Faith, Fertility and Fear

Almost everyone notices that religious couples tend to have more children then secular couples.  Among American Jews the trend is pronounced.  American Jews fall into two categories, religious and secular.  I define religious as those who believe that God gave His message to mankind through Moses on Mount Sinai about 3,300 years ago and who regard that message, the Torah, as the constitution of Judaism.  Only about 20% of Jewish Americans are religious.  In the United States, where the national average is 1.8 births per woman, secular Jewish women average about 1.6 births per woman. The figure for religious Jewish women is just over 4.8.  During our family excursions, Susan and I were always amused when strangers, noting our seven children, would nod knowingly and, leaning in conspiratorially, whisper to us, “Catholic, right?” 

It was not hard to discover that many doctoral dissertations in many universities have been written attempting to explain the correlation between religiosity and large families.  They range from fatuous to foolish and from pedantic to perplexing.   They assume religious couples know no better or are backwards and unable to accept modern science.  Almost without exception, they ignore the positive effects of religion on family formation. I would like to suggest three benefits.

We are more comfortable exercising authority over our children.  Susan and I do not run a democratic household; we eagerly solicit everyone’s views and preferences but the final decision is ours.  The reason is because the fifth commandment, “Honor your father and your mother…” (Exodus 20:12) appears in the first tablet of the Ten Commandments, which detail man’s obligations toward God.  Commandments six through ten detail obligations humans have towards one another.  One might assume that honoring parents should fall into the second set since it addresses the obligations that one set of humans (children) has towards another set of humans (parents).  But no; its position in the first five indicates that it is not our parents demanding honor, but God insisting that we deliver such honor to our parents. 

When I insist that our children respect Susan or when she demands that they honor me, neither of us does so with any diffidence.  We confidently assert God’s wishes, not our own.  We are not acting like tinhorn dictators but like responsible parents carrying out our Creator’s wishes.  Based on what I have read in popular child rearing articles and books, secular people tend to grapple with the question of by what right do they exercise authority over their children.  If you feel uneasy about this question, having a child can be quite frightening. 

Second, it is also frightening to feel powerless over the direction of our children’s development.  We know that it is our obligation to initiate guidance for our children rather than merely reacting to their foibles.  It goes without saying that, “If your child asks you tomorrow, saying…” (Deuteronomy 6:20), you are obliged to provide the answer.  But how about if your child doesn’t ask you?  Then, “You shall tell your child…” (Exodus 13:8) 

However, if you don’t feel comfortable directing your family’s trajectory, you will feel out of control and fearful of how your children will turn out.  Obviously there are no guarantees when it comes to one’s children but parents who comfortably and confidently shape their children’s development are far more likely to succeed than parents who allow their children to shape their own destiny out of misguided obeisance to trendy ideas of child autonomy.  One of King David’s most disastrous children was his fourth son, Adoniyah.  About him Scripture records, “All his days, his father had never saddened him by saying, ‘Why did you do this?’”  (I Kings I:6) Leaving aside the question of how David failed in his duty as a father, we know that religious parents do not mind ‘saddening’ their children by asking, “Why did you do this?”  Thus religious couples tend to feel less trepidation about their children because they feel confident about actively teaching them and they have a pretty good idea of what to teach them.

Finally, religious parents tend to feel more confident about gender specific education which generally works better than imposing contemporary fads upon little kids.  Teach the boys one way and the girls another way just as God told Moses to teach the Israelites.

“…and God called to [Moses] from the mountain saying, ‘thus you shall say (AMaR)  to the house of Jacob and [thus shall you] speak (TaGiD) to the sons of Israel.’”
(Exodus 19:3)

Ancient Jewish wisdom assures us that this is no mere poetic repetition.  ‘House of Jacob’ refers to women, while ‘sons of Israel’ refers to men.  What is more, the Hebrew word AMaR, is a more gentle word for speaking than TaGiD, which specifies speaking  in a very firm way. 

The identical usage of AMaR (gentle) and TaGiD (firm) is found again here:

Ask your father and he will firmly speak(TaGiD),
[ask your] grandparents and they will say (AMaR) to you.
(Deuteronomy 32:7)

Everyone knows that one gets far more gentle treatment from one’s grandparents than from one’s father.

Being more gentle in how we instruct our daughters and firmer with our sons doesn’t come easily to the secular parent swayed by current notions of gender fluidity and other destructive ideas about boys and girls.  Again, the advantage is to the religious parent who, with good reason, embarks upon the entire child-rearing enterprise with ever so much more confidence that the secular man or woman.  It is truly no wonder that religious couples tend to bring more babies into the world with confidence and joy.



14 thoughts on “Faith, Fertility and Fear”

  1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

    Dear Bob–
    I am really sorry that you and your siblings communicate so very infrequently. That makes me sad. We are obviously all heavily influenced by how we’re raised and, in turn, we influence our children by how we raise them.

  2. I have to say that this one was more of a head scratcher for me. I followed most of it and in general saw what you were saying (the duality and division of teaching with firmness to one and gentleness to the other). I guess what I couldn’t follow was how this related to the gender role content of the education. I grew up in a very religious family (to the point that some of the kids in my school thought I was Amish) and yet my parents only had three children. Further, except for a few specific incident, I can’t say that our parents treated my brother and I with firmness and my sister with gentleness. From my perspective they treated each one of us completely different. Actually, looking back there were times I wish my parents had treated me with more firmness. Looking back I would not hold out how we were treated as an example. My parents, many times, pushed the living martyr thing too far. Their value structure put: God first, church second, other people third, family fourth, and themselves last. Today, my parents have “graduated” to glory, I speak to my brother once every couple of years and mostly by phone, and my sister about once every three months. For the most part my siblings are cordial to one another. One thing I do give my parents credit for is that my siblings, including myself are active in our (separate) churches and draw near to God.

  3. Excellent information! I am the fifth of seven children with sadly a father who walked away from his children several decades ago and hides behind his “religion.” He has never once tried to reach out and find his children and this is completely opposite of this teaching. My mother did her best and raised good children.

    We suffered not having a father in our lives and very recently he happened to be attending my sisters wedding. She has a flimsy relationship with him. He has never apologized for his failures. Yes failures. When I asked why he never came back he said,’ I would be dead had I stayed.’ I said well what about us? To which he could not reply. Truly the lights were on but no one was and is home in his head. Pitiful!

    This teaching confirmed for me what I always was taught and believed a father should be.
    Thank you for this Rabbi Lapin

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Peg–
      how sad for all of you and how especially sad for him. A largely wasted life. I am hoping that the seven of you remain close and provide the fullness of family for one another.

  4. A joy to read, Rabbi! You say it much more eloquently than I.

    The eldest of eight in, yeah, a Catholic family, Kris

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thanks Kristin–
      I do hope that y’all remain close to all your siblings–it is a great blessing to have a number of siblings and to be close to them. Susan and I gain immeasurable pleasure when our children get together as they frequently do and when they include us, we delight in their non-stop hysterical laughter as they relive their childhood.

  5. Dear Rabbi, it was quite instrutive. In portuguese, Brazil’s official language, AMaR literally mean “to love”. Amazing, don’t you think?

    transitive verb
    to love

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Alessandro–
      Amazing! The magic of human communication and the astounding story of the evolution of languages is full of wonderful surprises.
      Thanks for this one.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Yes, Lisa–
      House of Jacob is ancient Jewish wisdom’s ‘shorthand’ for the women of the community. So much so, that from the 20th century, the network of schools bringing high level education to Jewish girls are called the House of Jacob (or Bayt Yaakov) schools in whichever city one is located.

    1. As a mother of 8, you are right on with the comments and conclusions that people “come up with”. I have often pitied parents who do not acknowledge the higher authority of God and His word. What a much more difficult job child raising would be! People have asked me what my secrets are for successfully raising children. The “secret” is my love for and relationship with God. But that’s not the quick trick that most of them are looking for. Of course, we both know that a large family is not an absolute indication of the observance of God’s authority and good parental guidance, any more that a small family is a contraindication for it. Appreciate you and your comments on this often times misunderstood subject.

      1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

        Dear Michele–
        Of all people you really do understand the dynamics of large families and faith. You have inspired so many people, even well beyond those of whom I know. May you and your wonderful family be blessed with a joyous and uplifting Christmas and a healthy and prosperous new year.

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