Rachel never had much of a problem conceiving children: one, two, three, four, five. But when it came to child No. 6, Rachel (who asked that we identify her by only a pseudonym) and her husband tried and tried. Five years passed, but no child came.
“You have a frum issue,” Dr. Richard Grazi told Rachel one day last November, using the Yiddish term for religiously observant, at Brooklyn’s Genesis Fertility & Reproductive Medicine center.
As an ultra-Orthodox woman, Rachel follows the Jewish laws of ritual purity, abstaining from sex with her husband during her menstrual period and for seven days afterward. Though Rachel was able to conceive for the first 19 years of her marriage, her menstrual cycle had shifted recently. Her fertility now peaked at a time in the month when she was forbidden from touching her husband. In other words, by following Jewish law, Rachel had rendered herself infertile.
“Halachic infertility,” as her condition is known, affects a small number of Orthodox Jewish women worldwide. According to Grazi, around 5% of his 500 Orthodox patients — about 25 women — can’t conceive because they adhere to religious law. Most halachically infertile women could easily become pregnant if they had sex with their husbands earlier in their cycle.
But for Orthodox women and their rabbis, breaking the laws of ritual purity is simply unthinkable. In Brooklyn’s Orthodox community, where having a large family is paramount, most women with the condition take low-risk hormones instead, to adjust their cycles so that they can get pregnant. Others turn to artificial insemination.
“There are some rules that are extremely strict,” said Chaim Jalas, the director of patient services at Bonei Olam, an Orthodox fertility center. “The idea here is that the halacha doesn’t change.”
Contemporary practices around Jewish ritual purity stem from the
Torah, which prohibits women from having sexual intercourse while they are menstruating, or niddah, and commands them to dunk in a ritual bath, or mikveh, before they can rejoin their husbands. In the biblical era, healthy women visited the mikveh just a few days after they stopped menstruating, while women with irregular cycles had to wait a week. Rabbis streamlined these regulations in the Talmud, decreeing that all women should wait a full seven days after they stopped bleeding to visit the mikveh. Today, Ashkenazi Orthodox women typically abstain from sex for five days while they are menstruating, plus another seven days before going to the mikveh. The 12-day rite of abstention is thought of as the foundation of family life.