By Dr. Robin B. Zeiger
All of us struggle with a life crisis of one sort or another. During these painful times, some of us distance ourselves from God and Torah, while others attempt to rise and meet the challenge.
A frank discussion of spirituality and infertility must emerge from the heart as well as the mind. It is often during the most vulnerable moments and behind closed doors that many infertile individuals confess their innermost thoughts. The pain of their despair often involves a highly personal and private crisis of faith. It may lead to religious growth. Sadly, it may also lead to religious decline.
What are these struggles of faith? How do we transform them into growth and resolution?
Crisis of Guilt and Self-doubt
In the first crisis of faith, the infertile individual blames himself or herself for the terrible curse.
*Yaakov and Miriam are each 24 years old. They have been married almost 5 years, and since the beginning of their marriage have desired a large family. One year ago, Miriam became pregnant for the first time. Shortly after learning the exciting news of her pregnancy, she suffered an early miscarriage. As of yet, the doctors have been unable to find a cause for the infertility and miscarriage.
Yaakov finds himself increasingly obsessed with the fear that he will never merit a namesake to follow him. He often questions his religious practices, fearing that he is not scrupulous enough in some unknown mitzvah. Lately, he has become even more meticulous in his observance of certain chumrot (stringencies), secretly hoping that his added attention will somehow encourage God’s forgiveness of him and result in a child.
Yaakov is not unique. We often joke about Jewish guilt and the “mother syndrome.” Yet it is true that guilt is an important aspect of our tradition. We are a people that believes in hashgachah pratit (Divine providence) and that all of our actions matter. God sees all, knows all, and ultimately rewards our good deeds.
We are reminded numerous times in the Torah that karet, or being “cut off” from our people is a punishment for certain sins, such as eating chametz on Pesach or performing work on Yom Kippur. One of the definitions of karet is not having any descendants. Thus, it is relatively easy for the infertile couple to conclude that they are meant to be “cut off.” They may, in fact, develop elaborate fantasies about the exact unforgivable sins they or their family performed. On a personal note, while faced with infertility, my husband masochistically spent a year looking up all of the sources in the weekly parshah on how one is cursed who has no children.
We are also faced with a strong tradition that teaches us to look critically at our life crises and utilize them for teshuvah (repentance). For example, in Hilchot Teshuvah, Rambam spells out how punishment in this world helps redeem us from our sins. Thus, it is possible to become preoccupied with punishment, and an individual may even seek out punitive situations to “prove” his or her sinful unworthiness.
It is important to note that, at times, thoughts about guilt, sin, and punishment may help to promote healthy teshuvah and religious growth. This type of contemplation and taking stock of one’s life may lead to some important lifestyle changes. We can emerge renewed and hopeful, feeling much better about religious growth and about self-hood. It is when this process becomes extreme and all-encompassing that it is problematic.
Crisis of Faith
The second crisis involves the very essence of faith.
Faced with infertility, Orthodox Jews may become angry with the Divine Creator who withholds the longed-for child…
Aside from their infertility, Tziporah and Dov have been happily married for 7 years. Over the past several years, Tziporah’s close friends have given birth to 1, 2 , 3, 4, and even 5 children. She and her husband have tried everything from medical consults to brachot from famous Rebbeim, all to no avail.
Lately Tziporah has become increasingly depressed and irritable. While she has prided herself on presenting a positive “frum” image to the outside world, she has recently felt as if she is living a lie. Throughout her Pesach preparations, Tziporah found herself annoyed and resentful. Secretly she asked herself, “Why do I bother? Does it really matter how much I clean and prepare? Does God really care?” One night, when she was particularly tired, Tziporah lay awake, seriously wondering if there is a God at all. Tziporah felt so shaken by this lapse in faith that her whole demeanor changed. Dov became quite concerned over her mood, yet she was too embarrassed and upset to share her doubts with him.
Like Tziporah, some Orthodox Jews faced with infertility may become angry with the Divine Creator who withholds the longed-for child. They may begin to question the meaning of religious life or the meaning of existence stating, “Why should I bother with all of these mitzvot if I’m not rewarded with one of the most important things in life? ” Or perhaps the individual of faith begins to believe that God is an uninvolved deity or does not exist.
Are There Remedies?
First and foremost, we must feel free to talk about the struggles and doubts. I have been involved in running infertility support groups for all types of individuals. Time and again, I hear how difficult it is to talk with friends, family, and clergy about the topic.
It seems to be even more of a struggle for the Orthodox Jew. There appear to be many complex reasons for this. Among them, we are taught about the importance of tzniut (modesty). We typically do not discuss bodily functions, particularly those related to sexuality and conception.
Additionally, it is almost incomprehensible for us as religious individuals to admit doubt and/or anger towards God. Religious education does not usually provide guidelines for such conflicts. I am reminded of a very religious woman I knew who didn’t want to talk about her infertility. She felt it represented a lack of faith to even discuss the problem. I can’t help but feel that this type of belief is a heavy burden to bear.
Another remedy for overwhelming guilt and depression is to focus on self-esteem. As observant Jews, we don’t always pay enough attention to self-esteem. We exult Moshe as the humble individual par excellence. We are taught in school to work against becoming egotistical. Self needs often take a back seat to community and family. Sometimes, we become so preoccupied with being humble, serving the community, and ultimately serving God, that our sense of self becomes lost. This extreme of selflessness is not a Jewish concept.
There is a beautiful teaching of the great Chassidic leader, Reb Simcha Bunim of Pshischa, that is part of our tradition. We are told that it is important to keep two slips of paper in our pockets. One note should bear the Talmudic saying, “For my sake was the world created.” The other pocket should contain our forefather Abraham’s statement, “I am but dust and ashes.” Healthy religious self-esteem is to simultaneously remember our humble origins and that we are created b’Tzelem Elokim (in God’s image).
Without healthy self-esteem, we cannot adequately function as religious individuals. People who are plagued with low self-esteem do not feel competent to stand as equals in a relationship. They do not feel deserving. They cannot build healthy adult interdependent relationships.
Even more importantly, they cannot develop a healthy and mature relationship with God. They do not feel worthy of the Creator’s attention and time. Intimacy must be built upon security.
As another remedy for self-flagellation, we must remind ourselves that theological concepts of reward and punishment are indeed very complex. Our sages have spent hundreds of years and volumes of sefarim pondering these very questions. To attempt to look at the world as:
good behavior = reward
sinful behavior = punishment
is naive at best, and simplistic and immature at worst. Perhaps the purpose of the crisis is to find meaning in the experience itself.
…We must feel free to talk about the struggles and doubts.
Biblical Role Models
Perhaps most importantly, we must remember that as infertile individual of faith, we have excellent company. It cannot be emphasized enough that many of our esteemed avot and emahot (forefathers and foremothers) were initially infertile. The commentators scrupulously analyze their personalities in an attempt to glean nuances of their behavior. We speak at length about the high level of spirituality they achieved and their close relationships with God. And our sages spend a good deal of time discussing the reasons behind their infertility. Yet one thing is crystal clear; they make no correlation between infertility and sinfulness.
There is a quote from Yevamot (30) that is often cited:
Why were our fathers barren? Because the Holy One blessed be He desires the prayers of the righteous. Many individuals publicly appear to accept this quote at face value with few, if any, questions or conflicts. On the other hand, others privately admit to being quite upset with the statement. If allowed to voice their innermost doubts, their sentiments would sound like this:
It makes God sound cruel and sadistic! Why would He deliver such a difficult life sentence just to get us to pray? If God is truly omnipotent, then He can’t have any “desires for prayers.”
I must confess. I initially reacted this way. I didn’t like the quote, and I couldn’t understand the interpretation. Now, after many years of struggling with the sources, I would like to suggest an answer.
Built into our very nature is the need for a relationship with God. One of our greatest Jewish thinkers of modern times, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt”l, in his essay, The Lonely Man of Faith, speaks about our profound need to develop a spiritual bond with our Creator:
…The man of faith, in order to redeem himself from his loneliness and misery, must meet God at a personal covenantal level, where he can be near Him and feel free in His presence. (pp. 31-32).
Can any of us can truly sustain a conversation with God with kavanah (sincere intent) for an hour? What about twenty minutes? What about five? Sadly, for most of us, most of the time, the answer is no.
Our foremothers and forefathers are role models par excellence of spirituality and relationship to God. In parshat Vayeirah, we are presented with a picture of Abraham, a man at home with God; who found God in every aspect of his life. He can sit outside his tent and converse with the Creator. What an amazing privilege and ability! Further we are taught that Sarah merited an even higher level of prophecy than Abraham. And all this before they were blessed with children.
Why? Why did our ancestors have to endure the pain of infertility? As a psychologist, I have some thoughts on the subject. I am continually amazed at the different ways in which similar crises affect different individuals. For some, the pain is too much and they may regress and fall apart. Others seem relatively unaffected, weathering the storm and going on with life. Yet there is a third group of people whom I particularly admire and often attempt to emulate — those who utilize the crisis for self-growth.
I suspect this is the message of our sages. The life crisis of infertility helped shape the leaders of our nation. The Torah’s emphasis on this life experience helps to highlight its importance. We can only speculate on how it promoted self-growth. Perhaps the emahot and avot learned to pray and communicate more effectively with God. Maybe the long years without children helped them to perfect their own midot (characteristics) needed for leadership. Perhaps God felt they had other spiritual tasks to accomplish before raising children.
But perhaps more significantly, the nisayon (test) of childlessness helped them to perfect their faith. On one hand, they were charged with perpetuating and carrying on Jewish nationhood. Yet for many years, they were faced with the nagging question: “How? Where are the children who will carry the message?” Yet they still believed.
Can we believe too? How do we sustain ourselves on a daily basis with our doubts and anger and depression? When faced with personal crisis, it is enlightening to look to the life of one of the most famous Biblical women, Chana.
Many are familiar with the basic story of Chana, an infertile woman who prayed to God and was eventually answered with the birth of a son, Shmuel. Shmuel was dedicated to God from the moment of his birth and went on to become prophet for the Jewish people. Many have read through her prayer to God found in the book of Shmuel.
Less well known is a fascinating Gemara found in Talmud Brachot in which Chana appears to attempt to force the hand of God. She bases her threat on the Torah’s promise that a falsely accused sotah is cleared of suspicion and is then blessed with a child:
On “If You will indeed look” R. Elazar said: “Chana said before the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘Sovereign of the Universe, if You will look, it is well, and if You will not look, I will go and shut myself up with someone else in the knowledge of my husband Elkanah, and as I shall have been alone, they will make me drink the water of the [sotah] suspected wife, and You cannot falsify Your law, which says, ‘She shall be cleared and conceive seed.‘”
Further in the Gemara we find, On “Chana, she spoke in her heart” R. Elazar said in the name of R. Jose b. Zimra: “She spoke concerning her heart. She said before Him: ‘Sovereign of the Universe, among all the things You have created in a woman, You have not created one without a purpose… These breasts that You have put on my heart, are they not to nurse [a child]? Give me a son, so that I may nurse with them.'”
This is an incredible piece of Gemara. It presents a picture of Chana as a very active participant in her pursuit of a child. In both of these cases, Chana appears to challenge God. One is left with the impression that she wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Chana is not just any infertile woman. Our sages have stated she was one of seven prophetesses. The thoughts expressed in this Gemara attest to Chana’s strong relationship with God. This infertile woman does not distance herself from God. To the contrary, she voices her internal struggles directly to the Ultimate Creator. In a most intimate moment, she is able to be intensely honest. Her cries of prayer appear to echo anger, depression, self-doubt, and questioning of God’s motives. Nevertheless, her prayer is thoroughly genuine: Chana knows before Whom she stands.
What does Chana say to us? What can we learn in our own struggles? It is hard for us to even fathom talking with God in the language and manner of Chana.
Many Orthodox women and men point out that it is because she was on such a high level that she could speak with our Creator in such a way. They state we have no right to even think we can develop such a relationship. Thus they express discomfort at attempting to infer lessons.
I wish to take issue with this approach. I assert we must hold dear our relationship with God. Through the mitzvot and prayer, it is our job to attempt to know God intimately and cleave to Him. We are not on the level of an Avraham, a Sarah, or a Chana. Yet we can strive to work at their type of relationships with God.
An intimate relationship depends upon honesty and communication. Sometimes it also involves anger and disappointment. It is only when we are truly close to someone that we dare challenge and argue with this individual. If our feelings of anger, frustration, and doubt are left unsaid, they fester and grow. Ultimately, we are bound to distance ourselves from God.
Like Chana, when faced with difficult life circumstances, we too must strive to find comfort in God. Infertility is a test of our faith. We can struggle with this test directly with our Creator.
…I particularly admire…those who utilize crisis for self-growth…
Two of my friends who are infertile have adopted or parented foster children. Both have independently told me that it was all meant to be — that they were destined to adopt and parent these children. This, to me, is an example of a religious statement. Their words express a strong belief in hashgachah pratit, the Hand of God which guides our lives.
Even the luckiest among us struggle with periodic life crises of one sort or another. During these painful moments, in anger and disappointment, we can choose to distance ourselves from God and Torah. Or we can attempt to rise and meet the challenge. We can work to find meaning and ultimately to find God and spirituality in all that befalls us and in all that we do — to make the chol into kodesh, the mundane into holy.
* The individuals named in this article, while fictitious, are based on true-life situations.
Robin B. Zeiger, Ph.D. is a consultant for Jewish Family Services in Richmond, VA. After struggling with infertility for several years, she and her husband, Jonathan, are the thankful parents of Eliana (age 3) and Akiva (age 1).
This article is based on a paper presented at workshops in the spring of 1993 at The Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, New York, N.Y., and Lincoln Square Synagogue, New York, N.Y.