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Assisted Reproduction - A Torah Perspective

One of my favorite stories is about the Kotsker Rebbe who, sitting at the table one Shabbat afternoon with his disciples, described with great insight the different personalities of many of his Chasidim. Finally they asked him, "How much insight do you have to your son's personality? How well do you really know him?" To which he responded, "I know with what thoughts I brought him into this world."

Before we consider the radical new reproductive technologies, I think we need to reflect on our attitudes and ideas about reproduction in general. Why do we have children? What are our responsibilities as parents and, particularly, as Jews, in the reproductive process? At what point do our responsibilities to our children begin?

In that terribly misunderstood quote, King David says, "I was born in sin, and in iniquity my mother conceived me." The Midrash explains that King David was referring to his conception. At the time of his conception, his father believed he was with another wife, not David's mother. David was affected by this, and seeks forgiveness for his own failings which he attributes to the circumstances of his conception: his father was thinking of another woman at a time of intimacy with the woman who would be David's mother.

By Jewish law, a husband is required to move out of his house if he has decided to divorce his wife so as to prevent any possible intimacy between him and his wife. Because it is unhealthy, says the Talmud, for a child to be conceived in a situation described as grushat halev or "divorce of the heart."

The Talmud says that a child conceived by two people who are not interested in each other may be rebellious and unstable. A child conceived when the minds and hearts of the parents are not in the same place, and where their pleasure is not focused, will reflect that kind of split in his personality that will hamper his ability to focus his presence and his interests.

In fact, the Talmud describes nine situations in which children are born harmed. Essentially, these are nine different circumstances where the parents are distracted or otherwise disinterested while conceiving.

And now mental health experts have established birth traumas as being responsible for various psychological problems. They trace certain hitherto inexplicable problems to experiences in utero, going back as far as conception. Science is finding that fetuses do have incredible awareness, memory and perception, and while the experience of a fetus from its earliest formation will recede into the subconscious as s/he develops, these experiences do not disappear. They contribute significantly to the child's perceptions and character.

So we cannot ignore the effect on the child who, for example, is conceived despite the hopes of the parents, in a moment of intimacy, that "we don't get pregnant." At the time when the parents are creating the child they are wishing that there would be no child. I would speculate that much of the unexplained dysfunction that we see in children may have its roots in the circumstances of their conception. There are children who suffer from feeling unaccepted or unloved by their parents. They cannot point to anything their parents do or do not say or do, to explain this. But something was amiss in the focus of the parents at the time of this child's conception.

If it is true that a compromised intimacy hurts the child, what happens when there is no intimacy at all?

With the new reproductive technologies, we are looking at the creation of a child in very mechanical ways, without benefit to the child of the focused intimacy between mother and father. In fact, some of the new technologies allow for the creation of a child with no intimacy at all between father and mother. And other forms of assisted reproduction involve the contribution of not just one man and woman, but often of several, creating a lot of confusion, socially, legally and halachically, as to who and how many real parents this child has.

The new technology gives us the power to create a physical body; G-d contributes the soul, and people who might never have been able to, can now experience the miracle of birth. But let's remember that the miracle exists in any birth, even in reproduction that results from prohibited relationships. The forbidden mixing of certain species, for example, may successfully yield a new product. Obviously, that does not mean it is desirable.

So I worry about what may be missing in this kind of reproduction. We are an Am Kadosh, a holy people, and we are supposed to be creating holy children. The question we need to be asking is, "What are we giving birth to?" Because there is a link in between G-d's contribution of the soul and the technology that give us the physical components of the child; this link is needed so that body and soul are joined in a healthy way. This is achieved through the spiritual, emotional, and intimate connection between the two people at the time that they are generating new life and from which this new life will take its own spiritual, emotional and psychological strength.

So the context of love, intimacy and unity between mother and father, in the creation of a child is terribly important to the child's wholesome well-being. It is counterintuitive to dismiss these factors in the make-up of the child.

Certainly then, a decision made a by a single woman who yearns for a child to use these technologies to conceive and bear a child without a husband is not a decision made in the child's best interests. Only as a truly last resort, and only within the context of marriage, where Torah law permits it, and only when all of the ramifications are well understood, does it make sense to turn to these methods of assisted reproduction.

To those who argue that nothing but the love of the parents really counts, I think we place an enormous and unreasonable burden on a mother's love if we set about knowingly creating children who will then require extraordinary efforts to compensate for the disadvantaged circumstances of their creation.

According to Chasidic sources, both Isaac, the patriarch of the Jews, and Habakuk, the son of the Shunamit, were born with souls from alma d'nukva or "the feminine realm." It is interesting that both were born through extraordinary, holy circumstances, and even so were lacking an essential spiritual component. It would likewise take the extraordinary, transformative experiences of the akedah (the 'binding" of Isaac), and the death-and-revival of the Shunamit's son, for their souls to be made whole. The unnatural conditions by which these individuals were conceived would require "correction" later in life. All the more so our cause for concern when this takes place in situations that are decidedly less than holy.

The "garments" of the soul, as described in the Zohar, that are affected by the circumstances of conception may benefit and be healed by absorbing holy images. In anticipation of these confusing times, when Jewish life is so misunderstood and neglected, and children are born with all sorts of unwanted and unwarranted factors, Chassidism offered an antidote in the practice of Chitas -- an acronym for Chumash (Torah), Tehillim (Psalms) and Tanya. Just by reading the words, by absorbing the images of those letters and those words and those paragraphs in daily segments, the negative repercussions of assisted reproduction may be corrected. The Torah letters, the letters of the Chumash, the revealed part of Torah, heals the outer layer; the Tehillim, composed of David's heartfelt outpouring, heals the heart; the Tanya -- the esoteric, or deeper layer -- heals the soul.

In the best of times, we need to take strength from our spiritual resources. This is especially true in these precarious times, when it is ever harder to raise children sound of mind and soul and body.

Excerpted from a symposium on Judaism and the New Reproductive Technologies which appears in the current (Winter 2002) issue of Wellsprings: A Journal of Jewish thought. For the full symposium go to e-wellsprings.org

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4 Comments Posted
Reader Comments
Posted: Apr 18, 2004
About children and family
My family is composed of my Jewish wife, her three kids from a Jewish father who abandoned them and has not seen them ever since, my stepsons, and myself, Jewish too

We have been living together as a family for ten years and recently my wife and I after receiving our secular married license, married under the canopy, the three children aged between 16-23 watched our marriage, we have to fight fierce Jewish family prejudices from relatives, particularly my parents

Though these children are not my blood, her mother and I are Jewish and we are determined to keep this family Jewish, fortunately it seems to be working out

Every time we can we light Shabbat candles

The two oldest go to Chabad conferences and social meetings, one of them wears a David Star chain and the youngest still 16 years old seems to be gradually concerned about meeting Jewish people

Children follow more closely what you do than what you say

Posted By Anonymous, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Posted: Mar 20, 2006
Our Thought
Thanks for the article and for the Womens page. It is really good, respect to the article, I encourage parents and myself too to take a look at our kids and to keep in mind to have holiness in everything that we do, and more when we are talking about reproduction. They will be what we are and what we think at the moment. Be one flesh, one thought, and first be one with G-d with holiness.
Posted By Dvorah

Posted: May 3, 2007
assisted reproduction
I would like to state a few facts and feelings here.
Firstly I cannnot imagine that anyone who has not had infertility problems would write on such a topic.
secondly, My husabnd and i have 3 children, 2 of who are by IVF. I would hate to think that someone would read this and not go ahead and have whatever treatment they need in consultation with their rabbi. Having children is not just a privlege for those made physically perfectly, it's a mitzvah for everyone.
Posted By HInda Schryber

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