The two solitudes: Language and the 2022 Quebec Election

My native language is Hungarian since I was born in Debrecen, Hungary.
At the age of three, I escaped communist Hungary with my parents and baby sister to Vienna, Austria, where I began to attend kindergarten and spoke German in no time.

Photo of Abigail Hirsch in Vienna at the Rothschild hospital displaced persons camp post World War II.

By age six, we had arrived as a family in Montreal, and I began studying in the English Protestant school system, the only public school system accepting Jewish children. So I became an Anglophone in Quebec. In the Protestant English school, we began to study French and Latin in the third grade and all through high school. At the same time, I attended the Jewish afternoon school, where I was learning to read Hebrew and Yiddish, my 6th and 7th languages.

I hardly ever met a French-speaking person when I was growing up in Montreal in the fifties and sixties. This reality is indicative of what has been called the “two solitudes.” The English and the French communities were segregated on either side of Saint Lawrence Boulevard, now called by its French name, Saint-Laurent. As a high school student, I went to the French section with my friend Milly. We used to visit the Montreal Public Library on Sherbrooke street across from Parc La Fontaine. That was like visiting a foreign country, where only French was spoken.

It’s not as if my parents or I had a lot of contact with the English Protestant community of Montreal. Most of the Bancroft Elementary School students were Jewish immigrants like me. And most of my parents’ social circle were similarly Hungarian Jewish immigrants. For example, here is a picture of my one shared birthday party with my sister, Anita, in 1956 with the whole neighbourhood of children and adults invited.

Abigail at ten years old and Anita Hirsch at eight years old.

Abigail Hirsch’s Birthday Party

Today I participate in French classes and conversations. I even took a French literature class at McGill, but English is my best language. It is my favoured language to speak, read and write. This is understandable since most of my schooling was in English.

Since my childhood, the public school system has been reorganized. Today all public schools are neither Catholic nor Protestant but secular, and the language of instruction is French. The English public school system survives, but only for a privileged group who can claim a native English-Quebec origin, and even this is under threat by the Legault government.

Note that upper-class French-Quebecers try to ensure that their children acquire excellent English, which is only to be expected since the world’s finances and culture are today dominated by the English of the United States. For instance, Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, the current leader of the Parti Québécois, graduated from McGill and Oxford University.

It is vital to address immigration and how to best integrate immigrants into Quebec society. However, Legault has been using used the immigrant card as the new scapegoat to gain political support. Does Premier Legault forget who has been saving our collective behinds in hospitals, CHSLDs, and frontline services for the past three years when he considers immigrants and non-francophone Quebecers as a threat to social cohesion?

In reality, the contributions of the Quebec Anglophone community and immigrants should not be undervalued.

Faced with what is happening in Ukraine and Russia and climate disasters everywhere, is it wise to be so divisive? Isn’t there a more welcoming way to introduce French culture to newly arrived immigrants? Isn’t it more beneficial to  Quebec society to focus on how immigrants – the majority of whom have extensive knowledge, training, and worldly life experience, can move to Quebec’s outlying regions where they are sorely needed to fill critical labour shortages and, in turn, demystify immigration for rural Quebecers? And why not focus on other vital issues in our society, like the deplorable state of our health care system and the need to coordinate climate change initiatives?

I fear this stubborn effort to “protect the French language” will harm all of us living in Quebec.

 

Reconciliation and Healing: The Pope’s visit to Canada

Last month, the Pope visited Canada to express his apology to the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada, victims of the residential schools administered by clergy that were part of the Canadian government’s plan to convert the children of First Nations to Christianity and to assimilate them to western ideas and way of life.

From the 19th century until 1996, when the last one closed, around 150,000 Inuit and Métis children were forced to attend government-funded and church-administered residential schools as part of a colonial policy supported by the Canadian government. The priests and nuns were poorly equipped to educate or nurture children. Even more disheartening, these children were physically and sexually abused, with many perishing and buried in recently discovered unmarked graves. Furthermore, removing children from their biological parents’ homes naturally resulted in intergenerational trauma for everyone affected.

Students of Fort Albany Residential School in class

Students of St. Anne’s Indian Residential School in Fort Albany, Ontario, in 1945.

Over the last twenty-five years, the Canadian government has attempted to address and recognize the damage caused by this brutal and devastating history.

As I have listened to First Nation communities share their personal stories on national radio and tv, I have come to appreciate their wisdom and culture.

Female First Nations singing and blessing nature

Indigenous people have many terrific programs illustrating their history, art, music, and active attempts to revive their native languages.

Here are just a few recent radio shows on the CBC program “Unreserved.”

I have often wished there were similar programs showcasing these issues in the Jewish community on media outlets like the CBC so that more Canadians could familiarize themselves with the Jewish people and their traditions and history.

As a Jew, I fully empathize and identify with the First Nations as they attempt to come to terms with the destruction of their communities.

As a child of parents persecuted in Hungary during WWll for no other fault than for being a Jew, I can recognize the pain of the surviving generations. I, too, have experienced the pain of my parents traumatized by Nazi persecution and the untimely loss of parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. Unfortunately, as we have all learned, trauma is unavoidably passed on to the next generation.

Cantonists

Cantonists

Jews, too, have been direct victims of the colonializing policies of Christian rulers. For instance, the Czarist decree of August 26, 1827, made Jews liable for military service and prescribed conscription to Russian Cantonist schools and subsequent military service for Jews as young as eight years for a period of twenty-five years.

All cantonists were institutionally underfed… The official policy was to encourage Jewish boys to convert to the state religion of Orthodox Christianity.

 

There has been discussion in the media about the value of the Pope’s apology to the Indigenous community.

Post-Shoah, the role of apologies for unspeakable horror has also been debated in the Jewish community. According to Rabbinic thinking, the injured person is the only one who can respond, i.e. accept or reject an apology for hurt or damage. Nevertheless, leaders’ acknowledgement and regret for bad behaviour and appropriate reparation are essential tools for social healing between warring communities.

Within my lifetime, I have witnessed the Catholic Church taking responsibility to renounce the Church’s demonization of Jews, acknowledging how this has contributed to the destruction of Jews and Jewish communities, not only during WWll but throughout the many centuries when the Christian Churches attempted to dominate the theological world.

On October 28, 1965, Pope Paul VI published his encyclical, Nostra Aetate (Latin: “In our time).” It is the declaration of the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church addressing relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish People. Passed by a vote of 2,221 to 88 of the assembled bishops, this Declaration includes the following statement:

“… the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shared with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, and displays of antisemitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”

This was an essential beginning for reconciliation between Jews and Catholics.

On May 25-26, 2014, Pope Francis visited Israel, marking another important milestone in the deepening relationship between the Catholic Church, Israel and the Jewish people.

However, collective mutual understanding and destroying stereotypes and prejudice are best achieved through grassroots interaction and dialogue.

One of the best experiences I have had of reconciliation between Christians, Jews and the Aboriginal People of Canada occurred when I participated in a Church service in Winnipeg that brought together Jews, Christians, and Indigenous Chiefs. An event organized by Pastor Rudy Fidel of Faith Church – a long-time Christian supporter of Jews, Israel and First Nations – invited Cantor Moshe Kraus, a Holocaust survivor, two First Nations Chiefs, and a Klezmer band to participate in a Sunday morning service at his Church in Winnipeg. I was privileged to film the event and am delighted to share snippets of the event with you.

Two First Nations Chiefs
1:01-2:11 min: Jim Baird, Chief of Leech lake of the Ojibwe nation, introduces Grand Chief Jerry, recently elected grand Chief of Thirty-two nations.

2:11-7:42 min: Grand Chief Jerry addresses the audience sharing about his community’s current affairs.

Hazzan Moshe Kraus
10:32-20:58 min: Cantor Kraus describes an incident that occurred in Budapest in 1942, when a Hungarian Bishop from Potok enlisted Moshe’s help in freeing the Bishop’s colleague, Moshe’s cousin, a Rabbi in Potok, from jail in Budapest.

May we all pray to share in the salvation of true brotherly love and reconciliation for all peoples everywhere.

 

Leadership and Choices: Then and Now 

Recently, NGOs, such as the Sousa Mendez Foundation and Lockdown University *1, have presented talks and movies about the history of the Jews and the world almost weekly. As I watched these programs about spies before, during and after WWll, I discovered the back stories that no one ever thought would come to light.

The Thyssen Saga

The most shocking exposé I have seen recently is a talk on Youtube by the former Irish-American military man, lawyer, and author, John Loftus, launching his book Unholy Trinity: The Vatican, the Nazis, and the Swiss Banks (2000).

Loftus shares his personal story of how he came to be wandering around the CIA archives looking for Nazis in America and accidentally uncovered files that had been “purposely misfiled so that no one would ever find them.” But guess what? He did find them! The video below reveals the weird and unusual financing of the Nazi party by a bank in the US headed by Prescott Bush, father of Bush senior and his grandfather, Herbert Walker Bush. This meant, in effect, that an American bank in New York was financing the Nazi party in Germany. John Loftus exposes the Thyssen plan in the following video starting at 21:03 min.

 

It appears that August Thyssen, patriarch of the German Thyssen coal and steel industry, was so upset by reparations exacted from his enterprise after World War I that he decided to set up his financial empire in such a way that regardless of the fate of any future German wars, the Thyssen family would not lose its financial assets. To this end, Thyssen set up three banks in three different countries. In Germany, the August Thyssen Bank; in Holland, the Voor Handel en Scheepvaart Bank; and in New York, the Union Banking Corporation (UBC). Thyssen then assigned each of his sons to head a different bank, making one a Nazi and another son neutral. The Bushes were in charge of the New York Bank. Of course, when the Bushes were involved starting in the 1920s, nothing they did was illegal.

FritzThyssen had openly financed the rise of the Nazi party and the election of Hitler as Chancellor. However, in 1939 he wrote a letter to Hitler strongly opposing the invasion of Poland. But it was too late. He and his wife were apprehended by the Nazis and spent the war years in the Dachau concentration camp. However, Thyssen in Germany was one of the major national firms using “slave labour as though they were chemical materiel.” And although the US government appropriated the Thyssen bank in NY in 1942, the Thyssen and Bush family’s wealth was preserved through judicious transfers and cover-ups and the work of their American lawyer, Foster Dulles, after the war.

Wealth often dictates increased power, but the Thyssen family prioritized the preservation of their wealth over using their assets to empower ethical behaviour in the political sphere. Perhaps as a form of penance, in 1959, Thyssen’s widow Amélie and daughter Anita Gräfin Zichy-Thyssen established the Fritz Thyssen Foundation to advance science and the humanities, with a capital of 100 million Deutschmarks (equivalent to €246 million in 2021).

In the same video at 12;30 min, Loftus exposes the US State Department’s policy of repeatedly supporting the Arab side in the many Arab-Israeli wars because of their desire to keep Arab oil flowing to the United States.

Obligations of Kingship in Israel

The book of Deuteronomy Ch.17, V16-20 lays out the obligations and constraints recommended for a King.

16: The king must not get more and more horses for himself. And he must not send people to Egypt to get more horses, because the Lord has told you, ‘You must never go back that way.’

17: Also, the king must not have too many wives, because that will make him turn away from the Lord. And he must not make himself rich with silver and gold.

18: “When the king begins to rule, he must write a copy of the law for himself in a book. He must make that copy from the books that the priests from the tribe of Levi keep.

19: He must keep that book with him and read from it all his life, because he must learn to respect the Lord his God. He must learn to completely obey everything the law commands.

20: Then the king will not think that he is better than any of his own people. He will not turn away from the law, but he will follow it exactly. Then he and his descendants will rule the kingdom of Israel a long time.”

 

On the other hand, continuous acts of courage and kindness of leaders and private citizens also occurred throughout World War ll and continue to be unearthed.

For example, the Sousa Mendez Foundation recently screened Noel Izon’s documentary, Open Door (2018), about German Jewish refugees in the thirties being offered a haven in the Phillippines. This story was entirely new to me.

Noel Izon, a native Filipino, explores how German Jews were offered haven by the Philippines President Manuel L. Quezon’s Open Door Policy. Even though the Philippines was part of the US Commonwealth since 1898 and subject to US immigration laws, Quezon working with Paul V. McNutt, a sympathetic US High Commissioner authorized visas for approx 1300 German Jewish emigres at a time when few countries were opening their doors to Jews fleeing German racial laws and restrictions. The pre-existing Jewish community of the Philippines put up the money to resettle all Jewish families. They were quickly integrated into the Philippines society, many working in their native professions and surviving the Japanese occupation together with the Filipino people until the Americans finally liberated the islands.

Jewish community in Manila during a Passover Seder celebration, 1925

The Jewish community in Manila during a Passover Seder celebration in 1925.

Few people are aware that Jewish communities worldwide opened their wallets, hearts, and homes to Jewish refugees wherever they knocked on their doors during the crisis of World War Two. This was another aspect of Jewish resistance before, during and after the war that is seldom mentioned but is part of the Jewish imperative of “shivyon shvuyim/freeing captive slaves.”

In our own time, Canadian private donors and charities, both Jewish and secular, have been financing the resettlement of Ukrainian refugees in Canada and worldwide.

A child holds a heart with a drawn Ukrainian flag

Six months ago, during the Ukraine/Russia war outbreak, our Montreal Rabbis, Reuven Poupko and Adam Schier, visited the Polish-Ukraine border to report on the needs of fleeing refugees. They shared with pride that the Israeli contingent was the first to set up at the Polish Ukrainian border to assist refugees. As you may be aware, Israel is generally the first to arrive in any disaster zone with personnel and necessary materials. Here is an analysis of the airlift of Ukrainian refugees to Israel in the Jerusalem Post.

As of June 15, 2022, 32,958 Ukrainians have entered Israel, of which 5,888 are new immigrants, and another 4,730 are in the process of aliyah… Had the US taken in a similar number of Ukrainians relative to its population, it would have admitted some 1.2 million Ukrainian refugees. That is not even close to US President Joe Biden’s setting a goal of admitting 100,000 Ukrainians.

This demonstrates the overwhelming power of wealth, usually residing in the state,  over the efforts of private citizens.

In summary, it is crucial for everyone, whether leader or citizen, to be vigilantly informed and to act with moral clarity wherever and in whatever position, leader or layman, we may find ourselves.

 

*1 Lockdown University, an ad-hoc internet learning community occasioned by the pandemic (still working on their website, free and accessible to all). To subscribe to courses, contact info@lockdownuniversity.org and ask to be included in their weekly mailing.

The Fifth Book Of Moses

In Moses’ fifth book, known as the Book of Deuteronomy or the “second telling” Moses, reviews and revisits his own story and his journey with the  Children of Israel, reviewing their forty years in the desert since their redemption from slavery in Egypt. This journey is significant for the generation of the desert and for all time.

Moses includes his reflections and sorrows just before he is about to join his Creator. He shares how he beseeched his G-d over and over, to be able to enter the promised land, but was denied. The book of Deuteronomy has been described as Moses’ “last will and testament”, reviewing his experience and sharing his regrets and instructions for future generations. It is recommended for each of us to do this near the end of life, to examine our successes and failures in order to leave a legacy for future generations and it is our yearly task during the month of Elul, a period of personal introspection as we approach the Day of Judgement, Yom Kippur. 

Sunset on Mt Moses

Rosh Chodesh Elul always occurs forty days before Yom Hakippurim.

This period echoes the experience of the people of Israel when Moses tarried coming down from the mountain and they decided to create a Golden Calf to replace Moses. G-d was appalled and threatened to wipe out the whole tribe. 

“I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.(Exodus Ch 32: v9-10,)

But Moses challenged God, sayimg 

“why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’?

 

And Moses urged G-d to forgive them adding (Exodus 32:32 New International Version

But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.”

Moses onfronted the disaster with the people and with G-d and then he went back up the mountain.

Forty days later,  Moses came down with the second set of tablets, uttering G-ds message, the fateful words “Salachti k’idvarecha/I have forgiven as you, (Moses), requested.” This is the day we continue to celebrate every year as Yom Hakippurim,/Yom Kippur/The Day of Judgement.

Here the Divine One demonstrates for us, for all time, justice with mercy – din v’chesed not demanding perfection, but only that we improve our ways: The Supreme Judge reviews all behaviour and often offers second chances if we would only improve just a little bit. G-d is our Final Judge. For Jews, there is no other.

Jewish Man in Tallit Blowing Shofar Outdoors. Rosh Hashanah Celebration

 

On Yom Hakippurim, our communal prayers catalogue every possible sin, but you alone can give an account of your sins. Have you treated your fellow man with respect? Have you cheated anyone of his wages? Only you know what you have done or neglected to do. Our confession through our prayers is private and silently uttered between man and G-d alone. And we know that the ultimate judgement is up to G-d. On Yom Hakippurim, we say the fateful prayer, popularized by Leonard Cohen’s song, which enumerates how each of us may reach his ultimate fate, the only true punishment in the coming year.  “Who by Fire… Who by Water…

Legend reports that Moses died at the age of one hundred and twenty years and the traditional Jewish blessing for longevity is “ad meah v esrim,” which means “May you live to one hundred and twenty!”

Moshe Rabbeinu gives us the blueprint for leadership in the example of his life, a life of service to others.

In this Book fo Deuteronomy, Moses also repeats many of the biblical commandments already received. He gives us a blueprint for creating a just community, a challenge for all time.

As a sample, I quote here some of the commandments reviewed in this week’s Parsha/Torah Reading – Ki Tetze/When you go out (to war). It will give you an idea of Moses’ instructions. The Parsha begins with the case of the Eshet Y’fat To’ar, the beautiful non-Jewish woman who is taken captive in war. The Torah outlines the procedure to be followed if a Jewish soldier wishes to marry a beautiful woman captured during war. 

Other topics among the 41 Mitzvot included in this week’s parsha are:

How to deal with the rebellious son;

the command to shoo away the mother bird before taking her young (“shiluach haken”);

the prohibition (“sha’atnez”) of mixing wool & linen together,

adultery, & kidnapping;

the permissibility of divorce when a marriage fails;

the need to pay one’s workers (especially day labourers) in a timely fashion.

And in this chapter again, Moshe warns us to show extra care for the widow & orphan, due to their increased vulnerability;

Andthe mandate to be honest in all our business dealings (this is one of 3 Mitzvot that promise long life).

We are bidden to recall on a daily basis the Exodus from Egypt, (This is frequently mentioned throughout our daily prayers/tefilot and in the Kiddush/the brief prayer/blessing of sanctification of the Sabbath and holidays/Shabbat & Chag, performed over wine at our tables before every holiday meal.)

Our Parsha closes with the admonition to utterly wipe out Amalek & their progeny – (the nation that attacked the nation of israel while they journeyed in the desset, falling even on the weary and the women and children, for no evident cause) until no memory remains of them or their hateful, barbaric behaviour.

For a more nuanced understanding of these laws, click on Rabbi Stewart Weiss’ Youtube Parsha discussion on  Ki Tetze here:

 

These values and living principles are essential to “always keep top-of-mind” and are worth reviewing regularly, just as one may repeat one’s marriage vows.

The Haftora/the reading from the prophets assigned for this week – Rani Akara – Isaiah 54/Yeshayahu 54 – continues the five “Haftorot of Consolation for Churban Yerushalayim/the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.” – a second chance for the people of Israel promised by this prophecy of Isaiah (ch.54).

The prophet speaks of a future time when Jerusalem will expand its borders & welcome new residents who will fill the streets with joy and celebration, a prophecy that some believe has now been fulfilled, after two thousand years of exile by the current return of Jews to their promised land. 

 

Whose Choice is It?

No man is an island, Entire of itself…

Each man’s death diminishes me, For I am involved in mankind.

Therefore, send not to know, For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.

by John Donne

Abortion is a very private and personal decision. Josh Healy, the comedian pushes all the relevant buttons as he describes his inner monologue on hearing his university girlfriend of six months tell him that she is pregnant!

 

 

 

You are probably aware that those who would forbid abortion claim that society has an overriding interest in abortion because it involves respect for the unfolding life of the human fetus. They claim that the fetus, from conception, acquires the rights of any living human person, and anyone who assists in a process of abortion is an accessory to the crime of “murdering a human being.”

On the other hand, while murder is a categorical prohibition of the Jewish faith, , and although the first mitzvah, holy instruction, given to Adam and Eve is “Pru urvoo” – Be fruitful and multiply, the Rabbis of the Talmud who interpret these instructions always prioritize the mother’s mental and physical needs over the fetus’s right to life. Thus, Jewish law – halacha – may approve an abortion for any Jewish woman based on the woman’s psychological and physical needs at any time during the pregnancy.

But what about the very real social ramifications of both abortion and childbirth?Is there a risk of overpopulation?

Indeed the fear of overpopulation was widespread and accepted in the science of the nineteenth century.

Crowd

The British economist, Thomas Malthus, was convinced that population growth would lead to mass starvation: This is what he wrote in his “scientific” formulation.

“The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.”

Malthus has been disproven by history. Since his time, scientists have invented fertilizer and improved agricultural techniques that can feed expanding populations. The source of starvation in the twentieth century has not been the lack of food, but rather misguided government policy and war. As in the Soviet attempt to enforce Communist ideology on Ukrainian farmers in the 1930s, which led to the starvation of millions amid the abundance of Ukraine’s bread basket. Professor of History, Timothy Snyder places the blame for the “Holodomor” –  Ukrainian for “to kill by starvation” on Stalin in his 2010 book Bloodlands and he points out that the Nazis also practiced starvation as an instrument of war by rationing food and systematically starving prisoners of war and Jews in concentration camps and ghettos.

The fear of overpopulation led the Chinese government to institute the one-child policy, which led to the horrifying practice of state-sponsored abortions. Children were being left to die on the side of the road, and many female children were abandoned in orphanages, a few of whom were lucky enough to be adopted through Chinese-created international channels. I have friends in Montreal who have adopted Chinese infants in this way. This was also the subject of a documentary entitled One Child Nation, which told the story of one of these children who chose to return to China to find her family of origin and uncovered this harrowing and unsavoury history of state control over reproduction. In recent years, China has renounced the one-child policy since it has been disastrous over the long term, resulting in a shortage of women of marriageable age and a shortage of children who can provide workforce and care for the elderly.

 

The Value of Children to Humanity throughout the Ages

A recent podcast studying the archeological record of children in the Pleistocene, Ice Age, based on April Nowell’s book, Growing Up in the Ice Age: Fossil and Archaeological Evidence of the Lived lives of Plio-Pleistocene Children*5, explains how having children is a clear benefit to the advance of civilization.

“Nowell’s studies look at cumulative culture: the process of adults passing down knowledge to their children, and so on through successive generations.”

Nowell demonstrates how:

“Youths weren’t simply an empty repository. They remembered some lessons, forgot others and chose which lessons to build on throughout their lives to pass on to their own children.”

Wooden mannequin prototype of human evolution

If we trace the Torah’s genealogical record, we can see how successive generations have influenced the Jewish story and ensured the Jewish legacy.

The first book of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis, is devoted to the propagation of the first families starting with Adam and Eve, who also encounter the first fratricide – Cain and Abel. But Adam and Eve continue the human race by having a third son Seth. Ten generations later, Seth gives rise to Abraham. When Abraham’s brother, Nahor, dies, Abraham marries his brother’s wife Sarah and adopts his nephew Lot before embarking on his theologically motivated journey detailed in the Bible.

Acquiring progeny was not easy for any of the patriarchs, each one, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had his struggle, and the outcome was unpredictable. Abraham has to struggle with the conflict between Isaac and Ishmael. Isaac had to deal with the sibling rivalry between his twin sons, Esau and Jacob, and Jacob had to deal with his ten sons trying to do away with their brother, Joseph, due to their overwhelming jealousy of Joseph’s primacy in their father’s eyes.

The Torah narrative includes both family joys and tribulations at every turn. For example, Abraham’s great-grandson Judah must be tricked into marrying his daughter-in-law, Tamar, to continue Judah’s son’s line. As we learn in the Book of Ruth, Judah’s blood relative, Boaz, although elderly and distant, marries Ruth, the Moabite, to continue her late husband’s legacy. Their great-grandson is destined to be the biblical King David. These stories illustrate the biblical “Levirate law,” the law that prescribes that if a married man dies without offspring, his closest relative,  usually the dead man’s brother is to marry the widow and have a child with her to continue the bloodline of the deceased man. This social responsibility is a way to ensure the continuity of that particular family.

Recently I attended Shaker Village in the Berkshires. The Shakers were a creative and wise Christian religious sect popular in the US during the 19th century.

  • They believed in celibacy based on the idea that sex even within marriage constitutes original sin. 

Due to the lack of procreation, they are no longer with us as a community. Only their philosophy, buildings and effects remain in the form of a museum, Han cock Shaker Village= which I visited.

The desire to have children seems to be hard-wired in many species, including the human one. The Talmud, the central authority on Jewish theology and law, ascribes a passion for children as especially hard-wired for the female species, and this is the source of differential religious commitments for men and women. For example, women are exempt from most time-based laws or mitzvot, such as prayer services, due to the physical demands of child birthing and rearing.

Miscarriage – naturally occurring abortion – is a mini-death and generally an occasion for private grief and mourning. In the past, miscarriage and fetal death have been so common that no specific religious commemoration has been prescribed. However, in recent times many books and podcasts have noted the absence of ritualized mourning and sought to correct this through affinity groups. Le Groupe de partage L’Empreinte, is one such group located in Montreal.

On the other hand, birthing children is a serious and long-term commitment that not everyone is willing to embrace. This has become more apparent in recent times and has been especially noted in the decreasing childbirth rates in many western countries where contraception and abortion have been more readily available. Interestingly, among western democracies, Israel seems to be the exception to this rule of decreasing birth rates and not just among the less educated or more religious groups.*

Every male or female child’s birth and naming is an occasion for public celebration within the Jewish tradition. On the 8th day, a male child is introduced to the covenant of Abraham through circumcision and given a Jewish name. This is the occasion for a public celebration called the Brit or covenant. Circumcision is a symbol of the bond between Abraham and his G-d, who made specific promises to Abraham about the destiny of his progeny. A female child is also named and celebrated, in a public ceremony, but female circumcision, (FGM), common in African societies, was never practiced among Jews.

Children are a potential for blessing and benefit to all of society; as such, at every age, we all, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and neighbours, are called on to be partners in this process. And, on the other hand, any abortion, whether natural or induced, is not just a loss for the individual but also a social loss that ought to be collectively mourned.

In summary, children embody our faith in a better future. However, this better future cannot happen without the concerted efforts of all of us to nurture and sustain the next generation.