Chapter 12, which covers the birthing, reads:
1. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2. Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If a woman conceives, and bears a male child; then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of her menstruation, shall she be unclean. 3. And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. 4. And she shall then continue in the blood of her purifying for thirty three days; she shall touch no consecrated thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying be fulfilled. 5. But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation; and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying sixty six days. 6. And when the days of her purifying are fulfilled, for a son, or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon, or a turtledove, for a sin offering, to the door of the Tent of Meeting, to the priest;Why is there a sin offering? Genesis 1:28 reads: And God blessed them, and God said to them, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. How could a fulfillment of a commandment be a sin, particularly when the contrary position not having a child, is considered a really big sin? We read in the Midrash:
Ben ‘Azzai lectured: He who refrains from procreation is as though he shed blood and impaired [God's] likeness.[Genesis rabbah 34:14]Someone who chooses to not have kids is for all intents a murderer according to tradition. So why is there a sin offering for fulfilling be fruitful and multiply? Twice in this section about birth we read in the days of her menstruation, shall she be impure. Leviticus 15:19 tells us that a woman is in menstrual impurity when she has a blood discharge. At the end of the seven-day period of the discharge she has to give an identical sin offering to this one at a birth. (Lev 28:30)
What is ta'amei, or impure, among animals, humans, buildings and clothing is all covered among chapters 11 through 15 in Leviticus. Such things as non-sacrificial animals and disease make sense, but what of menstruation? The blood of menstruation and childbirth is not voluntary; it comes with being a fertile woman and the process of birth. But it is in a very literal sense the shedding of blood, and it is that blood that renders the woman ritually impure. The loss of any body fluid is considered something defiling, and thus requiring a sin offering. The male equivalent of this is wasted seed, and this too is bloodshed, but again it may happen involuntarily, and thus is not punished like murder. Sin offering is for the sins we due to ignorance or lack of control. The worst punishment is the price of a pigeon.
This brings us back to ben Azzai and his quote about bloodshed. If this is outright murder then the death penalty applies. And as soon as ben Azzai says these lines he is called a hypocrite:
Said R. Eleazar to him: Teachings are becoming when they are uttered by those who practice them, but you, son of ‘Azzai, preach well, but do not fulfil your teaching! That is because I desire to study Torah, he pleaded, while the world can be preserved through others.[Genesis Rabbah 34:14]Ben Azzai was too busy studying to actually have children and left the preservation of the world to others. Ben Azzai however meets an untimely end. Ben Azzai using meditative means enters the higher realms. With nothing to ground him in this world, his soul does not return, killing his body. The executioner in such cases is not a human one but God.
This really worries me. If one takes this literally, it means I am a murderer and will meet an untimely end. A few years ago just after starting my master’s degree in Jewish Studies, I made a very agonizing and very personal decision to pursue my studies to the exclusion of having children. My view is that I could do one or the other well, I could not do both effectively. According to ben Azzai, that is a death sentence.
I am not alone here in my death sentence. Every Jew who decides not to have children is in this same conundrum. While the rest of the world has to worry about population growth, American Jews are concerned about population shrinkage. We are in a very real sense diminishing the Jewish people. Such is also true of intermarriage, as by traditional accounting when a man marries a gentile woman, there will be no more Jews from him, killing the people.
Only four times in all of Talmud, Mishnah, and Midrash, was ben Azzai called a rabbi though he is referenced over two hundred times. He was the perennial student, always studying or arguing with his teachers, like R. Akiba, but never really doing anything with his learning outside of the academy. Baba Metzia 33a, however reads:
If [a man's] own lost article and his father's lost article [need attention], his own takes precedence. [if] His own and his teacher's [then] his own takes precedence; [if] his father’ s and his teacher's [then] his teacher's takes precedence, because his father brought him into this world, whereas his teacher. ‘who instructed him in wisdom, brings him to the future world.
And in K'rithot 28a,
So it is also with the study of the law; if the son has been worthy [to sit] before the teacher, the teacher comes before the father in all places, because both a man and his father are bound to honour the teacher.Even though the Ten Commandments and much of Torah says to honor you mother and father, one is to honor your teacher more, because a teacher is a parent of the good soul, and can teach physical parents too. In the end of tractates Berakoth, Yebamoth, Nazir and K'rithoth, we read a saying by R. Eleazar, who also pointed out ben Azzai's hypocrisy, pointing out a solution:
R. Eleazar said in the name of R. Hanina: The disciples of the Sages increase peace in the world, as it is said, And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord; and great shall be the peace of thy children(Is. 54:13) . Read not ‘thy children’ [banayik], but ‘thy builders’[bonayik]. [K'rithoth 28b]
There are many ways to kill the next generation or build it up. One is by bodies in this world and one is by souls for the world to come. Both the physical and the spiritual need to be addressed, neither by itself is enough. Those not addressing one must address the other. Ben Azzai, who was so stuck in his books he did not teach, rarely seemed to do this. Those of us who do not have the children to save the Jewish people should at least try to save the soul by teaching and inspiring. Too many parents are too busy trying to raise their children to teach them the Shema, as it is written and you shall teach them to your children. That is where those us who do not have children come in, and where we can change from murderers to respected builders and builders of builders, of children from 2 to 92.
I am not a murderer. On the side of my desktop computer, I have a sign in Aramaic to remind me of that every day: R.Samuel b. Nahmani said in R. Jonathan's name: He who teaches his neighbor's child Torah, Scripture ascribes it to him as if he had begotten him. [Sanh. 19b] In my mind, and in many ways in the minds of the rabbis, the best way for some of us unable to have children is to Teach and inspire. I have made my decision to be a teacher, and I believe in perfect faith that this is what God intended for me. May it be the will of HaKadosh Baruch Hu, that I and many others inspire others to the beauty that is Torah.