Santorum, Ron Paul …. and Saint Paul) doesn’t mean that OUR premoderns really are moderns or even proto-moderns.

I guess, in the end, my reasoning about birth control, sex or sterilizing my male dog is not going to be influenced, seriously, ultimately, by the Rambam, although as an historian I’m interested to see what he came up with. The gap is too large. It wouldn’t be honest. I certainly wouldn’t adopt his views consistently.

Yes Jewish culture has a healthier attitude toward sex, but it has no shortage of premodern misogyny too, and other not so good ideas illustrated in the article.

Mildmannered says:

Thank you for the interesting interpretation and insights. I love the mental masturbation on this topic, pardon my French.

But in the end, I will do what I think is right for me. I imagine most Americans, and perhaps the rest of the world, will do the same.

As a liberal, I am of course against those who seek to place limits on family planning. But this piece is disingenuous in that it twists Huckabee’s quote. As the former governor and other religious conservatives frame the issue, is this birth control mandate taking us down the slippery slope of the government intruding on the beliefs of religious organizations and individuals? I don’t believe it is. But for those religious people who do believe it may, Huckabee urges, “stand with the Catholics” here, regardless of your religion’s views, or your individual views, on birth control.

Lyle is engaging in Toras Lockshen, as we used to say in Yeshivah; meaning twisting the Talmud and commentaries as one would twist lockshen/noodles, and you can make any results that you want – but Toras Lockshen is not Halacha.

Halacha means that one turns to contemporary Poskim (Rabbinical decision makers), as Shachter does, for the final decision and abides by that.

That Mr. Leibowitz quotes the Chazon Ish to rail against conservative Republicans is richly ironic.

The Chazon Ish, R. Avraham Karelitz was an ultra Orthodox rabbi (see the Wikipedia article) in which you’ll find the quote:
“He used the Talmudic discussion (Sanhedrin 32b) of two camels which meet on a narrow mountain pass as a metaphor. A camel without goods was expected to defer to a camel laden with goods; similarly, the Chazon Ish contended secular society should defer to religious society, which bore the “goods” of tradition.”

George says:

Jewish women, excluding the orthodox, have the fewest children of any ethnic group. Why? Careerism has replaced marriage.

Yes, George, we are horrid, wanting all this “economic security” and “intellectual fulfillment.”

George says:

No Marjorie, not horrid, just barren evolutionary dead-ends. Enjoy your career and leave the child-bearing to those women, many of whom are working moms, who are intellectually and emotionally mature enough to combine both motherhood and employment.

Herb says:

To rail against Mr. Huckbee,a decent man, the Catholic Church and Republicans, truly colors, or, should I say, discolors any argument Leibovitz puts forth. Cheap shots are still cheap shots.

I guess I am one of the ignorant ones, who, when reading the word of G_D stating, “Be fruitful and Multiply,” I don’t think of mathematics. I am not, “Whipped into a frenzy of intrepretation.” The Law of “K.I.S.S.” surely applies here. The words are simple, straightforward and mean what they say. G_D speaks to us simply and directly. Listen and learn.

T. Quinn says:

Huckabee’s intent in “we are all Catholics now” was not about the morality of birth-control, but about the government forcing religious organizations to fund that which is against their teachings. A subtle and yet very important point.

Patricia M. Roche says:

Hello there,
There are a few comments made in your article that I would like to respectfully respond to.
First of all, I’m a Roman Catholic and the issue at hand here with President Obama’s HHS Mandate is NOT birth control, but rather ‘religious freedom’- birth control is readily and economically(if not freely) available. No one is saying those who want it can’t have it, only that those who are morally opposed should not be forced to violate their consciences. What Governor Huckabee was saying was that if Catholics can be mandated to go against their beliefs so can Baptists and even Jews.
Secondly, I would like to clarify that the Catholic Church is opposed to only ‘artificial’ birth control – not ‘all’ birth control.
“Natural Family Planning” (or NFP) is a highly scientific and effective means to both achieving and regulating the timing/number of births. Pope Paul VI’s encyclical in 1971 ‘Humanae Vitae’ reiterated the longstanding Judeo-Christian stance against the artificial means of regulating births. In that encyclical Pope Paul wisely, even prophetically stated what would likely occur in society by the widespread acceptance of artifical birth control. Among the problems mentioned were an increase in extramarital and pre-marital relationships, and increase in abortion, an increase in divorce, single-parent female households living in poverty, etc. Everything he predicted has come about. Women and children are the losers in all this uncommited sex.
For more information on the Catholic Church’s true views of marital love(which is both unitive , as well as, procreative),it’s respectful views of women, etc. please read Pope John Paul II’s various writings on “Theology of the Body”. His teachings are exquisitely beautiful and respectful of all concerned while also predictive of marital stability.
FYI: 2005 the World Health Org. classified ‘the pill’ as a Group 1 Carcinogenic. The Church should HAVE to give out such a thing in the name of women’s health?

sadfa says:

WADR, you say that the Torah position is nuanced, but then you get your facts wrong.

I’m sure that the reference to the Chazon Ish is misquoted (unintentionally, I’m sure), and the reference to the wife of Rabbi Chiya–I don’t see any implication in the Talmud that this was a praiseworthy act. On the contrary, sterilization is regarded very negatively in Jewish tradition. As for women “taking the law into their own hands,” this is contrary to Torah practice. A rabbi must be consulted even when a woman wants to go on contraception, to see if it is in fact warranted, for how long, in what way, and so on.


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Ultraconservatives get it wrong on birth control: Americans should embrace Judaism’s nuanced approach rather than adhering to absolutes

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