Dear Rabbi Jacobson,
There is a particular statement in Torah which bothers me somewhat and I hope you can clarify it for me.
The Talmud says that the blind, the poor, and the childless as considered as dead. I happen to be childless and find this statement very hurtful.
My question actually applies equally to the other conditions that thank G-d are not relevant to me in particular, although childlessness is obviously hits closer to home for me. It seems to be quite insensitive, but I know that this would not be consistent with the character of the Torah, and there must be more to it. I hope you will be able to clarify this for me.
Dear [name redacted],
I appreciate your writing and am humbled by your confidence in me, writing about such a sensitive issue. Before getting to the academic response to your question, I want to express the pain I feel hearing about your predicament. My heart goes out to you, and I extend all my blessings for happiness — whether it be through having a child (if G-d so wishes) and/or in other ways.
I will answer your question by first prefacing that the Torah — which is a Torah of love and compassion — does not speak in derogatory terms about anyone or anything (indeed, Torah is so sensitive that it does not even describe an impure animal with a negative adjective and describes it as the “animal that is not pure”). You are right when you say that that the Torah’s description of certain types of people as “considered dead” is obviously not simply there to be derogatory or hurtful.
While the Torah is the ultimate example of sensitivity and compassion, it is also the quintessential teacher of all that we need to know in order to navigate life. When addressing things that are important for practical purposes, the Torah does not mince its words, and expresses things in the way that they need to be expressed in order to makes things as clear as necessary. The Zohar teaches that the Torah is the blueprint for the creation of the universe and for human life, and as the divine blueprint for life, the Torah defines life in a way that can help us understand all our experiences — both joyous and painful — and learn to grow through them. The statement you are asking about can help us understand experiences and states of being, and empower us with the knowledge we need to be able to grow through them.
Whenever you discuss something with someone that you truly love and care about, you want to be able to trust that s/he is not being condescending or patronizing. That s/he tells you — with compassion and sensitivity — the way things are, and does not distort reality in order to make you feel good. This direct honesty is called respect.
Describing certain people as “considered dead” is not an insult. It is the Torah living up to its standard as Toras chesed and Toras emes (Torah of love and truth) telling us that a person who is in this situation (poor, blind, childless, or a leper) is lacking something that is as important as life itself. It teaches us that having a child gives one life, and the opposite deprives us of life, to the point that being childless is like a form of death.
This explains how Rachel felt when she said to Jacob “Give me children. If not let me die.” And this is from where the Talmud (Nedarim 64b) derives that a childless person is “considered dead.”
The Talmud is telling us that if you or someone you know is in one of these situations, that person is “considered dead,” so that we should both pray for the person and beseech G-d for compassion and blessings (Tosfos Nedarim ibid), and not go into denial — minimizing the pain of the situation, or become complacent. The Torah emphasizes how important it is that we always challenge G-d and demand that He bless the person so that they can get out of that state.
Even in the event that one remains in that state (G-d forbid), we must see it as a challenge to grow and become greater than we already are. “Death” is at times used in Torah to describe a state of shedding one layer in order to assume another that is far superior and incompatible with the previous layer which had to be shed. “One who descends a level is called dead.” As explained in the Chinuch Kattan by the Alter Rebbe in Tanya, before ascending to a higher level the previous level has to ‘die.’ Death, therefore also describes a progressive transition from one state/stage to another.
Torah clearly sees children as a blessing, but by no means does this mean that a childless person is in any way lesser or second class. On the contrary, every challenge in life also gives us strengths that we would not have without the challenge, and the people with the most difficult challenges are always the ones that have the greatest powers.
I have been honored to know people — before whom I stand in awe — who have transformed their liabilities to unbelievable assets and strengths. They used the “death” they experienced to give birth to life beyond what others — without facing their challenges — could achieve.
Incidentally, the Zohar explains that even if a child is not born out of the union between husband and wife, a spiritual child is always born. If one merits, the child will also manifest physically. The fact that every act of intimacy within marriage generates a new soul, lends a new perspective on the significance of intimacy for couples who are unable or beyond the age to have children.
I hope this is helpful. And I extend all my blessings and best wishes to you.