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On the Nose is our biweekly podcast. The editorial staff discusses the politics, culture, and questions that animate today’s Jewish left.
Chevruta: Be Fruitful and Multiply?
0:00 / 30:26
July 20, 2023

Chevruta is a column named for the traditional method of Jewish study, in which a pair of students analyzes a religious text together. In each installment, Jewish Currents will match leftist thinkers and organizers with a rabbi or Torah scholar. The activists will bring an urgent question that arises in their own work; the Torah scholar will lead them in exploring their question through Jewish text. By routing contemporary political questions through traditional religious sources, we aim to address the most urgent ethical and spiritual problems confronting the left. Each column will be accompanied by a podcast and a study guide (linked below).

In our second Chevruta podcast, Laynie Soloman, associate rosh yeshiva of the queer and trans yeshiva SVARA, speaks with feminist theorist Sophie Lewis, author of Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family and Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation, about the famous biblical injunction to “be fruitful and multiply.” Though this has traditionally been regarded as a foundational commandment, the rabbis were strikingly ambivalent about it—in part because of their profound love of Torah, and of each other. In this Chevruta, Soloman and Lewis explore a Talmudic text from tractate Yevamot that confronts a rabbinic figure who has declined to have children. Through his example, the rabbis normalize a discomfort with this seemingly essential practice of biological reproduction, and offer a way to complicate—and potentially subvert—the status of procreation in the rabbinic mind and in our world.

You can find the column based on this conversation and a study guide here.

Thanks to Jesse Brenneman for producing and to Nathan Salsburg for the use of his song “VIII (All That Were Calculated Have Passed).”

Artworks and texts mentioned and further reading:

Talmud: Yevamot 63b and 64a

Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family by Sophie Lewis

Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin by Donna Haraway

We the Parasites by A. V. Marraccini

How Mierle Laderman Ukeles Turned Maintenance Work into Art” by Jillian Steinhauer

Peninei Halakhah: Simchat Habayit U’Virkhato 5:2

Don’t Hurt Yourself” by Beyoncé


Arielle Angel: Hello, and welcome back to On the Nose, the Jewish Currents podcast. My name is Arielle Angel, I’m the Editor in Chief of Jewish Currents, and today, we’re really excited to bring you the second installment of our column, “Chevruta.” Chevruta, of course, is the name for the traditional method of Jewish study in which a pair of students analyzes the religious text together. Jewish Currents, for this column, is matching leftist thinkers and organizers with a rabbi or Torah scholar. The activists will bring an urgent question that arises in their own work, and the Torah scholar will lead them in exploring their questions through Jewish text.

For this installment, we’re asking the question, “Must we have children?” exploring the ancient injunction “p’ru u’r’vu”–“be fruitful and multiply.” To help us explore this question, we have Laynie Solomon, who’s the associate rosh yeshiva of the queer and trans yeshiva SVARA, in conversation with Sophie Lewis, Sophie is the author of two books, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against the Family, and Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation. I’m really excited to share this conversation with you all today, especially as a woman who has decided not to have children and is thinking about the different ways of multiplying relationships of care and reproducing without actually having children. So this is a conversation super close to my heart, and I really, really enjoyed it, and I hope that you will too.

As with our first installment of “Chevruta,” you can find a written version of this conversation alongside a standalone study guide with all of the texts that Sophie and Laynie discuss in this episode at JewishCurrents.org/Children-Chevruta, and we’ll put the link in the show notes. Thanks a lot. We hope you enjoyed this installment of the “Chevruta” column.

Laynie Soloman: Well, I have a question to kick us off Sophie, which is: What’s bringing you to this conversation about remaking kinship relationships today?

Sophie Lewis: So the questions that I was interested in posing to you are basically around: Why should we make new human life? The question of being fruitful without necessarily multiplying. I’m quite attached to the political and ethical importance of celebrating so-called childless or childfree lives. And there is stigma and a sense of failure that is unjustly put on people who, for whatever reason, don’t or can’t procreate. So I’m curious what the Torah has to say about this.

LS: The text that I brought for us goes right into the belly of the beast, so to speak, and is exactly about that. I’m excited to see what we make of it.

SL: I also don’t know if it’s appropriate for me to ask you back, Laynie–what brings you here?

LS: I spend my days teaching Talmud at SVARA, my yeshiva for queer and trans folks, and I find that in our community, I’m able, at times, to tap into models of relationships that touch the utopian models of care imagined by family abolitionists. I’m moved by the opportunities we might find in our own tradition to interrogate and to explode notions of kinship that are hegemonic right now. I’m curious, before we jump into the text, are there any assumptions that you’re bringing to the text before we get to meet it on its own terms?

SL: I suppose maybe–procreation is a mandated practice within most religious traditions that I’m aware of, including this one–I suppose maybe a vague expectation, blood having importance...

LS: The text that we’ll spend some time digging into is a text from the Talmud, and it’s a text that I learned, and when I learned it, I just felt that it was extremely queer. But it’s not intuitively queer, I think, to all people, which is how it got to stay in the tradition. So I’m excited to also unpack some of that and see where, and if at all, you find those resonances.

SL: Fantastic. So, “It is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Eliezer says: Anyone who does not engage in the mitzva to be fruitful and multiply is considered as though he sheds blood, as it is stated: ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed,’” which is from Genesis. “And it is written immediately afterward: ‘And you, be fruitful and multiply.’ ”

LS: So we’re already in the world of blood, as you predicted. Sophie, would you mind giving us a summary of what your sense is of this first paragraph, and we can work through it together a little bit?

SL: Well, certainly on its face, it’s very startling. It seems to go quite far to me in saying that a failure to make babies is tantamount to murder. That seems a little much.

LS: Yeah. And I’m hearing, in the startling, there’s a startling that’s surprising, and there’s a startling that’s disturbing.

SL: Absolutely. Yeah.

LS: I’m curious what else is coming up for you in that?

SL: So for me, I’m really interested in the idea of a sort of fruiting, a sort of multiplication of relation. Very much. There’s something really interesting about this phrase–first of all, it’s a literary chiasma, so I quite like it: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” On its face, it just seems maybe as simple as: If you commit a murder, you’ll be executed by your fellow man. But reading it a bit aslant, you might say, “Actually, is this a line from Beyonce?” Like, if you hurt me, you hurt yourself? But it seems to be saying on, one level, if you shed humanity’s blood, you’re shedding your own blood.

Laynie Solomon Yeah. What I’m hearing part of, in what you’re saying, is Robbie Eliezer is not wrong by stating just what is inevitably true, which is without structures of care, people die.

SL: Absolutely. My first book was called Full Surrogacy Now and is often, still unfortunately, misunderstood, especially if people haven’t read it, as being some kind of call for more of the practice of what is currently called gestational surrogacy. But it’s not that. It’s an attempt to get people to think what is actually going on when we surrogate, and to almost philosophically invite a utopic ambition, where surrogacy relationships have multiplied and been made explicit, to the point where we can’t really tell any more who the proper owner, or parent, or author of much even is any more, because we have brought into the light the coproductive, mutual mothering that is already latently at the heart of our existence. So, Full Surrogacy Now is a bit of a philosophical turning inside-out of the concept of surrogacy, which is, in the end, I think, very property based. I am hoping that what comes from my contributions is an appreciation for how kinship is always fictive, is always made. I’ve always thought that Donna Haraway’s slogan “Make kin, not babies” would be better phrased, “Make kin, and babies maybe.” She’s actually quite against human procreating, and I think that line in a politics isn’t very promising, but in the sense that she insists on kinmaking, and on a practice of comradeliness, knitting together ourselves and others across boundaries, including potentially species boundaries, I’m indebted to that, really. That’s what I mean by fruiting and multiplying.

LS: I love that so much. And, you know, I’ve learned this text with the patriarchal sense of ownership attached to it, in the way that Robbie Eliezer might be saying, “If you don’t have children, you will cut off your biological and patriarchal bloodline, and therefore you will die.” And I’m curious if there’s a way you read Robbie Eliezer with this expanded read of being fruitful and multiplying.

SL: I mean, I really think kinship is actually always fictive. First of all, when this text was written, you cannot be sure of paternity because you don’t have any technology to do any DNA testing or anything. That is a huge driving factor in some of the anxieties to ensure that idea about blood continuity can even be held.

LS: That anxiety and that emphasis feels like they go hand in hand.

SL: That’s really well put. But it’s interesting to think about how the ethical prescription here could also be interpreted as non-biological. So if you aren’t kinmaking in some way, if you aren’t multiplying relation, if you aren’t tending to fellow humans, you’re shedding blood. You could perhaps see it that way. Should I read the second part?

LS: Yeah, let’s do it.

SL: So, “Rabbi Ya’akov says: It is as though he diminishes the Divine Image, as it is stated: “For in the image of God He made man.” And it is written immediately afterward: “And you, be fruitful and multiply.”

LS: So we have a similar mode of thought to Rabbi Eliezer, which is taking two verses that are near each other and deriving meaning from the juxtaposition of the two verses. Whereas Rabbi Eliezer hooked the emphasis on being fruitful and multiplying on shedding blood, Rabbi Ya’akov is hooking it on the statement “For in the image of God, God made humans.” So there’s something about being fruitful and multiplying that’s about the magnification of God.

SL: I mean, God, how did he procreate? I mean, again, it’s a lot, isn’t it? You’re insulting God’s image because you’re not making a baby? Give me a break.

LS: Yeah, I noticed that this statement from Robbie Ya’akov did land as harsher to me than Rabbi Eliezer. I’m surprised within myself that this felt harsher.

SL: Yeah, I think Rabbi Eliezer leaves it on a mortal plane a little bit more. “You’re hurting your fellow humans, and they shall shed your blood in turn,” or whatever. But here, it’s a sense that you’re diminishing God’s image.

LS: It’s cosmic, and mythical, and transcendent.

SL: This is also why it’s incredibly hard to make the decision whether or not to make babies for people, in the prescribed senses of that phrase. Because there is, I think, a sense of thwarted potential that people really feel, almost cosmically I think, sometimes. I think this hangs over the culture, in some sense, that you’re insulting some cosmic principle.

LS: Right. I feel all sorts of internalized transphobia pieces, where I’m like, “Oh, I’m not doing what I was put on Earth to do in my reproductive capacities.” Is that what Robbie Ya’akov was saying? Or is Rabbi Ya’akov like “No, the babies that would have emerged? That’s the divine image being undermined.” Both feel really stressful to me.

SL: Going well, so far.

LS: We’re doing great.

SL: No pressure, anybody.

LS: Should we bring ben Azzai into the room?

SL: Okay. “Ben Azzai says: It is as though he sheds blood and also diminishes the Divine Image.” So I guess we’ve got both now.

LS: That’s right. Why choose when you can have both?

SL: But wait. “They said to ben Azzai: There is a type of scholar who expounds well and fulfills his own teachings well, and another who fulfills well and does not expound well. But you, who have never married, expound well on the importance of procreation, and yet you do not fulfill well your own teachings.”

LS: Harsh.

SL: Sick burn. So they–Laynie, is this general members of the community?

LS: Yeah, it’s like a community of scholars, and they’re saying, essentially, “Nice story, but where are your kids?”

SL: Should I read his response?

LS: Yeah.

SL: So “Ben Azzai said to them: What shall I do, as my soul yearns for Torah, and I do not wish to deal with anything else. It is possible for the world to be maintained by others, who are engaged in the mitzva to be fruitful and multiply.”

LS: I’m always struck by this moment. I just so appreciate the illusion of perfection is nowhere to be found. This gets to be a grappling that ben Azzai is having in public about places where he feels misaligned, or places where he is misaligned with the tradition or himself, and that the Talmud talks about that. That’s not a secret. It’s not hidden. It’s out in public, and we learn from his public grappling, in some way.

SL: I am so steeped in these sorts of radical artists, and thinkers, and utopians since the 60s and 70s, including the “Manifesto for Maintenance Art.” Mierle Laderman Ukeles was an artist who, in New York City, managed to invent the role of artist in residence at the New York Department of Sanitation. And she wrote a “Manifesto for Maintenance Art,” which was a feminist critique of the idea of art and maintenance being completely irreconcilable. For Ukeles, that is the division that any sort of communistical, collective practice has to try and supersede eventually. And that’s why she seeks to do the impossible, this sort of oxymoronic of making art out of maintenance, out of the practices of garbage disposal, that are keeping New York City functional every day. And just because Ben Azzai used the word maintain, I couldn’t help but make the connection.

SL: Just this statement: “It is possible for the world to be maintained by others.” I mean, it sure is. That’s unfortunately, how it is. There are those who are enabled and potentialized to be in public, by all of those who are relegated to the spheres of the noncreative, and this division of labor operates on a planetary scale as well, in a sort of neocolonial script. But yeah, I just can’t help but laugh when I hear–very relatedly, for someone who is also a scholar whose soul yearns for books. I’m literally on a retreat right now where other people are maintaining me. Other people are basically preparing meals, and I get to be the writer with a stack of books in a cabin in the woods, working on a manuscript. So I can totally hear myself being like, “Ah, what can I do? My soul yearns for Torah. And I don’t want to deal with anything else.” So I’m just gonna come up with a precept and say, “Listen, it is okay for other people to do that work maintaining all of us.” The propagation of the species, the reproduction of the world–the good and bad things about the world are reproduced by, in a sense mothers, or those who do mothering on a daily basis.

LS: So in this read, mothering is maintenance work.

SL: I mean, I should specify that the traditions of thought, and practice, and struggle, and almost poly-maternalism in, for example, queer Black survival histories that I’m interested in, would argue that mothering, in certain moments or in certain conditions, can go beyond maintenance and cross over into the realm of collective self-creation. This is the tradition out of which Audre Lorde’s observation for Black women that we can learn to mother ourselves comes from. And that’s tied to the practice of learning how not to dominate children. You learn to undo domination in yourself through extending a different form of mothering to those for whom you’re duty-bound, or epically compelled to care. So things can change through mothering. They don’t have to be maintained exclusively.

LS: Which is in this binary between creation and maintenance. That’s a more creative approach.

SL: Exactly.

LS: I’m really appreciating how you’re teasing out this binary approach, because when we started with Rabbi Eliezer, I was thinking of p’ru u’r’vu, fruitfulness and multiplication as a creative project, especially in the ways that you brought in multiplicity of relationships. That feels creative to me. And so it’s interesting now, sitting with that, this underneath ben Azzai’s approach might be actually a misread of this mitzvah as a maintaining mitzvah, whereas it should be potentially a creative mitzvah.

SL: That’s so interesting, because I’ve somehow not quite put it together. Yes, there’s a lot of tension already when I talk about fruiting, multiplying as creative. It often does go against the general sense–I mean, the very word, reproduction, it’s sort of says it on the tin, you know? It’s not adding anything, it’s doing over. I don’t know if you’re a botanist. I am not, but my understanding of the general imaginary around fruit-bearing organisms is that if they don’t fruit, they die. Or perhaps sometimes they don’t fruit and they just carry over barrenly. In any case, their purpose is to fruit. The fruit tree is not recognized as something that labors creatively. It’s just doing its thing, fruiting. Just doing nature. That binary between nature and culture is epically formative to our systems of thought. So when I, right at the top of the show, I said fruiting in a kind of queerly appreciative sense that already does go against certain inherited patterns of patriarchal thought that undergird capitalism.

LS: There’s something that’s really interesting here, which is, to me, about: What if ben Azzai had that definition of fruiting and multiplying? What would his approach be?

SL: So then it sounds like he’s saying, “Oh, I’m just a dusty nerd with my pile of tomes, and I’m sorry, I can’t contribute to the creation of the world, because I just want to read and write and think. And you guys are maintaining, in the sense of living.” Whereas being a torah scholar is–he does say it’s self-indulgent, doesn’t he? He’s sort of saying, he’s indulging his personal yearnings.

LS: Right, and the language that he uses, the word for “yearning”—which comes from the Hebrew, three-letter root, chet, shin, koof—is a kind of yearning that is about love and lust. Like it’s not only, “What I want to do, I prefer it this way.” It’s like the kind of love that we might imagine, in some fictive world, is what leads to procreation, is the kind of love that I have for Torah. I imagine when he says Torah, he doesn’t only mean the practice of learning in isolation but the community of scholars and the enterprise of the Torah community. This is where I feel lust and love and care.

SL: It’s very relatable to me because I feel very liberated and nearly magnetized by writing. I think that writing does have its own erotic, its own sociality, its own intertextual communion. Actually, I’ve just been opening A. V. Marraccini’s very newly published book of criticism called We the Parasites, where it’s so intense, the way she thinks about her relation to texts and criticism as the relation of a wasp to a fig, which is an inseminating as well as kind of self-negating role, because the wasp dies but fertilizes. I’m sort of thinking about the sense that writing and authorship is fictive too–just like kinship, authorship can only be coauthorship. If anyone knows that, it’s Torah scholars who are just constantly speaking with and through and against each of those words across time, and almost kinmaking like that. I’m now remembering the thing you pointed me to, from the 20th-century practical guide book, Jewish guidebook, that tries to square this circle about whether you’re allowed to not walk the walk when you talk the talk about baby making.

LS: Yeah. This is an excerpt from Peninei Halakhah, a contemporary guidebook by Eliezer Melamed. “We see that there is only one mitzva one can engage in and thereby, under pressing circumstances, abstain from the mitzva of procreation – the mitzva of Torah study. This is because Torah study itself adds life to the world. The fact is that although ben Azzai did not engage in procreation, he delved deeply into the great importance of the mitzva and expounded upon its great value. Certainly, many children were born as a result of his teachings.”

SL: Do you know, Laynie, where that certainty comes from? Did they kind of make that up?

LS: So this certainty, I think, is masking a tremendous amount of uncertainty. That for me is part of what’s underneath this whole text from the Talmud that we’ve been looking at, is like, ben Azzai is sitting with a tremendous amount of uncertainty. But he also knows intuitively that something that he’s doing is actually meaningful, and good, and sacred, and that he should keep doing it. And this comes through all sorts of halakhic sources as a real tension, where it’s like, you gotta fulfill this mitzvah. And you also gotta learn Torah. And the tension between them is everywhere. In this text, the opinion of Halakhah, he says, “It’s okay to push off or delay or abstain from this essential mitzvah, which the Talmud says would make you a murderer and would diminish God’s presence in the world, because”– and I think this this piece is so interesting–“because Torah study itself adds life to the world.” There is something natural in the process of world building through learning together that doesn’t do the same thing, but is in conversation with all of these ways of creating networks of being in care together.

SL: I’m immediately thinking about all the feminist and in some cases, Marxist-feminist biology that has been written in almost Talmudic disagreement with other patriarchal traditions of biological or natural science, where the very idea of parasitism has been contested. Parasites have had terrible PR. So you know, some of these queer feminists have shown, and there’s a fantasy associated with the very concept of parasitism that some of us are, therefore, very much not parasites. And that is linked, in some of the writings of Lynn Margulis or Donna Haraway, to a very sort of cis-heteropatriarchal matrix of reproductive order, which could be very much contested by an account of evolution as symbiogenetic–becoming with–where we have the world being made, not through competition and survival of the fittest, but through mutual coproduction and cobecoming. That’s something that I think we can link quite easily to our conversations, given that here, we have a kind of 20th-century guide book saying: All right, we’ve got a stipulation for what to do with your life, which is make more life, that we’ve just said failure to carry out might get you punished in the worst possible way. But given that, under extreme circumstances, some people can be seen to be abstaining from that mitzvah, because they are making more life through text, the expounding is itself creative of life, creative of social understanding, creative of maybe children, in the sense of disciples, or in the sense of students, or in the sense of comrades, maybe.

SL: Part of the non-desirability of this image of being someone who doesn’t contribute and is purely maintained is understandable, I suppose. We have a pretty common idea in my political tradition: From each according to his abilities, and to each according to his needs. But I don’t see that as a moral prescription that everybody has to go against their lust, their calling, and contribute some kind of equal amount, necessarily. We’re very uncomfortable as a culture, I think, with the idea of being–and I guess there’s links to the previous Chavruta that we did in Jewish Currents–the idea of indebtedness, the idea of owing lots of people your life. But we do. We fundamentally do, and we also need to destroy the idea of debt as we have created it. Perhaps we are all parasites, and that’s okay.

LS: I feel like also what I’m getting from this conversation is we’re all parasites, and we’re all parents.

SL: Exactly.

LS: The validity of ben Azzai’s choice is predicated on his ability to also be a parent in the broadest sense, as you said, to children to banim, which is the word for children but also disciples. I think the rabbis of the Talmud, see their primary, quote unquote, family as Torah itself. They participate in tremendously deep, accountable relationships in their learning communities. They live with their learning communities for long periods of time. They have people that they call their partners, their chavurot, the people with whom they study. And all of these are deep, real, life-sustaining partnerships. Ben Azzai is a parent of ideas and concepts. He is a parent of Torah, and parent of students, and a parent of everything he says and creates.

SL: Yeah. We have this image, I think, of a scholar who is a mother to untold scholars in turn across the generations.

LS: To us, now.

SL: To us.

AA: This has been another episode of On the Nose, the Jewish Currents podcast. If you liked this episode, please share it. Rate the podcast. Visit JewishCurrents.org. Subscribe to Jewish Currents. That’s the only way that we can keep making this magazine. And of course, we hope you’ll take the opportunity to take a look at the study guide that accompanies this conversation. Maybe even get a group together yourself. If you do that, certainly let us know. We’d love to hear about it. Thanks again for joining us.

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