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
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 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
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