“Everyone, please shut up”

Rabbi Joshua Kullock
October 6, 2014
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I’ll say it up front: Writing about infertility is something that is difficult for me. I know dear friends and congregants who have struggled with this issue, some of them exploring the path of adoption, some of them going for many rounds of IVF or for the intricacies of surrogacy, and some of them deciding for different reasons – financial, spiritual or personal – to remain childless. I understand their pain. My heart cries with them. I recognize how hard it is for them to come to synagogue and listen to ongoing (and usually misplaced) speeches about the importance of educating our children and the challenge of Jewish continuity. And then, when I’m asked to write about infertility, I feel that almost everything I’ll have to say could be genuinely rebuked with a sentence like: “Thank you Rabbi for your words. We are sure you are well intended and your pain is sincere, but you have three daughters so please shut up.” Faced with this challenge, I find much wisdom in the words of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, who almost two thousand years ago said: “I have not found anything better for oneself than silence” (Avot 1:17).

I guess that my awkwardness about saying something of value around the subject of infertility is not new. On Rosh haShana we read about Hannah, a barren woman, and about the lack of a real connection between her suffering soul and Elkanah, her husband, and Eli, the ancient representation of clergy. They don’t get it. Elkanah tries to offer Hannah a different dream: “Am I not better to you than ten sons?” (I Sa. 1:8). Eli’s approach is even worse. Unable to empathize, the priest can’t see the woman’s sorrow, and he reproves her conduct by saying: “How long will you go on with your drunkenness? Put away your wine from yourself!” (14). How unfortunate it is to have a generation whose leaders misinterpret suffering for drunkenness. How sad it is to have a generation filled with close friends and family that aren’t able to see that even well intended advice can sometimes be profoundly hurtful.

Thoughtfulness, or the ability to make room for others, is one of Judaism’s core values. Out of Rabban Shimon’s inner silence, the seeds of conscious listening can grow. If so, I am certain that one of my main goals as a pulpit Rabbi will always be to the ongoing challenge of making room in for people in pain to feel safe to share their sorrow (if they want to). In listening to their grief, we can deepen our awareness. By paying attention to their angst we can be better suited to recognize our own. And, while looking for solutions, we can learn how to sustain each other without patronizing or pitying the other.

While we could pretend that we are all as strong as steel, congregations and individuals will be better off by accepting our innermost brokenness and frailty. We usually don’t do a good job at this, and we are certainly more comfortable when sharing stories of success, while denying whatever is not working as well as we would like. But, we need to keep trying. The Psalmist used to describe G-d as the healer of shattered hearts, as a presence that is not there to punish but to silently join us in our pain, helping and inspiring us to overcome difficult moments and bad times. We, created in G-d’s image, are always invited to follow those divine ways, for the sake of those in need of healing, which means for our own sake.

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  1. Thank you Rabbi Kullock. It is comforting for many struggling with infertility to hear this issue addressed from the bimah and from our clergy. We need more rabbis like you. To make a difference and break the stigma of infertility we need each and every member of our clergy, personal fertility issues or not, to educate our communities about this life crisis that affects thousands of Jewish people every day.

    In January, I founded The Red Stone, a DC based initiative dedicated to the spiritual, emotional and financial support of those dealing with fertility issues. The Red Stone also strives to provide education and awareness to the community about how great an issue this is in our Jewish community.

    Our model is one of partnership with Jewish organizations. Working together we can attract various demographics and, on a grassroots level, provide services to those who need it most. We run mindfulness programs and support groups, work with synagogues and JCC’s and serve as a resource to rabbis and leaders in the community.

    I appreciate your compassion on this issue and recognizing it is a major issue affecting our community. Together, we will make a difference.

    Posted by
    Amy Jablin Forseter
  2. This note is general, in that I wish to thank everyone who’s written about the challenge of BECOMING a parent, which is much greater for some than for others. The contributions to this issue are thoughtful and well worth sharing (so I will).

    It’s also a request, though - if you are in the pulpit, PLEASE be careful about your words. Using the word “barren” to describe a woman who has not given birth is hurtful. And it’s so very unnecessary. But it happens EVERY year… “Oh, but that’s the translation!” we say… and yet, translations change. If you’re just not thinking and using “barren” to describe childlessness (when, let’s face it, we cannot know WHY a Biblical couple did not have children), you can be certain that you are causing pain to someone who is listening.

    Posted by
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