Is there a Biblical view of contraception?

May 6th, 2020 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 6 comments

I am a Bible-believing Christian & I am very keen to understand God’s blueprint for mankind. I have been listening to your podcasts & CD downloads.  In Genesis,  God instructed Adam to be fruitful & multiply & to subdue the earth… is that instruction for Adam & Eve only? If not, what does the Bible teach about contraception & birth control?

Yours sincerely, 

Cathy

P.S. I asked this question before… I am not sure whether that was a wrong platform but this is a burning question for me so I am trying again.  Thank you.

Dear Cathy,

You are certainly right that reproduction and all its implications is one of the questions we’d expect to find answered in God’s Biblical blueprint. There we won’t find information on whether to vacation at the beach or the mountains, but we will find guidance concerning mankind’s desire to travel.  We won’t find directions on whether we should wear dresses of wool or suits of polyester but we will find much guidance on clothing in general and its contributions to our modesty and dignity.  In other words, the Bible provides indispensable teaching on questions that would have been asked hundreds of years ago as much as they are asked today.  Among those questions, few are more basic and important than those concerning man-woman physical intimacy and reproduction.

Not unexpectedly, it is one of the areas of maximum disagreement between ancient Jewish Biblical wisdom and today’s aggressively secular culture.  Most of what we shall now impart as our answer to your question is diametrically opposed to the cultural propaganda beamed into your life.  We don’t engage anyone in fights or debates on this. What we say is, “You have your approach derived from the latest television pundit or the pages of the newest acclaimed blog or from self-anointed experts, while we have ours derived from what we see as the Manufacturer’s Instruction Manual. Look around you impartially and decide whether people seem better off following one than the other and make your own decision.”

In our Biblical approach, newly born babies are not a threat to the environment or the climate.  They are a blessing.  They are not merely another mouth to feed, they are fountains of future creativity the likes of which lies beyond our imagination. They bring meaning, love, and immortality into their parents’ lives.  Thus we welcome them and don’t see contraception as the default. However, we do see contraception as something that God gave us the ability to do, and when appropriate, we do employ it.

The question is when is it appropriate and how to do it.  Marital intimacy is tremendously important in and of itself as marriage-glue,  regardless of whether a child is conceived or even whether it is even possible for conception to occur. We rejoice when an older widow and widower marry even when the couple is beyond child-bearing age. Jewish communities work diligently to help infertile individuals get married. Companionship, both emotional and physical, is an important foundation of marriage.

The conventional translation of Genesis 1:28 is ‘be fruitful and multiply’ and is directed at all humanity for all time.  However, the two Hebrew words employed in the original are not synonyms.  They are two separate words. One implication of these two words addresses the act of intimacy as its own commandment while the other addresses the act of reproduction.   One can hardly imagine a more appropriate way for new life to enter the world than as a consequence of that shared joy and closeness between a man and woman together.  For this reason, the Lord’s language has no word for a parent in the singular. The concept exists as HoRiM—parents.  There is a mother and there is a father, but there are parents. God wants to see husbands and wives enjoy ecstasy with one another and for them to welcome any and all offspring if and when they naturally result.

However, as we all know, real life is complex and two desirable ends can sometimes conflict with one another. For example, honoring parents is an important Biblical command, but having one’s own children allows less time to be with parents. Nonetheless, the idea of one daughter remaining unmarried in order to care for parents (as seen in Jane Austen’s Emma or L.M. Montgomery’s books) is anathema to the Jewish soul. Similarly, sometimes there is a conflict between the needs of the marriage and those of the already-born-children in the family and bringing another new life into the world.  Another baby at the present time might impose almost unendurable stress upon the parents and their marriage and substantially diminish their capacity to adequately care for their existing children. There are many potential reasons for this including physical, emotional and economic ones.  In such a case, contraception might be warranted. We say “might be” because each situation is unique and each of us is capable of seeing a situation as we desire. For this reason, we encourage a frank consultation with a respected faith leader in your spiritual tradition to help you evaluate whether the prospect of a child now is indeed a serious question for your marriage and family. It might be that you are simply suffering from perfectly natural and normal jitters or being more influenced by the secular culture than you think.

We stress that our answer is not intended as a full and definitive treatment of the topic for your marriage.  We hope to do little more than expose you to the Biblical approach through the lens of ancient Jewish wisdom as a starting point for the decisions that only you and your husband can make. 

Talking of husbands, we assume that if it is a “burning question” for you, you do have a spouse.  So we were a little struck by  the phrase you employed in your PS: “…a burning question for me…”   We’d have preferred to see, “…a burning question for us…”  or “…a burning question for my husband and me…”  Clearly these kinds of decisions should not be made unilaterally by only one spouse.

A brief word to you, Cathy, on the question of the type of birth control that is best to use.  Again, only in general terms, the least desirable is any procedure that leaves the individual permanently infertile such as tubal ligation or a vasectomy.  (Yes, we know they are theoretically reversible but we’ve had too much experience with regretful men and women to feel very confident about it.)  Further down the scale of undesirable are devices that obstruct skin-to-skin contact.  Finally, ancient Jewish wisdom recommends that a ‘sunset clause’ be included at any time that birth control is deemed necessary.  In other words, the couple should commit to reexamine the imperatives that drove them to birth control within a certain time period, say, perhaps between six and eighteen months, in order to discover if they still hold true.

Because the concern that one might be violating the religious teachings of one’s tradition can erode closeness in a marriage, we advise you to make sure that whatever decision you and your husband reach together is also discussed with your own respected religious authority. 

Wishing you a large, happy, and harmonious family,

Rabbi Daniel & Susan Lapin

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6 comments

mike says:

Interesting. We are a family that decided to throw back some cultural norms due to our understanding of the blueprint. Since Children are a blessing from the Lord, we thought, in what area of our lives do we stop blessing? If not, why should we apply a different approach to this area of our lives.

Furthermore, we had a friend who directed a pregnancy center who wrote a paper on the top 10 reasons why people get abortions and the top 10 reasons why people control their family size. When the conclusion for the both lists were identical, we were convicted.

We gave our womb to the Lord 9 children ago, and we now have a total of 12.

However, we are at this very point in life at a cross roads. My wife and I are tired. We also have not been as financially successful as we had anticipated, and our home is smaller than comfortable for our family size. It’s a small ranch home with 3 bedrooms (8 girls and 2 boys). Yikes. Not to mention, we are exhausted. My wife has been pregnant and/or breastfeeding for no less than 18 of our 20 years of marriage. Her view on our previous conviction has begun to wane. She has significant interest to have her tubes tied.

I have maintained the same conviction in spite of the enduring nature of our situation, but we are just now in the middle of discussion. I’ve given my wife the freedom to make the decision, whilst she knows that under these particular circumstances, I don’t think it’s honoring to the Lord, but I would support her. In spite of disagreeing with contraception, I’ve considered using condoms. My wife feels that condoms are sinful, but the tube tying is not. I find that train of thought challenging to follow.

I am in a difficult place: love my convictions, love my wife, love my God. How do love God and my wife at the same time in the most honorable way, without capitulating to cultural norms (even this many kids later).

At any rate, should you have some additional insight to your previous explanation and our situation, I would welcome it.

At present, we are missing one another while abstaining until we can come into agreement on this decision.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Mike–
Giving your wife the ‘freedom to make the decision’ is quite different from making the decision in a together (and equally yoked) fashion. I think that with twelve wonderful children, you owe her far more than merely (….BUT I would support her.) She deserves far more than this. Please read our response one more time carefully because your finding a certain “train of thought challenging to follow” suggests that you haven’t properly read and haven’t at all digested what we wrote about Biblical imperatives.
Your wife is 100% correct in what she considers sinful and if you were thinking with your Bible study hat on, you’d quickly remember why.
While there is indeed much more, for a start, please reread and carefully digest the implications of what we wrote.
Cordially
RDL

Grandpa says:

Thank you Rabbi, children are a blessing. Even with the one prodigal who with prayer will come back to G-d. Parental instructions change like the weather today. Torah (instructions) never changes. 19 grand kids and counting.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Good going there, Grandpa–
And looks like you haven’t given up on the prodigal! You never know. We have seen strange and unexpected returns.
Cordially
RDL

MICHAEL ROBERT HARRIS says:

I do not see “parents” in the Tanakh. Do you refer to modern Hebrew? Thank you.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

That’s correct, Mr. Harris,
The word for parents, HORIM, is a plural word with no singular version unlike the English which offers “parent”. However, throughout the Tanach, we do find only mothers and fathers no parents. We might address that in a future Thought Tools.
Cordially
RDL

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