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Be Fruitful and Multiply

by: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach - Last updated: 2003-08-07

I'm writing this on our annual family camping vacation, the purpose of which is ostensibly for our children to retreat from the vagaries of civilization and become acquainted with the pleasures of nature.

But our outings actually boast far more humble origins. They were initiated by what has become the last of society's acceptable prejudices: a deep hostility toward families with many children. We have seven, thank God, and long ago discovered that few hotels were prepared to accommodate so many children, even if we took three or four rooms.

Pets they could handle. Kids, they would not. So we learned to stuff the kids into a recreational vehicle, where the only offense they could cause was to each other.

As the father of a large family I find myself apologizing wherever I go, as if I have committed a crime. The frequent and loaded stares from scornful onlookers imply that the famine in Africa was caused by my selfish insistence on overpopulating the earth.

Whenever I have broached this issue with other American families who dare to exceed the two-kids-a-cat-and-a-parakeet national average, they too relate their experiences of suspicious gazes and raised eyebrows. At best one encounters puzzlement, at worst a look of condescension and pity as passersby try and fathom why we would ruin our lives by having
too many children.

Once we were visited in Oxford by an Orthodox woman with 10 children. As the weekend wore on she became increasingly offended by the offensive reaction of the Oxford women students to hearing that all the children were hers.

Her cheeks wet, she told me that the Lubavitcher rebbe had once written to her saying that she need never feel ashamed for mothering so many offspring. Hearing this I felt sad; not for her, but for a world where loving children cast one in infamy.

Just last week I received an email from a non-Jewish mother of six, who wrote: 'I find it troubling to worry about getting pregnant again, not because I don't want to be blessed further, but because I don't want to face the criticism of friends and family. It is very hurtful to share news I find wonderful with friends and get the response, 'Oh no! That is
awful.' Why do people not see children as a blessing?'

I suspect that a family with many children implies a backwardness and primitivism deemed unbecoming in the developed countries of the West. Large families, it is thought, exist only among religious weirdos or the teeming hovels of the Third World.

Rich countries, by contrast, prefer to increase their standard of living rather than the number of the living. Looking at Western birth rates for the year 01, the United States averaged only 14.2 births for every thousand Americans (Newsweek's report last month that one in three American marriages is sexless no doubt explains some of this).

The birthrate among white Americans is so low sociologists predict that within a decade the US, for the first time, will have lost its white majority. Indeed, one can go for days in a wealthy city like Manhattan without encountering a single pregnant woman.

The even more restrained United Kingdom counts only 11.54 births per 1,000, and Japan has fallen to 10.04 per 1,000, leading it to have the most elderly population of any country in the world. Riches and children have become inversely proportional, so that more of the former means less of the latter.

Hence the high birthrates of extremely poor African nations like Uganda, at 47.52 births per 1,000, Djibouti, at 40.66 births per 1,000, or Niger with 50.68 births per 1,000, are deemed prime causes and indicators of their penury.

The abundant fertility and unconstrained sexuality of these countries confirms the unspoken Western mind-set of these country's inhabitants being just one step above savages. Contraception has becomes a synonym for civilization.

Last year I traveled to Italy to promote the Italian translation of my book Why Can't I Fall in Love? (I will ignore the question of why Italians need relationship advice from an American rabbi). When the book tour ended my wife met me for a vacation with our baby son. On the way back, I, having been flown in by the publisher, was booked in business class, while my wife, having been flown there by me, was to travel economy.

Knowing my wife would take sadistic pleasure in lecturing me about my thoughtlessness in consigning her and our baby to the nether reaches of the aircraft while I lounged with the elite, I cynically offered her my seat. But she wouldn't have it. To my wife's mind, 10 hours of luxury could be passed over for the benefit of a year of revenge.

So we made a deal. I would hold the baby in business, and she would sit alone in economy. It was then that I discovered what it was like infiltrating business class with a baby.

Had I arrived with something actually ticking that said 'bomb' in big, bold letters I would have been accorded a more gracious reception. The stewardess asked me if I had been upgraded, and the rest of the business passengers offered to trade in their expensive tickets to fly cargo.

FAST FORWARD, two weeks. I am now traveling on a flight to Texas. I have no baby, just my laptop (which to me is the same thing). Sitting in front of me is a woman with a white poodle on her lap. Passengers were queuing up to pet the dog. 'Oh, is this yours? She's just gorgeous.' A scoreboard flashed before my eyes. Dog: One. Baby: Zero.

That equation is bad enough when it is applied to humanity at large. But it becomes especially troubling when applied to the oldest living nation on earth, whose numbers are so small that they have now officially been overtaken by the Mormon Church, less than 0 years old.

The fact that there are so few Jews in the world is shameful and disgraceful.

The argument that numbers don't count is all humbug. Quantity has always been a measure of quality. And our allowing the world Jewish population to dip below 14 million in the pursuit of a less laborious life betrays our lack of commitment to Jewish permanence.

Israel's Muslim population's average natural rate of increase over the past few years is double that of the Jewish population's, 3.6% compared to 1.8%. This is catastrophic for Israel.

I have long argued that Muslims can learn about the rights and dignity of the human being from democratic Israel. But Israel, conversely, can learn about the glories of children from fertile Muslims. Greater financial prosperity has bought us larger homes but smaller families, larger cars but fewer baby carriages.

Living in the land of Israel is indeed a Jewish birthright, but it is no excuse to stop giving birth. Even New York, long parodied as 'Jew York,' was rocked with the news last month that for the first time since World War II the number of Jews had fallen to below one million.

Secular Jewish readers of this article should be honest in answering the following question: When you last saw an Orthodox Jewish family boarding a bus in Jerusalem with 10 children in tow, was your reaction, 'How nice, so many Jewish children - especially after so many suicide bombings, the more the better,' or was it, 'How typical! The religious have all these kids, and expect us to pay for it.'

Sad, isn't it, that a nation which only 60 years ago lost nearly half its number finds children with sidecurls a burden rather than a blessing.

Some would say that a call for more Jewish children is unfair to the women who can't have large families as well as careers. I would remind them that the widowed Queen Victoria conscientiously raised nine children while running an empire that encompassed a quarter of the earth's surface.

The nomadic experience of camping is entertaining, but after a while you long to return home. And an exiled people that has courageously rebuilt its home must ensure that there is always a family to populate it.