The telling o the story that is part of the seder ritual includes a mention of the separation of husbands and wives. Apparently, Israelite couples were reluctant to bear choldren since every child they would bring into the world would be consigned to slavery. Far better not to have children at all than to see their suffering. Yet, had all Israelites shared this view there would be no more Israelites. The birth of Moses, and, indeed, the birth of all those who left during the Exodus was the result of an act of faith that the future would be better and the children would be spared the suffering their parents endured.
In one of his reflections on the Holocust, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points to the fact that the segment of the Jewish population that has best internalized Emile Fackenheim’s imperative not to gant Hitler a posthumous victory is the segment identified as “ultra-Orthodox.” They have been reproducing in numbers far greater than other Jews. They have not only recouped their losses suffered during the Sho’ah, they have also been responsible for most of the births in Diaspora. Jack Wertheimer’s recent demographic study of New York City’s Jews shows that more than 60% of school-age Jewish children are counted in the Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox community. While liberal Jews pursue their careers, delay marriage, defer childbirth and have smaller families, ultra-Orthodox Jews are making reproduction their mission. This phenomenon should not be understood as a rejection of the values of modernity – although some may claim it is – but, rather, as an expression of hope. A justification for the “hidden face of God” during the Sho’ah may not be fothcoming yet (or at all). Even so, their are Jews who live their lives with faith in the future even though they may not have resolved issues related to their faith in God.
While some may look askance at those who have dedicated themselves to the mitzvah of “be fruitful and multiply” and wonder how the parents can spread their love and attention and provide for their families, the fact is that non-Orthodox institutions are in trouble. Conservative congregations are aging. Some synagogues are compelled to merge since the current membership can no longer make their budgets. Competition for new and younger families is stiff and the success of vapid efforts to reach out to the young is questionable. Meanwhile, institutions at the more observant end of the spectrum are thriving. Those attending synagogue services in Conservative and Reform synagogues will look around to see graying and balding heads, and fewer and fewer in number. It is not simply that the message of the liberal movements has become irrelevant. It is mostly the fact that there are fewer children in the families that affiliate.
As we sit around the seder table it would be wise to read the text with a keener sense of what the refusal to bear children means and how the future depends on the willingness of young Jews to embrace being parents as they embrace their careers.