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What the Talmud Can Teach Us About Infertility in the Coronavirus Era

The anti-baby boom that nobody is talking about.
©Андрей Яланский/
©Андрей Яланский/
Dr. Rachel Rosenthal is a member of the second cohort of North American David Hartman Center Fellows. Rachel’s research focuses on the intersection of Talmud and pedagogy. She received her PhD in Rabbinic Literature from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where her dissertation focused on how rabbinic analysis of the case of the stubborn and rebellious son provides models for moral education and development. Rachel is an adjunct assistant professor of Talmud at JTS, where she was

Originally published in Tablet

March 20 was supposed to be Yesh Tikvah Infertility Awareness Shabbat. Around the country, people were going to get up in shul and tell their stories of trying to build the families that they had always imagined for themselves. Instead, as synagogues closed their doors in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, women and couples all over America had to come to terms on their own with their infertility treatments being canceled or suspended indefinitely. As is too often the case with infertility, they were left feeling alone, trying to find any reason for hope in this dark moment.

I am one of those women, and my husband is one of those men. After three miscarriages, we were lucky enough to be able to fund an IVF cycle, which we hoped would bring us the baby that we so desperately want. My egg retrieval was successful, and it seemed like maybe our luck was changing. Then the coronavirus hit, slamming our home city of New York. As we watched the news, and anxiously checked in with our friends who work in hospitals, I felt as if we were racing to the deadline, trying to get our transfer done before the inevitable shutdown of the fertility clinics.

We didn’t make it. On March 17, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine recommended the cancelation of all cycles that had not yet started, and even some that were already in process. Again, even in the midst of the process that we hoped would alleviate our uncertainty, we were thrown by events beyond our control.

As it happens, the day that I found out that our IVF was on hold indefinitely, I was on Zoom, teaching a text from the Talmud in Yevamot 65b to a group of first-year rabbinical students. On that page, there is an argument between the rabbis and Rabbi Yochanan ben Broka about whether women are obligated in the commandment to be fruitful and multiply. The debate is extremely strange. After all, how can men have children without women? However, the rabbis conclude that, in fact, women are exempt from this obligation, and only men are enjoined to procreate.

The conversation doesn’t end there. Even once the rabbis decide that women are not obligated to have children, they go on to tell a series of stories about childless women going before the court, asking to divorce their husbands so they can marry someone else, in hopes that they will be able to build a family. In each one, the woman is told that she cannot claim her ketubah—the sum that she is legally entitled to receive upon leaving the marriage—because she has no obligation to have children. The court prioritizes preserving the marriage, though it means she will never become a mother. In each case, the woman then explains that she wishes to have children for other reasons, irrespective of her obligation—to have someone by her side when she is old, or to bury her when she dies. And in each case, the rabbi she is petitioning changes his mind and grants her both her divorce and her ketubah.

This is the fourth spring in a row I’ve taught this piece of text, but the first time I felt like the rabbis were talking about me. Like the women in these stories, even though there are many good reasons—both in terms of Torah law and common sense—not to be having children right now, the longing inside of me is deep and overrides the most prudential arguments. It’s easy to see what a rabbi, or a friend, might say in response to our desire to build our family at this moment: “Your lives are actually easier right now, because you aren’t stuck inside a New York City apartment with little kids under quarantine.” “Think of the risks of having to go for regular doctor appointments, or to the hospital to deliver.” “If you had a baby at home, with no help, you wouldn’t be able to get any work done!” “What if either of you got sick, and the baby was taken away from you after you delivered?” “Your immune system is weaker when you’re pregnant, making the coronavirus more dangerous.” “Is this really the moment when we should try to bring more people into the world?”

Just like in the cases of the women in the Talmud, there are ample reasons to dismiss women in my position. And yet, like in those stories, these technical concerns miss the larger emotional point. Our claim, our prayer, might not be rational, but it is deep and heartfelt. We want to have a baby. I’ll be 36 soon; I feel the window for a family of the size we want starting to close, even if everything goes right. And those pursuing IVF are the only ones being asked to make this sacrifice. As our fertility doctor told us when discussing our options, “Nobody is telling fertile women not to get pregnant.” Not only that, people are joking about a baby boom in nine months, without realizing that every one of those jokes is like being stuck by a needle—the needles we had hoped to use for our fertility treatments.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Just as the rabbis understood that there are needs that transcend the letter of the law, we ought to strive to understand the struggle of the women in our midst whose need to have children overwhelms prudential considerations. This doesn’t mean that we can reopen the clinics, but it does mean remembering that those who were struggling with infertility before are still struggling now. It means being careful when we talk about all of the babies that will be born because people are bored during quarantine. It means thinking twice about complaining to your friend who wants to have children about how hard it is to be stuck at home with your kids.

I don’t know where this journey will end for us, just like we never find out if the women in the Talmud ultimately get to have the children of their dreams. But I do hope that others can be sensitive to those dreams, even during this deeply trying time.

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