Ask the Rabbis // Contraception
Judaism does not restrict a woman in regard to her choices concerning pregnancy. She has a choice to bear children or not to bear children (Talmud Bav’li, Yevamot 65b; Mahar’shal in Yam Shel Shlomo 1:8). The injunction to “Be fruitful and multiply,” the ancient rabbis ruled, does not apply to women, because the Torah does not ask someone to do something that might endanger his or her life and health. On the other hand, a man who has not yet brought children into the world (ideally at least one of each gender) may not use contraception unless the woman he is with faces some sort of danger to her life or health. Coitus interruptus in the course of lovemaking, however, is permitted if its intent is incidental and not deliberately intended to prevent pregnancy (Tosefot Ri’d on Yevamot). There are enough classical halachic opinions regarding allowable methods of contraception to cover most contemporary methods, but since there is no space to elucidate them here, best to consult your rabbi.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Thousand Oaks, CA
Secular Jews are not influenced by traditional edicts to “be fruitful and multiply” or “not to spill one’s seed.” However, we do recognize that there are benefits to contraception, including female health, family planning and disease prevention. In the end, Humanistic Judaism takes the position that individuals will make their own decisions as to which birth control methods, if any, they wish to use. This is not a privilege but a right that needs to be protected.
We are living in an age that the ancient rabbis or even our great-great-grandparents could not have imagined. Premarital sex is commonplace today, if not encouraged, as part of building a relationship with a caring partner. Promiscuity is equally prevalent. “Friends with benefits” is a phenomenon of our time. Even the idea of marriage for love and as a sexually exclusive monogamous relationship is relatively modern.
Perhaps it would be easier to live in a less complicated time. But the clock can’t be wound back. And so we need to face all these modern and often complicated choices with as much wisdom and caution as possible. Which, in many instances, includes the wise use—and easy availability—of contraception.
Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
New York, NY
When it comes to methods of both contraception and assisted fertility, bioethics sources within Judaism are copious. The consensus, as with abortion, is that the physical and mental health of the mother comes first. A society or corporation that restricts access to medically safe abortion or contraception is one in which Jews are not free to practice their religion.
In a free society, the decision of whether, or when, to have children is a matter of individual conscience. Jewish law and tradition take into account the stress upon partners and existing children when excess family size or timing might impair the development or well-being of the parents or existing children. (See Rav Moses Trani, Kiryat Sefer on Yad, Issurei Bi’ah, 21; “Contraception within Contemporary Orthodoxy,” by Gedalia Meyer and Henoch Messner and Integral Halachah: Transcending and Including, by Rabbis Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Daniel Siegel.)
Across the spectrum of Jewish practice, the accepted and/or endorsed circumstances for and types of contraception and fertility assistance vary greatly and are considered on a situation-by-situation basis. While the trauma of infertility and the intention to “be fruitful and multiply” are honored throughout the Torah and Jewish history itself, there is no explicit prohibition against contraception within Torah. Methods that prevent conception rather than “spilling seed” are preferred by some, so IUDs and the pill are most often prescribed where this is a consideration.
Save for in a few sects, sexual pleasure within a committed relationship is also a primary Jewish value. Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu, the late chief rabbi of Israel, writes in his book, Darkei Tahara: “A man is obligated to make his wife happy in the mitzvah of marital relations…(Pesachim 72B, Rashi, derived from Exodus 21:10). A partner who withholds from relations…to deliberately cause…anguish is transgressing the Torah (Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer, 76:11).” Regardless of gender, based on the principle of pikuach nefesh (saving a life), it’s permissible to seek out barrier methods and safer assisted fertility processes in the event of a transmissible disease like AIDS.
Rabbi Goldie Milgram
Judaism’s first guidance on contraception is simply to discuss it. Our tradition is not prudish. Racy Bible stories, sexualized medieval mysticism and more can be helpful today, when we’re often uncomfortable discussing sex. We mustn’t teach our children too little or too late. Given the physical risks of sexually transmitted diseases and the emotional consequences of unplanned pregnancies, we must teach contraception prophylactically. And that’s not just a civic responsibility, it’s a spiritual one: Sex education belongs in religious school classrooms—and on the bimah.
More broadly, Jewish values support and commend contraception. This applies not just with premarital sex but for wives and husbands as well. Halachically speaking, families need not be huge: Shammai says two sons, Hillel says a son and a daughter, and a variant text (Mishnah & Tosefta Yevamot 6:6) says two children of any gender suffice, fulfilling our command (Gen. 1:28) to “be fruitful and multiply.” Rabbi Arthur Waskow suggests that in our ecologically imperiled era, “be fruitful” is the first commandment we’ve performed collectively; having now filled the world, humanity should stop before we fill it past capacity. Contraception protects women’s agency; it prevents overpopulation; it saves lives. Contraception is kosher!
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
The rabbis of ancient days spent considerable energy exploring questions about contraception and procreation. Textual sources demonstrate that a variety of forms of contraception were widely used. Those rabbis explored and debated the circumstances in which contraception could or could not be used. For example, according to Jewish law, a man is not allowed to “waste seed” —spill semen without purpose—so the use of coitus interruptus would not have been acceptable.
Traditionally, procreation was considered an obligation of a man but not of a woman. So a woman, once she had allowed her husband to fulfill his obligation, could make use of contraception that did not “waste seed,” such as ingesting herbs that prevented conception.
As a Reform Jew, I focus my concerns about contraception more on the sexual freedoms and protections of both men and women. Nowadays, it is incumbent upon Jewish legal authorities to allow for the use of contraception—as Reform Judaism does—so that we can reduce physical, emotional and spiritual risks and diminish the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and infections. Judaism actively supports a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body if and when she chooses to procreate or prevent pregnancy.
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
Judaism has always promoted marriage and raising children as mitzvot. The relevant sources start in the very beginning of Genesis, with all humans being commanded to follow the lead of Adam and Eve: “Thus shall a man leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, so that they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). The tradition recognizes the value of the marital bond, including its physical component, separate from the issue of procreation. Additionally, rabbinic texts discuss how many children a couple should have and when their obligation to be “fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and master it” (Genesis 1:28) has been completed. Finally, it is noteworthy that the sages discussed contraception explicitly, albeit in different terms and with different understandings of the human reproductive system. Some allowed contraception because they viewed it as an extension of the obligation to protect one’s physical and mental health. Others allow it in situations without such risks. In traditional sources, the use of contraception was always considered against a backdrop of sexuality within marriage and a commitment to raising children.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
Judaism’s highest commitment is to life. Its goal is to repair the world to the point where life wins out over all its enemies (like oppression, war, sickness). To assure the continuity of life, the Torah instructs humans to have children, to “be fruitful and multiply.” This mitzvah can be fulfilled minimally by having two children. But the Talmud suggests that parents should keep going because “[God] created the world not to be void, but to be settled”—that is, filled with life (Isaiah 45:18). If parents leave behind three or more children, then the world will be filled with more life. Creating family and having children comes ahead of contraception.
Judaism is equally committed to advancing the quality of life. Therefore, if the couple wants to wait until they establish their relationship in marriage, or to accommodate professional training and advancement needs, or to space the children to better raise and educate them, I would affirm the use of contraception—though more haredi Orthodox rabbis tend to disagree on this.
Finally, contraception is always morally and religiously preferable to abortion as a form of birth control, and contraception to protect health is always a mitzvah. As a result of historic traditions, Jewish law prioritizes female over male forms of contraception and chemical methods over barrier methods such as condoms and diaphragms. The bottom line is: Use contraception in the service of life.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
Unlike Catholicism, Judaism believes that the purpose of sex is not procreation but intimacy. The Bible makes that clear in the second chapter of Genesis: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and leave his mother. He shall cleave unto his wife and they shall become one flesh.” The purpose of sex is to orchestrate two separate halves as one indivisible whole. Of course, Judaism loves children, and there is a mitzvah for a couple to have at least a boy and a girl—and hopefully many more—so contraception is discouraged until children are born. But Judaism does not believe that a marriage should be undermined by children being born at such regularity that a couple is financially or emotionally unable to cope. Contraception may be used in an effort to find the appropriate balance between the infinite blessing of life and a couple’s need to bond as man and woman, not just as mother and father.
As to methods of contraception, Judaism insists on sex being the joining together of flesh against flesh. Artificial barriers like condoms in marriage are an impediment to that deep intimacy. The pill or an IUD is prescribed instead.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Jewish law offers guidance on everything—contraception is no different. It finds some methods of contraception problematic per se, some methods less so and some not at all. Besides the mechanical issues, however, there is, biblically, a mandate to have a boy and a girl; and rabbinically, a mitzvah to have more children beyond that; and these are offset, often, by the physical and emotional needs of the mother. So when you put it all together, there are methods such as condoms that are almost always frowned upon, and there are methods such as the IUD or the pill that are acceptable on a per-need basis to most halachic decisors, including some who believe in routine spacing of children. What we frown on is the idea of using contraception because, for example, having a child at this point is going to get in the way of a trip to Hawaii. Family planning for convenience alone is not really in the Jewish playbook.
There are communities that seem to shun contraception entirely, but less so than you might think. Particularly in Israel, there are more decisors than not who would take into account a woman’s feeling overwhelmed. Of course, this is in the context of a community that feels children are a blessing and a mitzvah. A conservative Christian commentator recently noted that Israel is the only country in the world with both a high quality of life and a birthrate that is holding steady.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Adjunct Chair of Jewish Law and Ethics,
Loyola Law School
Los Angeles, CA