Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler is a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alumna, (Class 13) who works at Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Life in Glencoe, Illinois. She also serves as the Director of the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism and is the Executive Director of the National Organization of American Mohalim.   She received master’s degrees from the University of Judaism and from Harvard Graduate School of Education and was ordained as a rabbi by Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in 2006.  Julie can be reached at rabbipelc@gmail.com.

I’ve begun to fantasize a painfully modern response to the oft-dreaded question from precocious minds about human reproduction:

“When Mommies and Daddies (or Single Parents By Choice, or Same-Sex Couples, or….) love each other very much and become increasingly desperate and/or despairing that they will never be able to reproduce, they scour the internet for clinics where doctors and nurses charge lots of money to use fancy machines, hormonal supplements, injectibles, and/or laboratories to mimic that which careless teenagers in the back seats of cars have done for millennia”.

Admittedly, the nursery rhyme, “first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage” might be a bit outdated.  But, though our inherited 20th Century American mythology about how babies are made implies otherwise, the realities of infertility are as old as the Bible.  In fact, three of the four matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel) faced serious challenges trying to conceive.  Each attributed her infertility to God and cried out, praying for mercy.  Generations of rabbis, too, noticed this pattern and postulated that God intentionally made each woman to despair her fertility, desiring the desperate pleas from these righteous servants.

The most meaningful responses to this question stressed the efficacy of prayer and the value of suffering that leads to purification and brings people closer to God, as in this passage from Genesis Rabbah 45:4:

Why were the matriarchs barren? R. Levi said in R. Shila’s name and R. Helbo in R. Johanan’s names: Because the Holy One, blessed be He, yearns for their prayers and supplications. Thus it is written, “O my dove, in the cranny of the rocks,/Hidden by the cliff” (Song of Songs 2:14): Why did I make you barren? In order that, “Let Me see your face,/Let me hear your voice” (Song of Songs 2:14).

Similarly, BT Yevamot 64a suggests that the matriarchs and patriarchs were initially childless ‘because the Holy One, blessed be He, longs to hear the prayer of the righteous.’”

Perhaps the rabbinic mind was comforted by this explanation for infertility.  Perhaps the afflicted couple would relax into their suffering, breathing a sigh of relief, “oh, so God just wants my prayers.  That explains it.”  But, somehow, I can’t imagine that this platitude worked for very long, especially if the pleas continued and prayers for children remained unanswered (or the divine answer was “no”).

We modern folk do not like unanswered prayers any more than did our predecessors.  We crave meaningful answers to our questions.  We want someone to listen when we ask, “Why?” and not offer lovingly unhelpful suggestions like, “it’ll happen when the time is right” or “maybe you need to relax and stop thinking about it so much”.  In quiet moments, we answer our own wordless “Why?” with equally (if not more) unhelpful answers, “God hates me” or “I’m not meant to be a mother”.

Again, our matriarchs precede us with their own answers to try to explain that which seems inexplicable. Genesis Rabbah 45:2 recounts:

“And Sarai said to Abram, ‘Look, the Lord has kept me from bearing” (Gen. 16:2) as follows: “Said she, I know the source of my affliction: It is not as people say [of a barren woman], ‘She needs an amulet, she needs a charm,’ but ‘Look, the Lord has kept me from bearing.’”

Sarai attributes her infertility to God’s will. I can imagine a seemingly endless stream of well-meaning friends and acquaintances periodically stopping by Sarai’s tent, accustomed to her husband’s hospitality and welcoming generosity, confounded by the couple’s lack of offspring.  Each takes Sarai’s hand, offers a long look of disbelief, and suggests, “it’ll happen when the time is right” or “maybe you need to relax and stop thinking about it so much”.

But Sarai knows the truth of where babies come from.