Adam Jones / Global Photo Archive
On Monday, the Supreme Court took the position of so many dayanim (a judge in a religious court, but in the Hasidic world, also a man who rules authoritatively on everyday halachic questions) and rabbis across the world in symbolically declining women reproductive autonomy. (I use the word “symbolically” because the decision will not necessarily affect many women, if any at all.) By ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods, the five ovary-free men essentially said a person’s religious convictions trump a fertile women’s need for sanity.
These five justices, who magically grew long beards and sidelocks while I heard the news, played the part of the quintessential Hasidic dayan who is generally the person to grant or deny a religious woman the ability use birth control. Their decision evoked memories of yesteryear — of a time when I, too, believed a righteous, ovary-free man, is entitled to rule on whether and when my ovaries should be producing tiny human souls.
Just like every Hasidic woman, I anticipated joining the motherhood club soon after marriage, when my ovaries would respond to my husband’s little swimmers. The year was 2004. I was two months shy of my 19th birthday and was married for six months when two bright blue crossed lines appeared on the pregnancy stick. I was ecstatic; having a child signified entry into the adults’ club. It was a rite-of-passage for us young Hasidic girls, and one of the greatest milestones in a Hasidic women’s life after getting married.
When I brought home my 7.3-pound bundle of joy, I struggled with postpartum depression and the usual challenges of first-time motherhood. My husband and I decided to wait some time for baby number two. But the conventional methods of “waiting” were unthinkable to us naïve and impressionable youngsters. We knew that the halacha was not in favor of birth control, and that only a third party — a learned man who spent his days poring over canonical texts — could make decisions about our family planning. And so my husband made his case to the grand dayan of Kiryas Joel. Rumor had it that he was lenient and dispensed a heter (religious permission) easily when presented with a proper sob story.
He inquired about my health, both mental and physical, and granted my husband “permission” for me to take the little white and blue pills for six months, at the end of which, my husband was expected to ask him again, as if asking a doctor for a refill for a prescription. After the six months passed and I was not ready to produce and care for another human being, I continued taking white and blue pills and using other methods to prevent conception. I felt slightly guilty for shirking halacha, but I knew I did not want to raise 12 or 15 children — the number of children my parents’ and in-laws raised, respectively. I also feared the dayan would deny an extension, thereby guaranteeing insufferable guilt when I chose to ignore it. And so, I swallowed my pills and cognitive dissonance.
There are many misconceptions about birth control and family planning among those who are not intimately familiar with the Hasidic community. One misconception is that women are pressured, by their husbands and male leaders, to have many children. That’s mostly untrue. From personal experience and from what I gathered over the years talking with friends and family, I have come to believe that Hasidic men are more likely to want fewer children than their wives want, and they want to space them farther apart. Of course, the perception that every Hasidic woman births multiple babies in close order is itself a subtle form of peer pressure. But women are not forced to have 12 children. (However, they sometimes want eight or nine.)
If children are central to mainstream Orthodox life, they are absolutely essential to the ultra-Orthodox. They are everything, especially to their mothers, who live vicariously through their children and take tremendous pleasure and pride in doing so. Many of these women sacrifice all personal pleasures for their kids. Having a large family guarantees you abundant nakhes from children and grandchildren, and the continuation of erlekhe yidishe doyres (loosely translated, religiously pious Jewish generations). Most Hasidic women would never want to have just two or three children. They would feel empty and naked without a baby or toddler at any given moment in their adult, pre-menopausal life. And that’s one reason why they feel they have to keep having children, so there’s always a baby and/or a toddler.
Another misconception is that Hasidic women don’t use birth control, and so they birth as many babies as God wills them to. That may have been the case for many of the Hasidic baby boomers, or children of Holocaust survivors who wanted to rebuild what Hitler destroyed, but it is certainly not true for the younger generation. Newly-married women initially allow for nature to take its course, until, like me, they realize they can handle no more, or are introduced to contraceptives by their obstetricians or friends. Some women who wish to comfortably space their children choose to get a heter or religious exemption, from a dayan before going on birth control; but many others do so without explicit permission by a religious authority, and at a personal cost of tremendous guilt.
A barren woman raises eyebrows and receives unwanted questions. For women who choose to “space” their children, the unsolicited remarks are unpleasant, at best, and truly damaging to a Hasidic woman’s already tenuous sense of self, at worst.
While the rest of the world is consumed with debating the finer points of what constitutes personhood and corporate responsibility, I find my thoughts drifting to so many of the mothers I know and lived alongside for whom birth control raises a whole other set of thorny issues. The majority five justices in the Hobby Lobby case also made me think of how important a dayan’s authority truly is in matters of family planning.