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Last year, we debuted a new column called Chevruta, named for the traditional method of Jewish study in which a pair of students analyzes a religious text together. In each installment, Jewish Currents matches leftist thinkers and organizers with a rabbi or Torah scholar. The activists bring an urgent question that arises in their own work; the Torah scholar leads 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.
Today we’re sharing the second column—as well as a podcast version of the conversation and a stand-alone source sheet for group study. In this Chevruta, 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. 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.
Torah scholar Laynie Soloman and feminist theorist Sophie Lewis study a Talmudic text that complicates the biblical injunction to procreate.
Ben Azzai says: [Anyone who does not engage in the mitzvah to be fruitful and multiply] it is as though he sheds blood and also diminishes the Divine Image, as it is stated: “And you, be fruitful and multiply,” after the verse that alludes to both shedding blood and the Divine Image.
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.
Sophie: Sick burn. Who is the “they” here, Laynie? Just general members of the community?
Laynie: Yes, it’s like a community of scholars. They’re saying, essentially: “Nice story, but where are your kids?”
Sophie: Shall I read his response?
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 mitzvah to be fruitful and multiply.
Laynie: I’m always struck by this moment. I just so appreciate that the illusion of perfection is nowhere to be found here. Ben Azzai is grappling with his misalignment with the tradition—struggling with what we might understand as a nuclear family structure, and perhaps yearning for connection beyond that structure. And the Talmud talks about it. It’s not a secret. It’s public. We get to learn from his grappling.
Sophie: Very interesting. You know, I am so steeped in these sorts of “repro” radical artists, thinkers, and utopians from the ’60s and ’70s, including Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Ukeles was an artist in New York City who managed to invent the role of artist-in-residence at the New York Department of Sanitation, where she sought to make art out of the practices of garbage disposal that keep New York City functioning every day. She wrote a “Manifesto for Maintenance Art,” which was a sort of feminist critique of the idea of art and maintenance being completely irreconcilable, that you can’t maintain and create at the same time.
And because ben Azzai used the word “maintain,” I couldn’t help but make the connection. I mean, sure: “It is possible for the world to be maintained by others.” That is, unfortunately, how it is. There are those who are enabled to be in public by all of those who are relegated to the spheres of the noncreative. This gendered division of labor operates on a planetary scale as well, in a neocolonial script: who gets to be “creative” versus who is merely lifemaking, and so on. Kalindi Vora and Neda Atanasoski call the technologically mediated concealment of the global north’s planetary support systems “surrogate humanity.”
Yet even as I know that the division between art and maintenance has to be overcome—that we have to come up with a just way to distribute the prerogative to do both—I can’t help but laugh reading ben Azzai. It’s very relatable for someone like me, who is also a scholar, whose soul yearns for books. I’m literally on a writing retreat right now, where other people are maintaining me, preparing meals for me while I get to hole up with a stack of books in a cabin, working on a manuscript. I love the privilege and pleasure of this. So I can totally hear myself being like, “Ah, what can I do? My soul yearns for Torah.” To say, “Listen, it is okay for other people to do that, to maintain all of us, to hold down the propagation of the species.”
Laynie: So in this read, mothering is maintenance work.
Sophie: Yes. Though I should specify that the traditions of thought, practice, and struggle that I’m interested in—for example, queer Black survival histories—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 that gives rise to the radical feminist Audre Lorde’s observation that Black women “can learn to mother ourselves.” That observation is 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 are duty-bound or ethically compelled to care. So things can change through mothering—they don’t have to be simply maintained.