A Jewish mother, natch
April 15, 2011 7:54 AM   Subscribe

Does traditional Judaism and/or the Talmud say anything positive about women who do not marry or have children?

I can really relate to this blog, mentioned recently on Metafilter, except that I'm Reform and have had a little more experience (though not much). But the same questions still apply; what does it mean when you're 40 and there are no candidates in sight? What is your role as a Jewish woman? What do the holidays mean, such as Purim or Shabbat, if there is no family to celebrate it with? How should you continue to live your life as a Jewish woman when something so central to Judaism isn't there?

The great rabbis must have had something to say about such women; I can't imagine that they didn't exist in history. Yet the only articles I can find are either by Orthodox rabbis who say that my only role is motherhood, or by Reform rabbis who say all those traditions don't matter anymore, so don't worry about it (not helpful for this question). I did hear a lecture recently from a rabbi who briefly talked about how maybe we could be wonderful aunties (it was in relation to how women should deal with infertility, though; nothing about the pain of not even finding a husband in the first place). Great; where can I find more stuff like that, and about what it means to be (mostly unhappily) single? I'm sure that such information exists out there; I just don't know how to search for it.

Thank you. Anonymous because I have various relatives who don't need to know my business.
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (7 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Here is a web page with a collection of sources on related topics:

Following up any of the citations would take you to more material for study.

One basic explanation of technical terminology: "pru u-rvu" is "be fruitful and multiply"--so when that's discussed, what's being talked about is whether this is a binding directive addressed to individuals, and, if so, on whom exactly is it binding, and what is the definition of fulfilling it?

So then, just copying and pasting the most relevant part of the page, it should make some sense (I've italicized the names the books/section names from which the opinions are drawn):

Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 1:13:
A woman is not commanded in the mitzvah of pru u'rvu

Rema but in any event she should not remain without a husband because of chashada, suspicion.

Rema is based on Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Ishot 15:16, but in Hilchot Issurei Biyah 21:26 we find:

a woman has permission not to ever marry or to marry a man who is infertile.

Be'ar Hativ, Even HaEzer 1:27, because of this apparent contradiction in Rambam, understands a woman's obligation to marry, as presented by the Rema, as an eitza tova, good advice.

Application to pru u'rvu Once married,it would seem that a woman has an obligation to assist her husband in fulfilling his mitzvah of pru u'rvu. See, for example, Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Ishut 15:1 where a woman's right to universally refuse relations with her husband only exists subsequent to the fulfilment of pru u'rvu.

If it is, at least, good advice for a woman to marry, the exemption from pru u'rvu has limited practical significance. She must assist her husband. A woman, though, has the choice of marrying a man who is infertile.
posted by Paquda at 8:17 AM on April 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

The woman of A Woman of Valor is married with kids, but not all of the stuff she's praised for has to do with that...there's lots of stuff about how she is virtuous for working hard and being productive and being kind and giving to the poor.

Chabad's website has run a couple of columns on the topic (I think the article in the second link is better).
posted by phoenixy at 8:21 AM on April 15, 2011

OK. I grew up Very Orthodox and left when I was around 30 (and unmarried, and a woman). Basically I do not have a lot of good news for you. While unmarried men at least still get to participate in services, there's not that much for women to do without a family to raise and a husband to care for. Judaism is a very family and community-oriented religion, and for the most part even *wanting to spend time alone* is culturally a bit suspect.

The one exception, and someone you might want to check out, is Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. He recommends daily secluded conversations with God as the best way to improve one's spiritual life: Hitbodedut. His writings are a bit esoteric and weird, but a nice place to start in finding a Jewish spirituality that does not rely on having all your many children gathered around you.

I would also say, just from personal observation, that I know several women in their 30s and 40s who have remained single and remained in the Jewish community, and they have been the *driving forces* for the creation of new kinds of community and service. I know women who have founded congregations (this one's gone global), taken leadership roles in educational organisations and charities, created art and writing. It's a very creative and powerful group, with the ability to change the community for the better - and perhaps more easily than men, because anything that 'women do' is seen as a bit less threatening and more inclusive.
posted by acalthla at 8:56 AM on April 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

Maybe one of the articles on this page will help with your question.

Good luck to you.
posted by Glinn at 9:29 AM on April 15, 2011

Miriam is one of the most important women in Tanach, and she was unmarried.

As Paquada quoted, women are not obligated to fulfill the mitzvah of having children. Female infertility is built into many Torah stories, so it is acknowledged to be a possibility for women to not have children.

There are also many mitzvot that unmarried women can (and do) fulfill that are crucial for the Jewish community. Praying for and visiting the sick, serving on the chevra kadisha (burial society), and celebrating Rosh Chodesh (which is particularly considered a woman's holiday) spring to mind.

As far as Reform / Conservative Judaism goes, Debbie Friedman is a fantastic example of a woman who did not have children, was unmarried in the traditional sense of the world (though she did have a life-partner, which I hope doesn't diminish her example too much for what you're looking for), and was without question a resounding figure in Judaism for her musical contributions. I think this interview with her (on the subject of homosexuality, not marriage, but I think it carries the same traditional burdens) is really meaningful in that way.

Not sure if this helps or not, but not being married is considered a tragedy in traditional Judaism, both for men and women. So while you won't find much of what it sounds like you're looking for (praise for unmarried or childless women for their own sake), you won't find it about men either. Shabbat and holidays are often lonely and unfulfilling for unmarried men as well - they can participate more in the services, but they are still going home to empty homes unless they decide to build a community of singles around them, same as women.

Judaism wants everyone to be married because it sees marriage and family as one of the most important aspects of carrying on the faith. The notion of a "bashert", that there is one person out there in the universe somewhere who is destined to be with you, is a powerful notion and very hard to reconcile when you can't find your own. It's probably a reason some people abandon the faith. But that doesn't change the fact that your spirituality and your connection to G-d are between you and G-d, and you have to find a way to build that connection using whatever bricks you find most meaningful, the same as a married person who cannot conceive does, or parents of severely disabled children, or widows. Tragedy is a part of life, and I think not finding a spouse when it is something you're actually looking for and want for yourself, is a tragedy, whether you're Jewish or not. Unfortunately, Judaism isn't really the sort of faith that helps you through when bad things happen - we don't believe that suffering is holy. The rabbinic response for your dilemma would not likely be "take these quotes and use them to make yourself happy with what you have" - it would be "Don't give up. Keep looking."
posted by Mchelly at 10:28 AM on April 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

(traditional sense of the word, not world. Didn't catch it on preview, sorry)
posted by Mchelly at 10:33 AM on April 15, 2011

Most of the mitzvot and laws we are encouraged to observe are equally doable by a single person as by a parent. Helping others, living decently, being kind and charitable, being active in the community so as to strengthen it by participation.

There were plenty of Jewish heroines in the Bible whose heroism had nothing to do with motherhood, but rather with courage and loyalty. The warrior Judge Deborah. Esther (married, but her value to the Jewish people was that she was single and available for the king to marry.) Yael and Judith.

Anyway, I hear you on the difficulty. I'd be in the same boat but for a smidge of luck that came at the right time a few years ago. It's not easy to find the right person and still less easy when your target set is limited. Best of luck to you, truly.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:55 PM on April 15, 2011

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