“Life is misery, and it would have been better not to have been born. But who is so lucky? Scarcely one in a hundred thousand.” This Jewish witticism, (first quoted by Freud,) is the epigraph of David Benatar’s book “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence.” Benatar, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cape Town, is one of a group of philosophers called “anti–natalists,” who argue that it is morally impermissible to have children, because coming into being actually causes harm to the unborn child.
This provocative argument has elicited some astonished responses, particularly from religious philosophers. Elizabeth Anscombe begins her essay on the topic of “Why Have Children?” by asserting that “this very title tells of the times we live in.” Anti-natalism is a blueprint for the end of humanity.
Anti-natalists are unfazed by these reactions, and insist that one must look at the cold moral logic of the situation. They note that consent is usually required before meddling in the affairs of another, so how can you create a baby against their will?
Benatar focuses on suffering as the central moral reason why one may not procreate. As he sees it, we are always obligated to prevent any being, even future beings, from suffering, and there is no obligation to offer joy to an as-of-yet-unborn baby. He takes his argument a step further by offering a wholly pessimistic view of human existence. He explains that even those who think they are happy dramatically overestimate the goodness of their own lives, and overlook the pain and suffering endured by themselves and others.
Pessimism is not unique to anti-natalists. Many philosophers have embraced this perspective; Schopenhauer proclaims that “human life must be some kind of mistake.” Even the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) declares, “It would have been better for man not to have been created than have been created,” which is the origin of the Jewish witticism Freud and Benatar quote.
However, Judaism is anything but anti-natalist. The first commandment in the Torah is “to be fruitful and multiply.” Throughout history, Jews have created child-centered communities; and children take center stage at the most significant ritual moment of the year, the Seder. (It must be noted that emphasizing children can at times marginalize the single and childless, who are too often implicitly excluded. But a community is only a true community if it embraces everyone, and we can only raise the next generation of children as a unified whole.) Pessimists or not, Jews have always embraced the importance of having children.
During disasters that calculus changes. Rabbi Yishmael, who lived in a time of crushing persecution, is quoted by the Talmud (Baba Batra 60b) as saying, “we should have decreed upon ourselves not to marry and not to have children, and let the children of Israel disappear on their own.” There are periods in history when to be born a Jew is to be condemned to a life of difficulty and distress, and that may be too much to ask. I once officiated at the funeral of a Holocaust survivor, who was a beloved, sweet and caring woman. I learned that after the war she had refused to have children because of the horrors she had seen. She simply couldn’t bear to bring a child into a world that she knew from firsthand experience is filled with suffering.
There are times when having a child is absurd; and the years of Egyptian slavery were such a time. The Talmud (Sotah 12a) says that after Pharaoh’s decree to throw all the male children into the river, Amram, the leader of the Jewish community, decided that everyone should stop having children.
That would be the reasonable thing to do. Who could bring a child into a life of slavery?
But the women of the community took a different path. According to the Talmud, Amram’s own daughter Miriam rebukes him and says, “Father, your decree is harsher than that of Pharaoh. Pharaoh decreed only with regard to the males, but you decreed that both males and females will no longer be born.”
Miriam’s argument is: It is better to survive and suffer. We cannot let Pharaoh determine the future of the Jewish people.
The Kiyor, the faucet in the Temple where the Kohanim washed their hands, was made from mirrors that were donated by women. Rashi (Exodus 38:8), borrowing from the Talmud and the Midrash Tanchuna, offers a fascinating backstory to this donation:
“The Israelite women owned mirrors, which they used to adorn themselves. Even these (valuable personal items) they did not withhold from donating. But Moses rejected them because their purpose is to enhance sexual attraction. The Holy One, blessed is He, said to Moses, ‘Accept [these mirrors], for these are more precious to Me than anything; through them the women set up many multitudes of children in Egypt.’ When their husbands were weary from back-breaking labor, the women would go out into the fields and bring them food and drink to eat. Then the women would take out the mirrors and look into them together with their husbands, and would playfully say ‘I am more beautiful than you.’ And in this way seduced their husbands… conceiving and giving birth there, as it is said: ‘Under the apple tree I aroused you’” (Song 8:5).
In this imaginative retelling, the Jewish women in Egypt hold their marriages together with warmth and love. This affectionate mirror game is not just an exercise in intimacy; it is an act of profound holiness. Elsewhere, the Talmud explains that charoset has apples in the recipe, to honor how those righteous women held the Jewish future together under the apple tree. Having children in Egypt was an act of heroism.
Perhaps these righteous women should have done differently. Had they thought about it rationally, they would have desisted from procreation. But they were not philosophers. They had chosen survival despite suffering, and were certain their children would do the same.
Most parents would tell you that all they want for their children is to be happy. But that could never be true of Jewish parents; had that been so, Jews would have disappeared a long time ago. It wasn’t always happy to be a Jew, and a far better life beckoned to those who converted or assimilated. But there are more important things in life than being happy.
But this doesn’t represent a lack of love. Jewish parents recognize that every child represents the Jewish future; and that recognition has intensified the community’s appreciation for children, who are not just loved, but also treasured.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau tells about a speech he heard as a 10-year-old child, in a displaced children’s center in Ecoius, France. A group of local politicians came to visit the center, filled with the youngest survivors of the Holocaust. The children did not want to listen to the politicians, and sat stone silent, ignoring the speakers. Then the final speaker got up. As Rabbi Lau describes him, the man “was a Jew who had survived Auschwitz, where he had lost his wife and children. Since the liberation, he had dedicated all his time, energy, and resources to war orphans.”
Rabbi Lau describes what happened next:
“At that moment, without any advance planning, five hundred pairs of eyes lifted in a look of solidarity toward the Jew standing on the stage. He was one of us. We looked at him, and he saw hundreds of pairs of eyes fixed on him in a powerful gesture of empathy. Tears choked his throat. He gripped the microphone, and for several long seconds, the microphone broadcast only the sounds of his hands shaking. He tried to control himself, but managed to say only three words in Yiddish: ‘Kinder, taiyereh kinder’ (‘Children, dear children’). Then he burst into tears … We all considered it unmanly to cry, since, after all, we had survived the concentration camps. Yet each boy sitting on the grassy plaza stealthily wiped his eyes with his sleeve …then the dam broke. All at once, the lawn of [the orphanage] was transformed into a literal vale of tears.”
This Holocaust survivor, alone in the world, devoted himself to the remaining Jewish children in Europe. In three tear-choked words, he summarized his mission: “Kinder, taiyereh kinder.”
Why do we have children? This story explains it all. Perhaps it isn’t rational; we simply know that they are our destiny. But that doesn’t diminish our love for them—it only increases it. They are our “Kinder, taiyereh kinder.”
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.