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Probing the Jewish Nuclear Family Bookmark and Share
Probing the Jewish Nuclear Family
By: Susan Handelman

A Jew today," someone wrote, "is anyone who has Jewish grandchildren." The words sting -- perhaps more than any others in our painful debates about Jewish identity.

Of course, the definition is only metaphorical. Innumerable Jews are unable to have children; others have chosen not to have them. Many have intermarried; others are unmarried by choice or fate. And many now openly prefer relationships with members of their own sex. Rare, indeed, is the Jew today who can be certain of having Jewish grandchildren.

It's no news that "alternate lifestyles," assimilation, challenges to traditional Jewish authority, and demographic changes have all ravaged the Jewish family. One now hears the argument that the traditional Jewish emphasis on the family is obsolete because it excludes large numbers of Jews from Jewish life. Some feminists claim that the traditional nuclear family is a repressive, patriarchal institution whose ideology has helped to exclude women from full participation in Jewish institutional life. Homosexuals argue for the validation of their lifestyle. Singles often feel hurt and condescended to by a community which sees them as unfulfilled and not full adults as long as they are unmarried.

The other side argues that the family is the foundation of Jewish life and guarantor of Jewish survival; that the first mitzvah is "be fruitful and multiply; and that attacks on the Jewish family emanate not from a depth of true Jewish commitment and understanding but from an all too American ethic of self-gratification, narcissism and antinomianism. Being Jewish is not to be defined by whatever makes one feel good and self-justified. The lifestyles of Jews should not determine the Jewish style of life.

My aim here is not to engage directly in the Jewish view of homosexuality, (which Torah regards as opposes), or the challenges of feminism, or the problems of singles in the Jewish community. But these questions have raised for me a deeper, underlying question: Beyond all the usual platitudes, why is the family so important in Judaism?

To define a Jew as someone who has Jewish grandchildren -- for all its irony -- strikes me as conceptually profound. It defines a Jew in terms of family -- but not immediate family. It validates not only biological self-reproduction but a spiritual continuance beyond the immediate and across time. The Jew is not defined by how Jewish she or he may "feel," or how many mitzvot they may perform, or how much money they give, but their ability to embody (literally, in children) and transmit Judaism so vitally that these children choose to remain Jewish and are able, in turn, to pass on that spark to their own children. "Three is a chazaka," as Jewish tradition says. In other words, only when something is done three times, does it have the element of surety, permanence -- can one trust its stability. Grandchildren are the third generation; they confirm the Judaism of the first generation. Transmission requires a biological next generation, but that is not enough; biology is shaped by spirituality, self is pulled towards other, the blindness of the present towards a vision of the future.

This is not to argue that simple survival is what being Jewish is all about. Yet, beyond all the obvious reasons for our contemporary stress on "survival" (the decimation of the Jewish population of the Holocaust, the continuous threats to Israel, declining birthrates and intermarriage), Judaism seems strangely obsessed with this theme and with the idea of family from the beginning. Why?

Our G-d's Concern With History
The Book of Genesis, for instance, is a book all about families, barren wives, sibling rivalries, destructions by flood and fire, constant threats to the process of transmission and continuity. These themes are narrated in part to demystify nature as an autonomous controlling force and stress the then revolutionary idea that the One G-d is in control of both nature and history.

And history is meaningful in Jewish thought precisely because G-d is passionately involved in it, and not static, emotionless, and ahistoric as the god of the Greeks. Just as G-d, the ultimate model, is intensely involved with the quarrels of families from Cain and Abel to the conflicts between the families of nations, so too are the biblical heroes and heroines deeply involved -- in fact, defined by -- the problems of their own families. Families are the great scene of spiritual struggle; both then and now, they are the paradigms of intimate connection and intense ambivalence. Unlike Greek heroes, Biblical heroes do not attain identity and glory in solitary combat away from their families; their problems are deeply domestic.

It's no accident that the critical test of Abraham was precisely the command to sacrifice his son... and not to be tempted in the wilderness or have to sacrifice himself. For the son was not his alone, and the crisis was not only personal; it was collective. The call to Abraham was for him to become a great nation; it was not a private covenant with a single person. Judaism, unlike other religions, does not advocate or promise "salvation" to individuals. The covenant is made not with Abraham alone but with all his descendants, the family which was to grow into the nation that Moses led to Sinai. And the revelation at Sinai again was collective, to an entire people, not to individuals.

Is this obsession with family the remnants of primitive tribalism? Is the focus on survival the result of a desert mentality and the tribulations of exile? And what does all this have to do with our modem need for individualism and self definition?

The family is central to Judaism, I think, because it is central to Jewish ideas of G-d, creation, covenant, and history. The biological family reminds us that we, like the world, are created; we are not inevitable, necessary autonomous. We are an effect of someone else's will -- and in the best case -- someone's desire to give to an other. We have a history. The creation of the world -- it, too, is a something from nothing, an act of faith and hope.

To refuse to give birth to the next generation is to refuse to continue G-d's creation, and thus also to refuse to live in history, and thus also to deny the covenant. For covenant is collective and historical. Torah is a guide and inheritance to a people who were to journey not just in space to the Promised Land -- but in time, through the travails of history. History -- the physical turmoil of this world, of its passions, temptations. "The Torah, " as the book of Deuteronomy says in a famous passage, "is not in Heaven."

"Every descent," the Jewish mystics say, "is for the purpose of an ascent." The soul's descent into the scrappy physical world, the people's wanderings through the course of history enable a great spiritual blossoming -- and thus the Talmud compared the Jewish people to the olive: only when squeezed does it give forth oil.

This world, daily human relationships, are the scene of divine action, by both G-d and Israel. The world is not an allegory; spirituality is not elsewhere. The Jew is engaged in sanctifying this physical world and mundane historical time. That is why memory is so important to the Jews -- it is the sanctifying and linking of past, present and future. In Jewish time, the past remembers the future. Memory, said the Ba'al Shem Tov, is the secret of redemption.

Generation: Jewish Responsibility
And to put it simply -- there is no physical future, no history without physical reproduction. The family is the unity that creates life and is the most powerful agent of transmitting personal and collective memory. That is why there is such emphasis on "generation" in the Bible, why teaching and learning are so highly valued -- because they are acts of transmission to and reception and renewal by the next generation... of the heritage, of the gift. The threat to the covenant is that there will be no one, or the wrong one, to carry it on into history. Perhaps that is one of the meanings of the famous midrash that when G-d was about to give the Torah, he asked for guarantors who would keep it -- it was not enough for the Jews themselves to pledge to keep it, only when they said, "Our children will be our guarantors," did G-d agree to reveal it.

Just as the children were pledged before they had any choice in the matter -- the self is not an isolate, autonomous, totally free creation, despite the dogmas of pop American psychology. The family is a covenant. For in the family, we are continuously reminded of, obligated to, intruded upon and pained by, delighted and pleased with -- others. We are in constant dialogue -- even if it is angry. True, one can divorce a husband or wife. But however severe the alienation may be, a child's biological bond to a parent is indissoluble. As Robert Frost once put it: "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." In this way, familial relations are a microcosm, training ground, reminder, and enactment of the Jewish people's intimate and tempestuous relation to G-d; why after all, are we called the "children" of Israel, the "children" of G-d?" The prophets, of course, exploit the full implications of these metaphors: In the book of Jeremiah, G-d may angrily "divorce" the Jewish people as his unfaithful "wife" who has played harlot but then cries yearningly for their redemption, "Return, O backsliding children."

The Integrity of Traditional Sex Values
Thus I will speculate that one of the reasons Jewish tradition opposes homosexuality is that there can be no next generation from that kind of union -- no biological child; therefore, no history, no future, no covenant. Now of course -- Jewish tradition holds that one who teaches another's child is as if s/he gave birth to that child. And this is a great value -- but Judaism, unlike Christianity, does not allegorize away the physical commandment of the Torah and seek salvation in another world. The ideal Jewish saint is not an ascetic, or one who as in other religions, attains purity by removal from the community, or from the demands of a family or the physical world, For these struggles are the deepest spiritual struggles. The secrets of the kabbalah were to be taught only to married men. And the kabbalah itself describes the various aspects of G-d's mystical inner being (the configurations Of the sefirot) in terms of family metaphors, "father, mother, son, daughter."

Thus the traditional Jewish advocacy of marriage, childbearing, and heterosexuality, I think, should not be mistaken for a repressive patriarchy, an intolerance of lifestyles, a primitive tribalism, or outmoded ideology. Jewish tradition clearly teaches that a Jew is a Jew no matter what, that every Jew is holy, and part of the Jewish community. I am in no way arguing for the exclusion of those with alternate views from the Jewish community or synagogue. And I do not want to minimize in any way the personal pain this position may cause to homosexuals. But that pain is not a persuasive argument for change.

Our Jewish Duty Was And Is Clear
The family can indeed be a repressive institution -- as can any relationship that is distorted, but I have tried to argue here that the Jewish concept of family is distinctive and absolutely integral to Judaism; it is not reducible to a bourgois societal arrangement or "Lifestyle." It is deeply theological. One is free to make other choices. But what will be the grounds and values on which those choices are made? For the freedom to make choices should not be confused with the freedom to remake Jewish tradition into one's own image... with only one's present in mind. The ultimate ground of value in Judaism is not the autonomous self, but the personhood bestowed by being in and continuing G-d's creation and covenant.

Someone once said that having children made him relate to G-d a lot better. "How so?" I asked. "Because now I understand what it is like to create something you have no control over," he answered. This is ironic and also very wise. Having children is indeed an aspect of being made in the image of G-d. For G-d's creation as an act of G-d's free will gives us free will and so makes our very actions in history meaningful... and makes the Torah ours, to be renewed in every generation. A child is both oneself and completely other. Similarly, in the process of transmission, Torah is the same and other -- wholly accepted, and also changed and enlarged through newness of the next generation. As the Talmud says, "Even the innovations which a brilliant student will one day teach in front of his master were already given at Sinai." In this sense, the Latin-American writer Borges said, Jews alone produced grandchildren, whereas in the secular Western tradition of writing and texts, "The Nights of Alexandria, Babylon, Carthage, Memphis have never succeeded in engendering a single grandfather." Although no one can guarantee it, it is our obligation to try to make sure that we do have Jewish grandchildren.