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

Liel Leibovitz
March 01, 2012
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos

(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.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.