Zero Population Growth?

why do religious people have so many kids / such big large familes

Never Too Many
Recidivist Parents

“Catholic or careless?” half questioned, half sneered the neat, middle-aged man at the boarding gate.

The simple sight of my family had drawn the comment. To some, people having more than the proverbial 1.8 children are candidates for the Guinness Book of World Records.

“Jewish and careful,” I replied, and automatically I added, “and caring.”

It suddenly struck me why public places had been making me uncomfortable in recent years. Long ago, I had enjoyed airports and other busy places. But these days, I realized, those places are full of a vague, shadowy sensation of poking, pointing fingers. And at certain times, like this one, the usually unspoken thoughts actually surfaced from the murky depths.

There is, of course, always an uneasiness about being different. Curiously though, the average freak’s anxiety is tempered by the fact that he was created different, and that others realize that. My wife and I chose our beliefs, lifestyle and hence our family; we want it to grow. The starers and pointers know that too, and their stares are not the mere registering of surprise or the emoting of happiness, but negative, disapproving, almost sinister looks.

At first I felt bad; then I felt guilty – for feeling bad. After all, was I ashamed of my family? Certainly not. Yet the discomfort was unmistakably there. It grew from the realization that people didn’t understand. And perhaps a bit from concern about what the Talmud so often refers to as ayin hora (evil eye).

Whatever the source of my uneasiness, it has ruined airports for me. Not the greatest loss, I should admit, but it felt like a defeat, and a committed Jew should never, ever feel defeated.

Of course, not all the reaction is negative. There are older folks who look at my children and, no doubt, think of their own grandchildren. There are also open-minded people of all ages who honestly respect the determination and conviction of a couple that has willingly and happily shouldered the responsibility for a “large family.”

On the very flight we boarded after meeting Mr. Catholic-or-careless, a stewardess (expecting her first child, she confided) told my wife “I don’t know how you’ve raised them so beautifully, but I respect you. You’re an inspiration to me.”

And then there are the children, so many of them “only” children, who are positively buoyant at the sight, wondering, no doubt, what life with built-in playmates and friends must be like, life without loneliness and tiresome, empty luxuries.

But they are all the exceptions. For the most part, the reactions, verbalized or not, are things like:

“My, those people must be ignorant! Who could possibly want so many children?”
“Some people just don’t care about the world population problem!”
“Jews. Still trying to take over the world.”
“Heavens! Jews, just like us! How embarrassing!’
“That poor woman!”
“Those poor, deprived children!”
“What a horrible unfulfilling life they must have! They must have no time or money for anything meaningful!”

The appearance of a family of even two children, if close in age, has been known to elicit unpleasant responses from offended, delicate souls.

A few years back, in a northern California supermarket, a hard-faced older woman with a strong German accent turned to me as I wheeled my two small children in a double stroller, and said, without the faintest hint of a smile, “Zero Population Growth apparently doesn’t interest you.”

Fortunately or not, I was not in sufficient control of myself to conquer the urge to answer her.
“Madam,” I intoned through clenched teeth, “When I reach six million, I’ll consider stopping.”

The victory of a retort, though, in such things, is a hollow one. It might afford some gratification by intimidating the clod who expects only a sheepish smile for his or her unsolicited comment. But a retort can never truly address the issue. It can’t bestow a perspective, it can’t explain what life is all about.

The abyss of ignorance that yawns in those cynical souls, ignorance about the meaning of family, of responsibility, of love, of life itself, that chasm isn’t even minutely filled by a retort.

Yet time, sadly, just doesn’t allow for what should be spoken.

If only it did…

I would want to tell them how ironic it is that they suspect ignorance exactly where there is abundant knowledge. Knowledge of the often intricate and always exquisite body of law which is Halacha. Knowledge of that law which easily outstrips the knowledge the average American has of American law. Knowledge of the fact that the Torah is the Creator’s precious gift to mankind and is for the benefit of mankind. And knowledge that Jewish law and Jewish philosophy, in no uncertain terms, greatly favor the birth of many children.

I would want to tell them that my choice of family does not bespeak any lack of concern for global want, any more than does theirs, I live not in opulence, very likely not even in the comfort they themselves enjoy. If the reputed “population explosion” is not a factor in my daily life, it is certainly even less so in theirs. Global need is the real problem in any discussion of “population problems,” and indeed, it is a great problem even in our relatively uncrowded world. If the cynics were truly concerned with the problem of world hunger, they would do better to sell some of their own luxuries to alleviate it, than to preach extinction to others. Would they forgo their condos, even their VCR’s, for the sake of the starving? My children are my luxuries. My only ones.

I would want to tell them that the real reason for their choices of so drastically limited families is their concern for themselves, not for any starving masses.

I would want to tell them that, while they live in luxury at the expense of the future, I live forever, through the young shoots I plant during my short journey through this world. With so little of lasting meaning that can be left to the world, I maximize my contribution.

I would want to tell them that the ideals of Western Civilization are not my ideals. The society in which we live is essentially and overwhelming materialistic. When someone is heard to be “successful” the conclusion that he or she has accomplished something truly meaningful in the world is, at best, premature. Money has been made; that’s all. It is ironic; if children were dollars, no one in our world would begrudge us our quest.

I would want to tell them that, in any event, the “population explosion” is a myth, at present. In the not-too-distant past there were highly educated predictions of wall-to-wall people by the 80’s. The world’s problems at present – and for the foreseeable future – are problems not of population but of education and distribution. If America’s daily discarded food could be supplied to the starving of the world, they would be living lives they never dreamed of. What the world needs is not less people, but a larger social conscience, along with greater progress in science, technology, and, most importantly, in man’s relation to his Creator.
I would want to tell them that my wife and I think not of today’s dirty diapers but of tomorrow’s crowning contributions.

I would want to tell them that if they knew the intensity of my love and my wife’s for each one of our children, our concern for each of those uniquenesess, and our gratitude for each of those miracles, they’d wish us thousands more.

I would want to tell them that most beings deserving of the title human would readily conceded that a child is a blessing. I would them ask them to simply multiply the blessing that is one child by whatever factor they will, and to realize that blessings are not diminished by their abundance. On the contrary, they are enhanced.

I would want to tell those who see Jews as “taking over” the world that, if any people on earth deserved a high birth rate, the Jews do. Without even resorting to the distant past, a past saturated with expulsions, pogroms and hatred, for the wholesale shedding of Jewish blood one need only look a mere fifty years into the past, at the virtual destruction of European Jewry. Three million couples would have likely produced, had they been able to live, a greater yet number of children. Not one of the millions upon millions of souls, who could have been, exist today. They are not here because a world countenanced their butchering; that world dares disapprove of Jewish babies today?!

I would want to tell them to ponder the contribution that Jewish babies, when they’ve grown up, have been known to make to the world. Many a “world problem” has been alleviated by a Jewish child, not to mention the infinitely greater but silent mountain moving with which Jewish children’s Torah study has benefited an unknowing world.

I would want to tell the disapproving Jewish folk much the same. But I would add my strong suspicion that it is their own feeling of guilt which likely is the prime motivation of their disapproval.” Guilt for not themselves being greater aids in replacing the world’s Jews. They feel, deep in their essences – and rightfully so – that three cars, five televisions, summer homes, and regular overseas vacation (even to Israel) somehow do not measure up to the immeasurably more meaningful, though equally expensive and exceeding difficult, selfless choice of a large family,

I would want to tell them that, indeed, my wife works very hard, but succeeds with excellence at that work, and would feel quite insulted to be pitied for her rewarding efforts. Though she and I share the great number of household duties in our home, it is she who certainly bears the bulk of the responsibilities, and bears that bulk with pride and poise. Household chores are only as mundane and demanding as one perceives them to be. When one’s life is consecrated, one’s chores are as well. So I would want to tell the condescending commentators, pity yourselves, not us.

And I would like to tell them that our children certainly do not seem to suffer much for having siblings. At least they don’t act deprived. Of course they realize that they will likely never receive a pedigreed doll with a predetermined, cutesy name or a programmable clone of the latest TV cartoon mass murderer. But then again, they don’t have a TV to tell them that they are lesser human beings for the lack, either. They have, of course, much, much more. Real, live babies to learn responsibility for, babies who wet and cry and have more convincing bellybuttons than any Cabbage Patch Kid. They have no lack of someone always on hand to boost them up to a tree branch. Or a pair of someones to hold the ends of a jump rope. They have a ready and anxious choir, on call, at their whim, ready to belt out or harmonize any selection their spirits move them to sing. Our children are happy, and so are we.

The next time I’m standing in an airport or shopping mall, facing a smug, smiling face that has just belched forth a derisive or sarcastic comment about large families, I’m not sure what I’ll do. I would like to tell them so much.

I may just hand them this.

by  Rabbi Avi Shafran
Posted in: Hot Topics;  Relationships & Family