Being a religious single mother
After years of loneliness and failed dates, as yearning for child becomes intolerable, increasing number of national-religious women decide to take their fate in their hands, start family as single mothers while maintaining religious way of life. New phenomenon already dividing sector, irking rabbis
Gilit Chomsky • Ynet
Almost every school has one teacher who is an old maid. I had one too. The childless single woman, two intertwined fates. At least that's what we thought in those distant days at the religious girl's high school. A religious woman who hasn't married, what choice does she have? We were fond of her and felt pity for her. She was a living reminder of the existing threat: Please don't let it happen to me.
Sometimes I see her on the street, and it makes me sad. Mainly because I know that she always did have a choice. Today's generation of students already knows what she didn't teach us – that in the worst case, even if you don't get married, being a single parent is possible as far as Jewish religious laws are concerned.
Such a trivial solution. Why didn't they think of it before? The simple truth is that they did. There have always been observant women who became mothers, even without getting married for various reasons. But the stories were mostly vague and there was hardly any public halachic debate. The brave women simply established facts on the ground.
This is what was done, for example, by the eldest and beautiful daughter of a religious family with an aristocratic rabbinical background in a city in northern Israel. When she realized that her time was running out and couldn't find a match, she waited for her last sister to get married so as not to ruin her matchmaking, and took action.
She looked for a dance club in the city and went out there once or twice, until she met a good-looking secular man. She waited seven clean days, went to the mikveh, and got pregnant once or twice later. When the guy accused her of deceiving him, she admitted that she simply wanted a child. Today that child is married with children and is a prominent figure in the sector.
The global changes have not skipped women of the national-religious sector: The sperm bank was established, the internet revolution was launched, and they began demanding answers.
What should a rabbi do when facing the words, "Give me children or I'll die"? The rabbis chose to avoid a public debate. "This is a sensitive issue, making it public will cause damage," one of them explained.
The fear of a slippery slope dictated secrecy. Behind the scenes, those who knew how to ask received a permit. But in the age of the internet it's hard to maintain a secret debate, and there are those who think the damage is greater than the benefit.
In the words of Yifat, a single mother from the sector, "Our generation has studied the Halacha and we already know that it's possible. It's not the optimal situation, but this train has already departed."
The public discourse began in August 2007, when a religious single woman using the name "girl in pain" sent Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, head of the Petah Tikva hesder yeshiva, the following question: "I ask of you to take the courage to write in a way fit for all the answer to a question which has been bothering me for a long time.
"I am a 36-year-old good-looking and educated woman who has been trying to get married for more than 15 years, unsuccessfully… I want a child!!! I'm begging you, please write the entire issue from the beginning to the end with a final conclusion. Am I allowed to bring a child into this world without being married? To be exact, I'm asking in what way may I bring a child into the world."
The rabbi gave a detailed answer, discussing the sanctity of the family and the need to do everything possible to establish and maintain it. His bottom line was that at a certain age and under certain conditions, a woman cannot be prevented from fulfilling her motherhood, and even recommended ways for it to be done. The response was published on the website of a Petah Tikva yeshiva, and is still there to this very day. The train had left the station.
The fear that women who have remained unmarried will feel less of a pressure to marry and that family values would be hurt has generated some scathing statements.
A year later, at a conference of Tzohar rabbis, who are considered attentive to the public on Halacha issues, Rabbi Nachum Eliezer Rabinovich, head of the Birkat Moshe hesder yeshiva in Ma'ale Adumim, ruled that "bringing an orphan into the world is an unthinkable act. Any woman who plans to give birth to such a baby just to fulfill her desire to be a mother – there is no greater evil and cruelty. Such a woman does not deserve to be a mother to any human creature."
Rabbi Yaakov Ariel added that "there is no such thing as a single-parent family, just like no square can be round. A family is a father, mother and children."
It should be noted that such sayings are marginal, and most rabbis have reservations about them.
Rabbi Baruch Gigi, head of the Har Etzion Yeshiva in the settlement of Aon Shvut, says "it's likely that Rabbi Rabinovich meant that a child raised in a single-parent environment suffers from this reality. From this point of view I would like to stress that any person dealing with such issues should act with supreme sensitivity. Expressions of cruelty are inappropriate here, and this is definitely not the way to get to these women."
The child's welfare may not be the banner the objectors seek to raise. A study published by the National Academy for Parenting Practitioners in Britain showed, for example, that the most successful children – both intellectually and psychologically – were raised by two mothers. Moreover, there are children who have already grown up and live among us, and we could just ask them.
S., who is married to a man who was raised by a single mother, says frankly, "Naturally, I thank God for his birth, but it's apparent that he was not raised in a regular family. He's hurt. He doesn't have intuitions which come naturally for others. He doesn't really know what a man does.
"When we had a child, things were very difficult for me after the birth. The burden was not shared between us naturally. He wanted to do everything that I did, and it suddenly occurred to me that he sees his fatherhood as motherhood."
She shows an understanding for Rabbi Rabinovich's ruling, saying that "he's a man. A man has no way of knowing what it's like being a woman who needs a child."
But such accusations are not the heart of the problem. In fact, the vast majority of the single mothers in the sector enjoy an empathic embrace and the full support of their immediate vicinity.
The halachic issue is a different matter. In August 2009, one of the rabbis argued that Rabbi Cherlow had gone back on his ruling and that "there is no rabbinical religious authority allowing a single woman to conceive."
Rabbi Cherlow denies this, and in any event it must be said clearly: There is more than one rabbinical religious authority allowing single women to conceive.
Contrary to the impression created, we are not talking about lone rabbis or those perceived as particularly permissive. But until now, these permits were given in utmost discretion.
Rabbi Gigi agrees that "the direct halachic question is given for dealing with the matter in proper ways." He stresses, however, that "the willingness to rely on certain halachic components depends on the need, urgency and legitimacy the ruling authority sees, after considering the variety of questions on the agenda. One must balance between the aspect of the mother's needs and the needs of the child and society as a whole, and beware of general lawlessness."
Not in utmost discretion
Rabbi Cherlow doesn't believe in discussions in utmost discretion, and meets with students at the seminary for girls at Bar-Ilan University.
"The problem with the discussion not being held in public," the rabbi says, "is that it hurts female members of the sector who are sure that it's prohibited. While 10% of the girls are aware of the entire chain of events, 90% are certain that this possibility does not even exist. This way they are suffering a great injustice, because in practice it's hard to find a rabbi who won't allow it, under certain conditions."
Perhaps it's easier to allow it in utmost discretion, without requiring a declaration which undermines the values of the traditional family.
"If this is Halacha, why hide it? A halachic debate must be public. The burden of proof lies on those seeking to hide. Beyond that, lack of publicity gives the Rabbinate a great amount of power. This is not a desired situation. The right situation is an open debate, while dealing with the questions being raised. In addition, the absence of a clear statement sometimes generates urban legends, which have nothing to do with reality."
According to Rabbi Cherlow, the connection between Halacha and science must be public as well. "There is a rabbi who offers women an alternative in the form of freezing eggs until they reach an old age. I find this outrageous. First of all, it's an illusion. The chance that 10 eggs would be removed from a 37-year-old woman's body and that one of them would conceive a child is zero. Second, it puts the woman in danger. We are talking about very unpleasant months for the woman, to say the least, under general anesthesia and a life-threatening situation, not to mention the immodesty in the entire process."
What about the child's benefit? There are those who say this is cruel.
"I find this argument invalid. The child's benefit is a modern-Western argument, which does not exist in Judaism and doesn't hold water. There's no doubt that the best thing for a child is to grow up in a regular family with a father and mother, and there is no argument about that. But can anyone guarantee anything to a child born to a regular family? I can give you 10 types of normative families, which could have allegedly been forbidden to have a child because it's not in his benefit.
"The argument of the society's benefit and how we want it to be is complicated. What do we prefer, 40-year-old mothers or 40-year-old single women? Woman who remain part of the religious society or women who feel they no longer belong?"
In this context one should read what T. has to say. She is a 36-year-old religious single woman who writes a blog in a leading social network. She addressed a new battle launched during a Tzohar rabbis' conference in July, in which the focus was shifted from the halachic question to the public question.
One rabbi claimed during the conference that "there are 'lightweight' religious people who couldn't care less about Halacha, and suddenly they have one wise student they can count on. This is not the way to rule, but with a thorough discussion between rabbis debating and ruling."
T. writes, "…There are also religious women who are not really lightweight, who see Torah as an important part of their lives, and still they haven't gotten married and want a child. My sleeve reaches my elbow and I only wear skirts. I educate girls from very religious homes, and all the parents view me as a role model. The number of tears I have shed over failed dates, only God and my pillow know. Does that make me less religious? We, who consult a rabbi who will allow us to conceive, we are the issue."
T., by the way, found a very promising relationship.
Crying at rabbi's house
Moriah (not her real name), 42, is the mother of Yael, who is two and a half months old. After turning 40, she began considering the sperm bank. A year after making that decision, she gave birth to Yael. She graduated from a religious girls' high school and also worked as a teacher in a religious girls' high school. A beautiful and fluent woman.
Moriah isn't surprised when she is accused of being cruel. "It's somewhat true," she says honestly. "There is something anti-social about it. I'm the one who wants a child and I did it for my own sake. It's not the recommended way, and I say wholeheartedly, I am not carrying any banner. Before a certain age one shouldn't even consider being a single parent, and must make every effort not to reach this situation.
"I would like to say to all single women: You must break walls and get married. Only when all hope is lost and the clock begins ticking – you should go for it. I think you should wait at least until the age of 38 before even considering it."
And you didn't break walls?
"There's always someone you think is the right one, or the wrong one. And life goes on and time passes. Each woman has her own story. I can give you a list of 30 charming, beautiful women with a career, who didn't get married. If I could I would get married, but it just didn't happen to me.
"Perhaps at first I wasn't mature enough, and I missed opportunities here and there. But the truth is that today I get much more offers in dating sites. A single woman with a child sounds very sexy. I get offers from divorced men who have already had children and don't want to be threatened with one more as soon as possible. It's easier for me too now. I'm not stressed, I already have my child."
Do you think there is a slippery slope? Is it easier for religious women today not to marry?
"Most women, religious and non-religious, want to marry for a variety of reasons. So do I. I always knew that if I didn't get married I would have a child alone, and the truth is that at first I didn't even plan to ask a rabbi. The first woman I consulted was a woman gynecologist.
"I went to a rabbi only after leaving the sperm bank. At the last moment I wanted advice after all. I had to decide between a non-Jew's sperm and a Jew's sperm, and it was important for me to do the right thing. After all, I'm still a religious woman planning to raise children in a religious family. I wanted the support to be less halachic and more spiritual. In my meeting with the rabbi I cried for the first time, I simply collapsed. I told him how much I wanted a child and how difficult it was.
"The rabbi understood, expressed his solidarity and suggested that I find a supporting community. And the truth is that I'm moving because of that, to live next to good friends. That rabbi's community has two mothers like me. People accept and support us.
"In general, our society has undergone a revolution in the past few years. The problem of single women in the sector is discussed a lot. I believe that the option given to women to raise a child alone can shake up the single men. There are quite a lot of young men in our sector who think that because they don't have a uterus it’s not urgent, and that the minute they decide to marry all the girls of a certain age will make themselves available because they're stressed. They might discover that the world has changed and that they should change their approach."
How did your family respond?
"My mother is today the happiest person alive. I am the little, pampered daughter. I don't have a father and we are very close. But she's still from a different generation, and I made the decision on my own.
"I only told her when I was already pregnant. Before that, I tried to get her used to the idea. We have two old maids in our family who everyone looks at with pity. I played on her conscience that I don't want to be like them. After I told her, she consulted a haredi rabbi and he said the simple and most obvious thing: 'Don't judge a person until you're in their shoes.'
"I couldn't have done it without my family. Everyone supported me, including my rabbi brother. They are also helping me financially. Money is a painful issue, the economic distress is huge. This is another thing girls must consider. You must have financial support."
How did this experience affect your faith?
"When I told my mother, she looked at the picture of my late father and said, 'Sir, you didn't pray hard enough.' I told her, 'Mother, you have no idea how hard he prayed.' I have no doubt that God held my hand throughout the process. I became pregnant very fast, it all went smoothly. I got a wonderful doctor who was the right messenger. My faith has only become stronger since the pregnancy and won't stop getting stronger."
Did you consider a property agreement so that Yael could have a father?
"No. I didn't want a father who wasn't my spouse, because I have yet to despair in terms of finding a relationship. Shortly after making the decision, I traveled with a famous rabbi and I told him what I was planning to do. He said, 'Why should you?' and suggested that I simply find a guy, sleep with him and get pregnant. This is definitely not the spirit of Halacha, but retroactively, such a child is a legal Jewish child. I told him that as long as I'm not in a relationship, I don't want my child to have a father who doesn't live with me."
What's the most difficult part in your life as a religious single parent?
"There are a lot of small difficulties. Naturally, the economic distress. The State helps out a lot and there are many reliefs, but the bottom line is that I'm a single breadwinner with a baby.
"And the main thing is that you have no one to share it with, mentally and technically. I don't have a nanny, it's just me and Yael. I don't have money to pamper myself at the gym, for example. And if I want to go out for a walk in the neighborhood, whether it's hot or cold, she comes with me in her stroller.
"It's a huge blessing and a great difficultly. Sometimes I recommend avoiding such a situation, and sometimes I warmly recommend going for it. I wouldn't give up on Yael, but getting married is a natural thing. I still think that a father, mother and child are a family. It's the right thing."
Did you consider having a child with a homosexual man from your sector?
"Not even for a second. I didn't want any more conflicts. Being a single parent is enough. I also knew that it would kill my mother."
Yifat, the mother of Roy and Sara, did consider it. In fact, the birth of her and Ronny's oldest son was what completed Ronny's process of disclosing his sexual orientation. They signed a parenthood agreement and share a son and daughter. For now.
"I want another child from him. He's not as enthusiastic about it, but he won't have a choice in the end," she laughs.
You started at 34, a little early.
"Who wants to wait till the age of 42 when you want five children? We all postpone starting a family because we hope to be in the norm, but there's a limit. I reached my limit. I saw that I couldn't find a spouse, and I was already yearning for a child. I had the passion. They told me I was brave, but it isn't exactly bravery, having such a passion. You can't see straight."
Didn't you consider the sperm bank?
"I didn't exactly think about it operationally, I just started discussing it with my surroundings. I shared that I wanted it, and was approached by Irit Koren (who wrote the book 'A Closet within a Closet' about homosexuals and lesbians in the religious society). While writing her book, she met Ronny, a homosexual from the sector, and felt that he was searching for the same thing. She suggested that we meet.
"My first reaction was no. Then I said, after all these dates, what harm could one meeting do? Gradually I realized that this solution has a lot of advantages. We consulted a rabbi together to get the opinion of Halacha.
"The rabbi studied the matter for a month and a half and raised some options. One of his suggestions was that we get married, have children and get divorced. But I don't want to be a divorcee and I don't believe in putting up a show and lying. It's disrespectful to the sanctity of marriage and relationships."
Your children will still grow up in a religious society, with a father openly violating an explicit Torah prohibition.
"First of all, the fact that he's gay doesn't mean he's violating a prohibition. Whoever wants to follow him to the bedroom and see what he's doing is welcome to do so. It's no different than other things you can sometimes find in people's bedrooms.
"I'm not denying that there are many problems, it's true. But everyone's life is full of surprises. Our bedroom issue is off limits for the child. He goes to a religious kindergarten and receives a religious education. When he grows up he will know about Halacha, like we all do, and make his own decisions. It's true that at first I preferred a daughter. I think it's harder for boys to accept homosexuality."
How did the parents respond?
"The parents were wonderful. Before it happened my father took me to all the rabbis to receive blessings and virtues for a wedding, and naturally hoped it would happen to me in the regular way. But the moment I told him I was pregnant he was there for me.
"We had Roy's circumcision ceremony at the synagogue of my parents community, without secrets and lies and embarrassment, and it was an exciting event which people still talk about to this day. People shared our joy above and beyond. We received blessings and presents and equipment from people we didn't even know. We are a very close family, and Ronny and Roy and Sara are part of the family, there's no doubt about it."
Some rabbis are concerned about the community's warm embrace.
"I think that rabbis are most scared of breaking the family setting, and it does break it. But being alone and yearning for a child can make you so miserable that they won't be able to prohibit it, because women just won’t listen. So I'll be the kind of religious woman rabbis don't like. I didn't violate a prohibition and I did start a family."
If you're already a single parent, wouldn't it be better to avoid the homosexuality conflict?
"I think there are much more advantages than disadvantages. I have a partner, economically and mentally. I can be sick and there is someone to take care of them. And the most important thing is that my children have a father, not just a mother who strangles them with love.
"It also gives me time for myself. I go on dates, go out with friends. Sometimes we spend Shabbat with friends and they laugh at us that we're the most normal couple. Beyond that, this is absurd, but the fact that I signed an agreement with a homosexual man and started a family kept me in the religious society. Many friends my age who are still single have already begun opening the TV on Shabbat. Because let's face it, how much longer can you sit alone?"
What do you regret?
"Only one thing: Not having time to read anymore since becoming a mother."
Affair with married man
R. is probably located at the end of the spectrum of possibilities for single parenting. Her parents were among the founders of a religious kibbutz. In 1987, before turning 40, she gave birth to her only son, who is 23 years old today. A combat officer in the Israel Defense Forces, he is active in all of the sector's classic institutions.
R. is the eldest sister among three siblings, who are all married and maintain a religious lifestyle. She works in Jerusalem, has a bachelor's degree in world history and social work and a master's degree in social work.
"My story is not the classic one," she admits. "Throughout my life I've had many friends in one relationship or another, but none of these relations matured into marriage. At the age of 38 I met a married man and we became romantically involved. After we both agreed and expressed our desire, I got pregnant. My happiness reached new heights."
Not exactly the Orthodox scenario. Weren't you afraid of the reactions?
"The family welcomed my pregnancy with great joy, as did my friends. And those who found it difficult, it's okay. I define myself as a 'woman leading a religious lifestyle,' but I wasn't worried about the question of the 'traditional family,' because no one was really interested in the painful days I went through, feeling that I might miss out on married life and remain childless. It's not the common route, but giving up on motherhood is more difficult."
But this non-conventional situation moved you away from the definition of a "religious family."
"My new situation has not changed anything in my faith. I lead a religious lifestyle for historic motives – tradition, Holocaust, habits, framework, etc. Nonetheless, knowing that I have to raise a child with a clear line, I was strict about these things particularly in terms of atmosphere and belonging. The investment definitely paid off."
What do you regret?
"Not having another child. Fortunately, I didn't know I would face such financial hardships, but I overcame them as well. An infrastructure of an apartment, a regular job and a social-family network are very important when taking this road."