Birth and Death – The Ultimate Paradox

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

vrijdag 6 januari 2023

Giving birth to a child is a contradiction in terms. On the one hand, it is the greatest joy we can imagine. The first commandment given to humankind is to be fruitful and multiply (Bereshit 1:28). Procreation is an expression of the highest form of creativity; just as God is the Creator of the Universe, so the human being is the creator of all humankind.

Still, this does not seem to be the whole story. After all, we are told that a woman who gives birth becomes t’mea, ritually “impure”, and she is required to bring a sin offering in the Temple (Vayikra 12:1-8).

This seems to make no sense. Why should the highest form of creativity lead to impurity? Impurity is always related to death and the closer we come to a dead body, the more impure we become. Although the majority of the applications of the laws of impurity no longer apply in the absence of the Temple, the question remains: why does the Torah deem a mother impure after giving birth. This is the very opposite to death!!

Taking this thought a little further, we have to realize that the birth of a child also introduces the concept of death. When the child grows old it will ultimately die; there is no escape. And the more children get born, the more the actuality of death becomes part of this world.

Thus, birth confronts us with a paradox. We are happy with the birth of the child, but it always introduces ultimate tragedy. The passing away of a human being that gave us so much joy at the time of birth, now becomes a terrible misfortune.

Not only that, but the chances that the child will get ill, will suffer pain, may often be confronted with great calamities such as war, is nearly the automatic consequence of any birth.

Hence, we must ask: what is the point of having a child. How long will the birth only result in joy? Moreover, why should we be permitted to have children when the results are all too often tragedies and ultimately death? Why does God command human beings to procreate when He will cause its death?

It could be argued from a completely secular point of view that procreation should be morally forbidden. It makes much more sense to prevent any birth, an act that will prevent much pain etc. It seems that the only justification for having a child, is that it is a Divine commandment.

And when irreligious people long for a child, it is because an inner voice tells them to do so, although it goes against all logic. This voice can only be explained as a Divine voice. There is something about life that overrides all logic. “To live is like to love, all reason is against it, and all healthy instinct for it.” (1)

From the very beginning of the story of Adam and Chava (Eve), it is clear that human beings were meant to live an immortal life. Only after the eating from the forbidden Tree of Life in Paradise did mortality become part of the human being’s experience. It probably also means that in the Garden of Eden few children would be borne since nobody would die, and without death there would be very little need to have many children, since the commandment “to multiply and fill the world” (Bereshit 1:28) would very quickly be fulfilled. The world would quickly be overcrowded within a relative short period of time.

As long as human beings lived in the Garden of Eden, they only experienced joy without any tragedy. After all, this was the original plan – eternal joy. (2)

So, the reason we encounter death today is because the human being was exiled from the Garden of Eden and thus became mortal. While Judaism does not believe in the theology of the “original sin” as in Christianity, it no doubt is aware of the fact that eating from the Tree of Knowledge did introduce the concept of death.

So, mortality is connected with sin. Adam and Chava should not have eaten fruit from the tree! The ensuing reality should not have been. And this also means that birth is connected with sin. After all, the original commandment to be “fruitful and multiply” was not meant to mean the birth of billions of people but only several, since everybody who would be born would be immortal.(Unless the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” was given after the first human beings were exiled from the Garden of Eden, which is entirely possible based on the concept of “ein mukdam ve-meuchar baTorah, “there is, chronically, no earlier or later” in the Torah.) The fact that millions of human beings are born every year, is the result of mortality. Therefore, when a woman gives birth to a child, this too results from the existence of human mortality.

Clearly, it is not the fault of any specific mother that her ritual status becomes one of tum’a, impurity, for she has not done anything wrong. However, this tum’a is a reminder of the very source of childbirth – it is rooted in the world where death was introduced for the first time.

At the same time, childbirth reminds us of the largest divine tragedy ever to take place and that is the very need for Creation – for the moment creation was introduced, tragedy was introduced.

The ultimate question to ask is why God “desired” a creation. Everything would have been much better had God not created anything at all. No evil, no death, no pain, no illness, no war, no earthquakes … it confronts us with the impossible task of answering the question: why Creation? Creation is indeed a paradox.

This is part of why birth creates tum’a. Just as determinism and freewill are a paradox and the theory of light is caught up in a paradox, so is birth – it is the greatest of all joys and at the same time, it introduces death, the greatest of all agony.

The fact that the mother becomes impure, reminds us of the paradox of all Creation. And the sin offering she is required to bring, recalls the first time when man sinned and became mortal.

This birth impurity paradox reminds us that we are not God, nor do we know His reason for the Creation. In fact, even God “sinned” by creating the world. (3)

“He who confronts the paradoxical exposes himself to reality.” (4)

(1) Samuel Butler, “Higgledy-Piggledy”, Notebook (1912).

(2) Obviously, this is also a paradox. How can there be constant joy when there is no sadness. This is one of the mysteries of the Garden of Eden story.

(3) See Chullin 60b and Shevu’ot 9a, where the Talmud states that God brought a sin offering on His Own behalf!

(4) Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Physicists, 1962, point 20 of 21 Points to the Physicists.

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