Single Motherhood in the Orthodox Community

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow
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The phenomenon of Orthodox single women who choose to have babies on their own has been around for a while. Gilit Chomski of Ynet interviews some of the mothers, as well as rabbis who have ruled on the subject. A few passages in the long article that stood out for me.

First, there was this:

[When] the eldest and beautiful daughter of a religious family with an aristocratic rabbinical background in a city in northern Israel . . . realized that her time was running out and [she] couldn’t find a match, she waited for her last sister to get married so as not to ruin her matchmaking, and took action. She looked for a dance club in the city and went out there once or twice, until she met a good-looking secular man. She waited seven clean days, went to the mikveh, and got pregnant once or twice later. When the guy accused her of deceiving him, she admitted that she simply wanted a child. Today that child is married with children and is a prominent figure in the sector.

When I first read it, I found the idea astounding: A woman who has been raised her whole life to be celibate and not even touch a man before marriage, meets a man in a dance hall for the purpose of getting pregnant, then returns to a celibate life (presumably). But if the child is already grown this happened a while ago and is probably more common than I realized.

Chomski also brings up the psychological health of children raised by single mothers:

The child’s welfare may not be the banner the objectors seek to raise. A study published by the National Academy for Parenting Practitioners in Britain showed, for example, that the most successful children – both intellectually and psychologically – were raised by two mothers. Moreover, there are children who have already grown up and live among us, and we could just ask them. S., who is married to a man who was raised by a single mother, says frankly, “Naturally, I thank God for his birth, but it’s apparent that he was not raised in a regular family. He’s hurt. He doesn’t have intuitions which come naturally for others. He doesn’t really know what a man does. “When we had a child, things were very difficult for me after the birth. The burden was not shared between us naturally. He wanted to do everything that I did, and it suddenly occurred to me that he sees his fatherhood as motherhood.”

Finally, there is the question of whether a halachic ruling allowing women to conceive without getting married should have been publicized. Some rabbis criticize Rabbi Yuval Cherlow for publicizing his lenient ruling, instead of permitting single motherhood privately on a case-by-case basis.

Perhaps it’s easier to allow it in utmost discretion, without requiring a declaration which undermines the values of the traditional family.

[Rabbi Cherlow responds] “If this is Halacha, why hide it? A halachic debate must be public. The burden of proof lies on those seeking to hide. Beyond that, lack of publicity gives the Rabbinate a great amount of power. This is not a desired situation. The right situation is an open debate, while dealing with the questions being raised. In addition, the absence of a clear statement sometimes generates urban legends, which have nothing to do with reality.”

According to Rabbi Cherlow, the connection between Halacha and science must be public as well. “There is a rabbi who offers women an alternative in the form of freezing eggs until they reach an old age. I find this outrageous. First of all, it’s an illusion. The chance that 10 eggs would be removed from a 37-year-old woman’s body and that one of them would conceive a child is zero. Second, it puts the woman in danger. We are talking about very unpleasant months for the woman, to say the least, under general anesthesia and a life-threatening situation, not to mention the immodesty in the entire process.”

What about the child’s benefit? There are those who say this is cruel.

“I find this argument invalid. The child’s benefit is a modern-Western argument, which does not exist in Judaism and doesn’t hold water. There’s no doubt that the best thing for a child is to grow up in a regular family with a father and mother, and there is no argument about that. But can anyone guarantee anything to a child born to a regular family? I can give you 10 types of normative families, which could have allegedly been forbidden to have a child because it’s not in his benefit.

Related Posts:

Abortion in the Religious Zionist Community

Genetic Testing in the Religious Zionist Community

Planning for Rosh Hashanah

Is There a “Shidduch Crisis”?


  1. There is no easy answer here. Growing up is not easy, not with two parents and I’m not with only one. I can understand that these women want to be mothers and raise children and feel they have something to give. If, and it seems to be so, there are ways to do it halachically then I couldn’t say it shouldn’t be done.
    What does bother me in most of these stories is that the children have only half a history, half a heritage. If the mother could conceive truly alone this would be ok. But, there is half a genetic make-up and whole family history which has to be denied here. People need to know who they are and where they come from.

  2. I don’t agree with Rabbi Cherlow’s take on the science (either the “impossibility” or that IVF is an “immodest process”?), but I do agree that the idea of a “normative” family is a sort of storybook notion. What about children who are conceived “normally” but lose a parent when they are in utero or very early in life? What about those who have a parent who is handicapped in some way? Away on business for large periods of time (therefore absent)?

    How can I possibly judge what the correct way to parent is? I am married, but certainly don’t think I can hold myself up as a paragon of values merely because of that (or anything else).

  3. The more I read of Rabbi Cherlow the more I respect him.
    Kate – eggs don’t freeze well – fertilized eggs (embryos of many cells) freeze much better. Frozen eggs are almost never viable after defrosting.

    I know at least a dozen single mothers by choice in Israel and most of them are religious. From what I understand, the most halachically “kosher” sperm is from a gentile. many women import from the States.
    I have an amazing story and I personally know all the parties involved.
    My friend’s brother, let’s call him Shahar, died of cancer after many years of chemo. Befor he started the chemo, Shahar froze sperm (since the chemo would destroy his sperm).

    After Shahar died, his parents wanted grandchildren from him. They hooked up with an older (40+), single orthodox woman (who is a lovely person), let’s call her Shira. They used Shahar’s sperm to impreginate Shira and she had twins – a boy and a girl – who are now in second grade.
    This is really a win win situation: the grandparents have grandkids from Shahar, SHira has children and the children have a father who died of cancer. The grandparents help out emotionally, technically and financially. The twins are close with their cousins, aunts and uncles from Shahar’s side of the family. Shira is not on her own – she has a support network of family.

    I am not saying that this is the only way to go, but it certainly works in this case.

    • Interesting. This way the kids have their two families.

    • Is it considered more “kosher” because they can’t be a mamser or something like that?

      I think your example of Shahar and Shira shows the importance of a support structure. I’m not saying I’m any model of normalcy, but I feel like maybe because one other person thought I was worthy of bearing children (my husband) that’s a good start. I feel for these single women and I would never want to suggest taking away a woman’s right to have children, but there are some crazy stories coming out of the states. Wouldn’t it be great if some of these women had to pass a psych evaluation or a needed a letter of recommendation before conceiving? I’m just kidding, of course. I realize this could lead to a handful us scary issues on who has a right to reproduce.

      One of my pet peeves (yes, I realize this may offend a lot of people, I already know what you’re thinking)… is that gay men in Florida can’t adopt. If you could see some of these dirty, unstable, and abusive foster homes so many kids are stuck in, in seems outrageous that two caring, committed parents couldn’t adopt these kids. As it stands they’re allowed to foster, so it can’t be any crazy worry about what the kids could be exposed to.

      • Correct – sperm from a gentile is more “kosher” because they cannot be considered a mamser.

  4. Ariela – this is actually a really nice way to do it, especially since the kids can just say that their father died before they were born and not go into the details.

  5. I was raised by a single-by-choice mother (not religious though). Basically she “stole sperm” and later refused an abortion when my father demanded it. She was 36 and wanted a baby. She did not think about the psychological damage to the child.

    Selfish, pure and simple.

    I wonder how many children like me rabbi Cherlow knows personally. Because if he knows only a few, he should acquaint himself with more and see what disastrous impact his ruling can have.

    To this day, I feel deprived and psychologically maimed because of how I grew up – with a woman who had her way in everything, including a child out of wedlock and a “free” lifestyle where “no man tells her what to do”. My whole view of a normal family doesn’t come naturally, it’s distorted. It causes me problems in adjusting to marriage and motherhood and brings a lot of pain. Many families are divorced, but still, the children at least KNOW who their father was. There are few children who never saw their father. I never saw even a picture. I have no idea what his name was or what he looked like. I hate to think about negative genetic background I might have inherited, and I have no way at all of knowing.

    And of course there are all the less and more embarrassing situations, such as squirming with shame as my then-fiance and I composed our wedding invitation text and tried to figure out how to omit mentioning my father’s name without it being too obvious.

    Obviously, I am thankful for being born. But this is NOT a healthy situation and we should dig our nails in and do anything we can to prevent is from spreading further. Rabbi Cherlow’s argument of, “benefit of the child doesn’t hold water” incenses me, as does his notion that being born into a regular family doesn’t guarantee anything. Of course it doesn’t. I suppose historically there have always been women who were forced into situations when they had to raise their children alone. But that’s not l’chatchila, it’s a tragic circumstance!

    I have blogged about this ruling of his before, actually.
    I’m afraid the post wasn’t coherent enough as I was very angry while writing it but you can read it if you care.

  6. Oh, and just another thought: if an older single woman acts out of selflessness and the urge to give, and her heart is open, there are other venues for her. One of them would be adopting a child with little chance to be adopted into a “normal” family. It might be an older child (not a baby), or a baby with special needs. I’m not sure how easy it is to do, legally, but for a child who is already here and is alone, it’s far better to be adopted by a single mother than to remain alone. I’d much rather fight for the legal right of older women to adopt babies, than to rule out it’s alright to get pregnant out of wedlock. I wonder why rabbi Cherlow does not talk of this option (single women adopting).

    • I think adopting, while a wonderful thing to do, also has halachic issues… or maybe a problematic lack of halacha. Actually now that I think of it, a single women adopting a daughter would help the situation.

      As far as special needs kids: I know a women who was considering adopting a special needs son but was concerned that, already having two or three kids, she wouldn’t be able to give him enough attention. In the end she adopted him and having three loving siblings was a real blessing. Now he leads a remarkably normal life. (His two adoptive parents are still married… even though his father is a doctor, he has not “upgraded” to a younger wife, as is the custom in South Florida.)

  7. This is a blog that is written by a single Jewish Mother by choice:

    Mrs. Anna T, can you make a generalization from your bad experience? I know plenty of people with two parents who have had traumatic childhoods.

  8. Ariela, I believe it’s not just *my* bad experience. Stomping one’s foot and saying “I will have a child no matter what it takes, even if I have no prospect of marriage” is a statement of a) disregard for family values and b) inherent selfishness. The consequences for a child are much more than simply growing without up without a father. I think people supporting this kind of choice should take a survey of children who grew up with such mothers.

    I would not describe my childhood as “traumatic”, it’s just that growing up with a single mother who prides herself for not needing a man, is a negative pattern for a child, a future husband or wife, a future parent.

    And of course there are children from two-parent households who had it much worse than me. After all, I had a loving family, decent living conditions, good education. However it’s not a valid argument in the favor of single motherhood by choice.

  9. Chomski also brings up the psychological health of children raised by single mothers

    Psychological health compared to what?

    Compared to children growing up with 2 parents that are dysfunctional?

    Compared to children growing up with divorced, bickering parents?

    Compared to children growing up with a single parent due to divorce followed by abandonment of one of the parents?

    Or “compared” to children never having been born because of Society/Rabbis discouraging it?

    In the end, there is no guarantee of “psychological health” and each person has to do their best to attain it for themselves and their children. Not to mention if the focus is on psychological health, how about also considering the psychological health of the single girl in question?

  10. Ms. Krieger says

    @Mrs. Anna T,
    It sounds as if you are arguing that it were better had you never been born. Is that really what you are saying?

  11. Ms. Krieger,

    What I am saying is that we must very carefully look into the social implications of single motherhood by choice, and consider what will happen if it becomes a popular trend in our community.

    First and foremost this applies to rabbi Cherlow, of course, and possibly other rabbinical authorities who are willing to take the responsibility for this.

    • and consider what will happen if it becomes a popular trend in our community.

      Why would it become “popular trend” in our community? The vast (VERY vast) majority of people want to marry before having children! Single parenthood is tough and is very rarely one’s first choice.

  12. Regular Anonymous says

    I think the ideal is for two people of opposite genders to marry, give birth to children and live happily ever after.

    Real life doesn’t always work that way. Not only do people get divorced, people also sometimes drop dead while they have small children.

    Some people can’t get pregnant. Adoption is great but not easily done, especially in Israel.

    I was old when I got married. I briefly considered becoming a single mother and then decided I was not up to the task.

    I have never married friends who have remained childless, have adopted or have given birth. I think everybody should have the freedom to build their family as they choose, especially if it’s halachically acceptable.

    As somebody said, the majority of people do get married and have bio kids. Very few people would ever view single motherhood as a first choice.

  13. Ms. Anna, It seems your mother knew who your father is but wouldn’t tell you. That bothers me most of all- that a parent would intentionally withold this information from your child.

    I think that is very different from most single parent situations (although not so different perhaps from divorced parents who use the children against eachother)

    If you have anyway of finding out who he is even at this late stage I suggest you do. It may not heal you completely but might bring some peace to your soul.

  14. I would add that many anonymously conceived children feel a great sense of identity disturbance and loss.
    Australia, New Zealand, have outlawed donor anonymity and there is currently a lawsuit pending in Canada to do the same. (All these legal developments were initiated by donor chilren grown up, by the way.)
    The child gets to find out upon submitting a request once he/she turns 18.
    ISRAEL is WAY WAY behind the times in this regard. Not only doesn’t it legislate against donor anonymity, it does the opposite!
    When the only concenrs are anachronistic concepts like mamzer what else would you expect….

  15. Notice how the mothers are the subjects of all the bashing- whatever their motivations to start out, they end up investing the next couple of decades of their time, energy, emotions and finances as much as any other mother or more.
    But they are the bad ones.
    The fathers who jerked off for pay, or as in Ms. Anna’s case, who know about her impending birth but abandoned her,
    never merit a bad word.

    its always the mother’s fault!

  16. Amazing. I’m a single middle-aged mother, American, raised MO, divorced.

    It is an extraordinary thing — raising a Jewish child isn’t easy where I live; there are few Jews here. But I do it, and she has known shul as a regular part of her life since infancy. One of the reasons it is isn’t easy is that we have the usual American Reform-Conservative congregation, and you get the usual suburban materialism and selfishness, to the point where poor Jews stay away, feeling unwelcome. There is little to no help for Jews in need, though we’re not short on lavish bar mitzvahs, thousand-dollar-a-week summer camps, trips to other continents, and other expensive parties. The incredible thoughtlessness and callousness I often encounter in the Jewish community here makes me wonder why I should teach my daughter that this is, in a sense, her family.

    On the other hand, what do I find when I read an Ortho site? Misogyny! Terror of women and the fact that the wombs have legs and can walk away from you. God forbid a woman should find a better way than to put up with some schnorrer for decades just so she can raise children. Shock and dismay, and attempts at dirty pool, when even halachically it turns out the women get to escape your nonsense and go live and have children without you.

    Here’s a better idea: Men, be better, and women will want to marry you and have children with you. I didn’t choose to get divorced, but I certainly don’t want another man here unless he’s proven that he not only knows how to take care of himself, his health (physical, mental, emotional), his children, his relationships with his family, and his social life, but will continue doing these things even after moving in with a woman. I have better and more interesting things to do than to play maid-and-mama to another able-bodied adult. Nor am I interested in a man who’s oblivious to what needs doing or who needs help. The aim here is not to become a husband-manager. Again, I have better things to do. And, on top of that, if he’s not pretty consistently good company for me, and not a generally positive person, why would I want him here?

    The first usual misogynist reply to such a “here’s what I’d need” list is a foreboding: “You could end up alone forever that way.” Which is great, you know, try to scare the chick out of a reasonable point of view, because if — G-d forbid — other women picked that up, men would have to work much harder. My reaction? Better to live happily alone than resentfully or unhappily with a man who, on balance, makes life less pleasant, or disrespects me by trying to take advantage of me.

    Tactic number 2 from the misogynist: “You’re damaging your child by not giving her an example of loving relationships between men and women.” To which I reply: “If men cannot behave like adults, taking responsibility for themselves and treating others well, then they are the ones refusing to act as exemplars for children. In the meantime, of course, I guess there are no married couples, grandparents, boyfriends and girlfriends, or anyone else to serve as exemplars of love.”

    Tactic number 3 from the misogynist: “You cannot raise your children as well as if you were married.” Understand, of course, that this question is not open for debate with the misogynist. In his mind, it’s a truism and he likes it that way. But for those less dogmatic, let’s take a look. Let’s assume that “well” means the child is cared for emotionally and materially, is well-educated, is part of a community, has friends, feels herself a responsible member of society, etc., and grows up to find love and satisfying work and community.

    Divorce usually hurts children, no question. (Repeated studies show it helps children in households where addiction and abuse exist.) However, so do many other ordinary tragedies, so the question becomes: How does the parent help the child? If the parent is kind, attentive, honest, and thoughtful, maintains a stable home for the child, and seeks help for the child when necessary — and if the schools and teachers are good, the neighbors and friends supportive — often the child turns out very well indeed, loving and wise. What about children who are fatherless without divorce? All the same apply, except I suspect actually that it’s easier for them than for many children of divorce: there’s no question about why the parents divorced, why the father doesn’t come around, etc.

    It’s not as though we have no examples. There are many children who grow up without fathers. Not all widows are old, and not all widows remarry. Again, the misogynists lambast them for not remarrying and keeping some man satisfied, but these women are often very smart in looking first to their children’s interests, and second to their own pleasure. If the children aren’t ready for a new father, or if they need her undivided attention, she’s wise not to bring a new man in.

    In any case I have trouble seeing that any upbringing that teaches children misogyny, especially while insisting that it’s actually respect for women, is a particularly good one.

    Anyway. So on the one hand, grasping materialism, selfishness, and unwillingness to accept that a Jew might be poor, uneducated, etc.; on the other, misogyny. And then, of course, on the outside, antisemitism. What is the point of being a Jew? Why bother with these so-called communities? I’m not sure I see enough good in it to counter all the nonsense and ugliness.

    Anna T: There is nothing wrong with you. There is something wrong with a society that will shame a young woman for something her mother did, reasonably or not. My response to you: If your society left you feeling ashamed for not having the “right things” to put on your wedding invitations, I’d say it’s time to reconsider whether or not this society deserves your commitment. I’d say not. Incidentally, there were no parents’ names on my wedding invites. We were in our 30s, and we paid for our wedding ourselves. No one was giving us away, so to speak. It never occurred to me to be ashamed or upset that we, and not our parents, were the people inviting our friends and families to our wedding. And they all thought it was lovely.

    Unless your mother crept in, middle of the night, put your father under, and took a testicle slice, then hurried out and impregnated herself, she did not “steal sperm” from your dad. He donated it willingly and happily. That he contributed nothing afterwards, including responsibility, is not your mother’s fault or yours, but I do think you should stop blaming your mother for his behavior. Men do know where babies come from, and the men who are serious about not having babies avoid putting their penises in women’s vaginas. They don’t have sex and then try to bully women into having abortions.

    • Well, Chana, I see a lot of readers “like” your comment! You make good points about the Orthodox community–there are places in Israel where it is much less of an issue. As for your attitude toward men, I often wonder if I am raising my sons to be good husbands. I hope so.