My ruminations about family life and my lifetime of being a father come at a propitious time. This has been a time in which pastors, pundits, and politicians of all stripes and ideologies have grasped “family values” as a central issue that the United States Government must address.
Challenges to the Nuclear Family
My experiences as a father and uncle have demonstrated to me that family values are not sufficient to meet our current needs. Let me offer one personal example from our family’s very beginning: Twenty-six weeks into Elana’s pregnancy, her doctor told her that she had to stay in bed to reduce the number of her uterine contractions. Twins are automatically considered a high-risk pregnancy, and our twins were intent on earning that label. We faced three months in which she was stuck in bed, and all the other preparations and chores fell to me.
There was simply no way that I could have sustained Elana, our household, and my sanity if I relied only on the nuclear family. Fortunately, my Mishpakhah is a lively and large group, and it mobilized without any call for help. Friends began preparing meals and driving Elana for her twice weekly appointments with the doctor. Relatives and friends began taking shifts organizing the house. Our community stepped up and stepped in.
After two months with this tenuous arrangement, the home medications failed and Elana was forced to move to the hospital. Because her condition fluctuated by the hour, because any crisis could force an emergency delivery, I stayed with her in the hospital throughout the whole time. And, once again, Mishpakhah came to our rescue—my parents and sister flew down from San Francisco. They took charge in organizing our friends.
No nuclear family could have prepared for, and functioned, through that ordeal. Only something as inchoate, as energetic, and as open as a Mishpakhah could provide the depth, the resources, and the stamina to pull together and attend to every detail. Our twins weren’t born into just a family, they were born into Mishpakhah, a clan, a tribe.
The Ozzie and Harriet ideal—two parents alone against the world—doesn’t seem able to accomplish what is expected of it: to educate the kids, raise them to be industrious and pious, to provide for meaningful after-school activities, keep our streets safe, whole¬some, and clean, all the while owning a home and pro¬viding an abundant material lifestyle. The nuclear family that some still deify is limping under the load of dual career couples made mandatory by the costs and material strivings of American living, and parents alone can’t keep the kids off the streets, off drugs, off sex, let alone to inspire them to value literacy, diligence, compassion, and morality.
Our definition of family doesn’t correspond to the needs of most of us, and it doesn’t even correspond to how most people live their lives—only about 60 percent of adult Americans, for example, live in two parent families. And even they seem unable to meet the challenges life throws at them.
Families can be great resources during times of stress, great bastions against a world gone mad. But any survivor of a family knows that they are also them¬selves significant sources of stress, that much of adult life is spent resolving the craziness imposed by our families and our childhoods. Family, by itself, may not be the problem, but it doesn’t seem to be the solution either. Families are too buffeted by economic instability, by the excessive demands made on the two lone adults heading each family unit. Too many families include one adult who is unable or unwilling to shoulder the load. Too many include alcoholics, spouse or child beaters, sexual-abusers, and the many who abandon their children entirely.
We don’t need family values—we have too much of that already. What we needs is Mishpakhah.
Bigger Than Family, Mishpakhah
In 1960 Nahum Glatzer suggested five traits that characterized the Jewish family, the Mishpakhah, throughout much of its history. Those traits bear consideration now, at least as an alternative way to sustain healthy people, to raise motivated and decent children, and to care for the frail and the elderly in our midst. Two parents can’t do it by themselves; but the Mishpakhah did. So in considering the traits of the Mishpakhah, we seek to strengthen our own hands against the challenges of our own troubled times. Mishpakhah is bigger than family.
Glatzer noted that the Mishpakhah was patriarchal, with distinct generational roles for the different members of the household. Children and parents were not equal—the Mishpakhah was no democracy. Without seeking to embrace a gendered patriarchal character that typified the Jewish family in the past, we can still learn from the idea that parents exemplify and teach ideals and standards, and that children learn them from their parents’ behavior. The structures that maintained ancient and medieval patriarchy no longer exist in our culture. In a society in which women hold positions of power and work out of the same necessity that impels most men to earn a living, a patriarchal family structure becomes anomalous, and means something entirely different than it did in the Seventeenth Century (or the Second). The kind of patriarchy of the historic Mishpakhah is not viable today.
But we share with our ancestors a desire to transmit a love of learning, a passion for goodness, and a pride of identity to our children. We seek to insulate them from the ravages of the world until they are old enough to learn how to protect themselves. In that regard we are no different than our great-grandparents and are therefore able to learn from their lives.
Parents who can embody the standards they expect from their children, to exemplify the values they want in their kids are an essential component of any realistic solution to the hollowness at the core of con¬temporary society. By contrast many contemporary parents are all-too absent from their children’s lives. Our expectations and our lifestyles force both adults in most families to earn an income. For most white-collar workers a forty-hour week would seem like a semi¬retirement. Working for hours that are excessive by any measure, it is little wonder that so many adults squander their free time on frenetic recreational activities, often away from spouse and children. The family dinner is often a ghost of the past.
Parents who embody the values they teach, who demonstrate the centrality of family by making their families central are a necessary first step to any agenda of Mishpakhah. And to the renewal of the contemporary family.
Flowing from the generational roles within the Mishpakhah, said Glatzer, was that the Jewish family was three-generational in residence. Grandparents often lived with their children and grandchildren, imposing themselves into child-rearing and family management. As if the ever-present grandparents weren’t enough, aunts, uncles and cousins lived nearby and gathered regularly for celebration, mourning, and spending time together.
The frequently idealized nuclear family is rigid in its membership—two adults, two children—and stretched thin in its resources. Far from the rugged loneliness of the nuclear family, the Mishpakhah is chaotic, inclusive, and large. Relatives, neighbors, and community all involve themselves in the personal lives of each other. Far more than just parents and children, the Mishpakhah grows to include anyone who acts like Mishpakhah. Rather than imposing an a priori definition of some idealized living arrangement (as does “family”), Mishpakhah is defined by the way people live, by real communities and by real people.
With Mishpakhah, privacy is rare; but so is isolation. In many American families if one parent becomes incapacitated the other is unable to juggle work, childcare, and other responsibilities. Often there is no other adult sufficiently close geographically and sufficiently committed emotionally to take on some responsibility for support and succor. Not so the Mishpakhah. If one adult becomes sick, a whole host of aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors and grandparents fill the void, making sure that children are fed, rooms cleaned, and that education and religion continued to provide guidance and meaning in the Mishpakhah’ s life.
Because of its intrusive nature, the Mishpakhah encompasses all aspects of individual members lives. Celebrations and milestones, losses and tragedies all became public, all are data for the Mishpakhah. In the West where we prize our privacy so highly, we often erect walls of silence that distance us from those we most love. The Anglo ethos of stiff-upper-lip individualism can easily displace the natural way the Mishpakhah shares feelings and reaches out to each other in need.
The response of the Mishpakhah is molded by the sacred cycle of the Jewish year: Sabbaths, new moons, festivals, and holy days gave flavor, direction, and distinction to each new season, to each new day. The pulsating energy of the Mishpakhah needs a mold to focus and channel its vitality, and the festivals of Judaism provide that contour still.
Finally, an ideal of the Mishpakhah is the goal of life-long learning. One of the values that parents embody most visibly is the value of the Jewish book—Talmud, if the adults are especially learned; Siddur and Chumash, if not. Jewish learning is not goal oriented. There are no diplomas to deco¬rate the wall, no continuing adult education credits necessary for certification. Jewish learning is far more than what Jews do. This learning is an end, the heart of what Jews are.
In the broader society, learning is almost exclusively the private domain of full-time academics (for whom it is professional accomplishment) or it is the useful tool for career advancement. There are few middle-aged contemporaries who enroll in programs of learning simply for the joy of study, for the chance to be challenged or to think new thoughts. The humanities are on retreat. Few are the children who see their parents reading a difficult book (let alone a holy one) without some practical necessity.
Restore Core Jewish Values into Family Life
In these five traits (distinct generational roles, intrusive relatives and neighbors, involvement in all aspects of everyone’s life, family molded by the Jewish calendar, and life-long learning without practical purpose) the Mishpakhah is sharply distinct from the broader norm. And in all these five traits, contemporary families would be enriched by a different mode of interaction, a broader set of values.
Not only are these structural forms different from what is common today, but the values that percolate through those forms are also sharply distinct. Sociologist Rela Geffen Monson, in 1978, suggested a constellation of such central values that infuse the structure of the Mishpakhah with profundity and purpose. Here, too, these values often stand in stark contrast to the American ideal.
The first value Monson elucidates is the ideal of marriage as kiddushin, as a holy act that reflects a mutual commitment to each partner, as well as a commitment to child-rearing as a central focus of married life.
Marriage is not for everybody, nor is it an option for everybody. In contemporary life, with so many divorces, so many singles, and so many others who don’t fit into the Jewish ideal of marriage (sometimes by choice, often involuntarily) this value requires some translation. There are many today who can’t have children, or who suspect that their own parenting would not do a child a favor and therefore opt out of child-rearing. Some are unable to find life partners with whom to raise kids. In all these cases, the ideal of kiddushin still offers guidance and support. Above all else kiddushin enforces the notion that all adults have a positive role to play in raising and teaching the next generation.
The ideal of child-rearing as the central creative act of adult life need not be limited to biological parents. The survival of Judaism depends on the willingness of rabbis, cantors, youth group leaders, volunteers, religious schoolteachers, and parents of children’s friends to “parent” these children Jewishly. In the opening chapters of the Book of Numbers, the Torah records “This is the line of Aaron and Moses” and then proceeds to list Aaron’s sons. According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 19b), the reason for the inclusion of Moses is to tell us “that anyone who teaches Torah to another’s child is considered as a parent.” Many adults who do not have children, or whose children have already grown, can still perform the mitzvah of gidel banim/banot, of raising children: by adopting a child, by teaching in a religious school or day school, or by volunteering to work with a Jewish youth group or summer camp. The sacred task of raising children is too important to leave to parents alone. Mishpakhah, not just family, is the proper context to raise Jewish kids.
A related value that permeates Mishpakhah is that of tohorat ha-Mishpakhah, which translates literally as “family purity” and refers to the practice of abstaining from sexual relations during and slightly after a menstrual period. That practice of periodic abstention and reunion, an awareness of the cycles of the biological clock has fallen into some disrepute today, in part because it labels a menstrual flux as some¬how “unclean”, perpetuating a notion of the menstruants as “other.” Many of us who are otherwise committed to traditional halakhic practice find ourselves unwilling to consent to this stigmatizing observance today. Perhaps at some time in the future, society will be more open to the equality of all genders and orientations. It may then be possible to mark a sacred abstention and renewal of sexual love without perpetuating the alienation of a particular gendered body, but that time is not yet here. Little girls still often struggle with a sense of inadequacy that is linked to their gender and that is reinforced by traditional gender assumptions. The traditional notion of tohorat hamishpakhah requires modification if it is to be a resource to today’s Mishpakhah.
I propose that we understand tohorat hamishpakhah not as ritual abstention (an act) but as a commitment that sex must be sacred (a goal). The sanctity of the sexual act is enhanced and recognized when love-making takes place within the context of love, commitment, and relationship. Otherwise, even when sex is the result of mutual consent, it can easily constitute mutual exploitation. Anytime a human being becomes a tool to another human being, anytime a “Thou” (to use Buber’s term) is reduced to an “It”, something precious has been cheapened, and someone unique has been degraded.
Ours is an age in which that degradation is so pervasive as to be nearly invisible. The goal of tohorat hamishpakhah, of linking sexuality to ethical commitment and to holiness would provide a much-needed corrective to an age inflamed by its own hype. Ours is, tragically, an age in which sex outside the context of commitment is, all too often, fatal. To assert the value of tohorat hamishpakhah, of sex as an expression of commitment and love, of sex as an embrace of the whole person, will do more than just provide meaning, it may well save lives.
Seeing all lives as worth saving, seeing each human being as intrinsically valuable is itself a reflection of a third Mishpakhah value, that of derekh eretz. The value of derekh eretz embodies the ideal that all people are made in God’s image, that everyone is therefore an unprecedented revelation of a new aspect of God in the world. We ignore that divine image in each other at own religious and social impoverishment Whereas nuclear families build moats and act like fortresses, shutting out a mistrusted world, Mishpakhah implements derekh eretz by learning to live with the idiosyncrasies of all its members, indeed, of the entire community. Different ways of living, different needs or preferences all jostle and bubble in a single pot—never fully endorsed as the family’s norm, perhaps, but not excluded from the center either. Derekh eretz is the ability to live civilly with difference.
Related to that difference is a pair of values: that of kibbud av va-em, honoring parents that is a commandment of the Torah, and nachas fun der kinder (pride/joy from the children), the pre-eminent imperative that places parents at the mercy of their children. After all, if a supreme fulfillment of one’s life is to bask in the glow of one’s successful and loving children, then a key to a parent’s contentment is held by the children. They can withhold the consummation of their parent’s joy, and they can complete it. Such power requires that parents attend to their children and raise them in such a way that they are both capable of, and desire to, treat their parents with dignity and love.
Finally, says Monson, all these values are unified by the grand ideal of shalom bayit, literally “peace in the home.” But shalom bayit should not be mistaken for tranquility or serenity. Anyone who has lived in a Jewish family knows that such repose eludes most Jewish homes much of the time. Shalom bayit is not uniformity or consensus, it is a dynamic equilibrium in which individuals assert their own demands and needs and wants and the Mishpakhah calibrates room emotionally for all its members. Shalom bayit is the umbrella under which all the other values and traits of the Mishpakhah find shelter.
What Are We To Do?
Mah La’asot? What are we, contemporary people, to do? To retreat to a Victorian myth of the “nuclear family” is to return to a straitjacket that strips women and children of their standing in the family, reduces men to caricatures and despots, and trans¬forms each home into a paranoid fortress.
While Mishpakhah is also an imperfect vessel, its real strengths can nourish a community that is seek¬ing traditional roots, looking for a way to organize peo¬ple that strengthens their goodness rather than simply attacking their flaws.
We can return to a more inclusive notion of who is family, defined not only by blood lineage but by function. If it acts like a family, if it supports its members through times good and bad, if its members remain committed to assisting each other through life’s different tests, then it meets the criteria of Mishpakhah.
As a contemporary tee-shirt has it, “A family is a circle of friends who love you.” Rather than sitting in judgment of the way people nurture each other and in turn seek succor for themselves, we would be wise to support the many ways people live with each other, so long as the pattern of living enhances the divine image in each participant, so long as that Mishpakhah is capable of enhancing the humanity, dignity, civility, and security of its members.
The family needs help from Mishpakhah. From extended relatives, from friends and community, the family can gain the resources to truly care for its members. From Judaism’s holy days and festivals, and Sabbaths, the family can learn to sanctify time, not simply to proceed from chore to chore, from activity to activity. We can learn to slow down and live. From the mitzvot the family can learn that each action has consequences and rewards, that one good deed can enrich beyond its immediate reach, that there is always time for caring, and always time for God.
Enough of family values, already! It’s time for Mishpakhah.