More than 6,000 people attended 90 year old Winston Churchill’s funeral. More than 400 people attended 92 year old Chaya Gretman’s funeral. Both these lives were irrevocably altered by the Nazis, and the homage paid to them at death directly reflected this fact.
Who was Chaya Gretman?* Most of the Israelis who escorted her body to burial knew little about her. What they did know was that she was a Holocaust survivor who, as the victim of Nazi medical experimentation, could not bear children. When she died, her neighbors used social media to ask her extended family, the Jewish people, to pay her this final respect. Hundreds responded.
Last week, our Ask the Rabbi questioner asked whether there were single mothers in the Bible. We printed only part of the response we originally wrote. We were concerned about sounding insensitive to women who are despairing of marriage and yearning motherhood, so we deleted part of our answer.
What we left out was a paragraph discussing how the Tanach (Five Books of Moses, Prophets and Writings) heavily links widows and orphans. Society is obligated to care for widows and orphans, clearly suggesting that the word orphan refers to a fatherless child. What does this mean for our society, where so many make the voluntary choice to raise fatherless children? Does this suggest that mothers don’t matter, that a motherless child is not an orphan?
God’s instructions provide guidance for successful societies. A child whose mother is dead lacks so much, but society as a unit cannot fill that void. Individuals can and should provide extra warmth and loving kindness to such an orphan, but by definition those maternal qualities are hard for society to command or supply. A child whose father is dead lacks much, including protection and financial support. Those are things that we can obligate extended families and society to supply. The Bible does so.
Is this a proof that we must increase taxes and provide more social services to single mothers and their children? No, it is not. You see, the number of fathers who die is finite. We can deal with that. Once society devolves so that fatherhood is not valued and is voluntarily renounced, compensating for what those children lack moves beyond what is possible. In a similar way, in a healthy society most people marry and have children. Those children, and the children’s children, mourn the death of their parents and grandparents. When the rare individual dies childless, either because he or she was not blessed with children, or tragically because children pre-decease them, or, as in the case of Chaya Gretman, human cruelty decrees they be childless, society in general can step in.
As today’s culture validates, and even encourages, people not to have children, more and more people will – by choice – die without descendants. The older they are when they die, the fewer of their same-aged relatives and friends will be around. Perhaps, like Winston Churchill, they will have benefitted so many during their lives that multitudes of all ages will yearn to honor them (as did my husband who as a young boy attended Churchill’s funeral). Barring that, society will not be able to substitute for offspring, as it did for Chaya Gretman.
*A thank you to Jewish Mom blogger, Chana Jenny Weisberg, for bringing Mrs. Gretman’s funeral to my attention.