The Family in the Jewish Faith

The Family in the Jewish Faith

Some 30 years ago, as a young psychologist, I attended the international meeting of Family Therapists at the University of NSW. As I looked around the John Clancy Auditorium I recognized many faces as people with whom I’d grown up in the Jewish community, and saw many other Jewish people there. I turned to my neighbor – an older and more experienced Family Therapist, with whom I’d attended a Jewish youth group in my adolescence, and remarked on the large proportion of Jews in attendance. To all of us in that hall, functioning families were of paramount importance. The family is absolutely central to a Jewish person’s world, and if it is dysfunctional, it is a crisis. That is probably why so many researchers into family, so many who work to support family functioning, are Jewish, and why so much thought is put into making families work by Jewish people.

Professionally, that is also the core of my work. It is informed by the values that I have instilled in me by being brought up in an observant Jewish family – albeit one that has been in Australia for over 150 years, and has thus been influenced by an Aussie culture as well.

I note that modern Positive Psychology, developed by Martin Seligman, recognizes the role of gratitude in peoples’ (and families’) sense of wellbeing. This nice Jewish boy only had to look to Jewish prayer to understand that that wisdom underpins Jewish family life.

Before I begin, may I say that juvenile delinquency has multifaceted causes – not just family breakdown. What we do know is that children living with both parents do better than those who don’t – as long as there is no abuse or neglect. So if we care about children, we have to assist couples to enhance the quality of their relationship, so that they can stay together to do the best they can for their children.

Let us reflect on the role of the family in Judaism. The very first bad thing noted by G-d in Genesis was the idea of man being alone, without a helpmate; the very first commandment given to man after his Creation was to go forth and procreate. When G-d created humans, both male and female He created them – obviously He created male and female in every species, but Genesis stipulates that both were created by G-d in the case of humans, to prove that BOTH are in the image of G-d, and all of humankind – male and female – has dominion over the rest of the world.

The Bible stories that informed my early education, and that we read cyclically every year in the synagogue, are full of families. Our G-d is the “G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” The prayer that we make to bless our children calls on that G-d – the one who knows about families – to have lives like our matriarchs and patriarchs – in that they had to learn to deal with human issues such as jealousy, sibling rivalry, infertility, isolation – yet remained strong in their faith, and taught their children to grow up to be good Jews.

Members of families have different roles and responsibilities.

Jewish tradition values justice and kindness in all relationships, and gives specific responsibilities to parents and children. The responsibilities of parents include disciplining children so that they know right from wrong, teaching them Jewish tradition, and seeing that they learn a vocation.
The specific responsibilities of children include honoring and revering their parents. However, in recent years, the duration of children’s dependence on their parents has been extended from the mid-teen years—when tradi- tionally girls were married and boys apprenticed in a trade or sent to a yeshiva—to an additional five or more years. These are now important high school and college years during which the child learns knowledge and skills to be a productive adult in today’s society. Part of these skills are not academic, but rather skills in taking on and carry- ing out challenging responsibilities, and in making and carrying out personal decisions. Thus parents today generally feel it is important to the child’s life education gradually to give the teen increased responsibility and freedom, as he or she matures. This means parent and teen go through a delicate ‘separation waltz’. Ideally, the parents gradually step back, and the teen gradually assumes more responsibility. Often one or both doesn’t happen: the teen is irresponsible, the parent is too control- ling or too permissive. The result is a prolonged, painful conflict that turns the “hearts of the children” from the parents, the hearts of the parents from the children.
During the teen years, then, there is a continually changing relationship between parents and children, with a change in responsibilities and power. Both parents and children have to continually redefine their relationship. This process is not only inherently difficult, but made more complex by uncertainty over the proper authority of parents. Judaism teaches that the child may not sit in his father’s place.
Jewish tradition is clear that a prime responsibility of parents is to reprove and correct their children for any moral wrong-doing. First of all we have a general responsibility to reprove wrongdoing: You shall surely reprove your neighbor. (Lev. 19:27). The responsibility to reprove and correct children in particular is a central theme of the book of Prov- erbs: A wise son—it is through the discipline of his father; A scoffer—he has never heard reproof. (Prov. 13:1)
In Talmudic times, the sages softened the severity of the Biblical punishments. They effec- tively defined out of existence the “stubborn and rebellious son” of Deuteronomy, for whom the death penalty was prescribed. And where Proverbs says, He that spares the rod hates his son (Prov. 13:24), one Talmudic sage says, If you strike a child, strike him only with a shoelace (Bava Batra, 21a.). However, while punishments were softened, the obligation to reprove was just as emphatic: All love that has no reproof with it is not true love. (Gen. R. 54:3). Reproving a child is a key part of teaching him or her to be a morally upright person.
And this is where Judaism’s understanding of the individual is significant in explaining why parents are given this directive. We believe that we are born with both an evil and a good inclination, and that it is through parenting that the child learns to be a moral adult.
A psychological experiment performed only recently illustrates this: The subject was cheating – who does it and why. People were given a maths test. There were four groups – prior to the test, two groups were asked to write down all the books they had read in the last year, the other two groups to write down all of the Ten Commandments that they could remember. Then all did the test. One group each of those who wrote down book titles or the commandments marked the test and handed it in. No room to cheat. The other two groups each marked their tests, then submitted a slip of paper with their mark on it. What do you think happened? The group who wrote down book titles improved their scores overall by about 25%. Those who wrote down the Ten Commandments had the same mean score whether they had the chance to cheat or not. This, despite the fact that many of the subjects remembered barely none of the Commandments – just thinking about doing the right thing helped them do it.
Teaching morality works.
In the brief moments left to me, I will reflect on some of the major challenges facing Jewish families today.
1. Remembering the past. One third of the Jewish people was slaughtered in the Holocaust of mid-last century. How do we continue to honour their memory while allowing our children to not be burdened by that pain?
2. As a result of that Holocaust, our greatest religious thinkers were lost to us. This has taken decades and two generations to recover, and many of our Rabbinical leaders remain too humble to make landmark rulings that would assist people to live more comfortably in the 21st century (in particular, rules about divorce).
3. Acceptance of Jewish people within the general community has made an enormous difference to the way Jewish people can live. However, it means parents have to face the fact of intermarriage, and what that means to Jewish families.
4. The vilification of Israel, when so much of Jewish identity is caught up with that Land. It bites into our self-esteem and makes people anxious.
5. The aforementioned extended adolescence – a problem, I am sure, for all families, whatever their faith.

Telling the Children that a New Baby is on the way

The imminent birth of a new baby can evoke all sorts of emotions in the other children. Often this involves excitement in the older ones, maybe some anxiety or confusion in the younger ones. And those emotions will occur no matter how matter-of-factly you as parents began your discussions, for no matter how calmly you talk about it, your children will likely tune in to and focus on the changes in you as you prepare for the new addition to the family.
It is important to understand that young children often express emotions through changes in their behaviour. Of course you will want them to feel excitement and anticipate with pleasure the changes that are to come. Your task is to reduce your children’s anxiety, and hopefully assist them to express any uncomfortable emotions in a less disruptive way.
Obviously, you do need to talk about the fact that you are having a baby and that the baby’s arrival will change the composition of the family, so the real questions involve how and when you have those conversations.
What to say to the children
The ages and the curiosity of the children will provide your greatest guides as to how and when to speak to them. Very young children may initially show little curiosity about their mother’s enlarging belly nor even notice or understand her tiredness, and may only respond when invited to talk about it. You need to ensure that they have the ‘heads up’ from you, rather than hearing about the new baby from relatives or well-intentioned friends of yours, but keep the discussion brief, and the focus should be on them. It will not prove necessary to force discussion about feelings or what things will be like. Very little ones do not yet have the capacity to contemplate future events or even envisage any time beyond right now. When they seem ready, it will be up to you to start talking about what the future holds, with an emphasis on the idea that the new baby will become a part of the lives that the family has been building together.
Follow the lead of your children in determining the amount of detail you give them about how a baby is made or the birth process. When children ask technical questions, take care not to make the answers too technical, but don’t insult them by making up stories about the stork delivering babies, when clearly they want to understand better why Mum started growing a baby at this time. You can find many good books written for parents to use for children of different ages, to assist you in sharing with your child the information that seems right for them. Story time thus becomes an ever more important time of the day for children, as the pregnancy develops. They will have to find different ways of sitting on or with Mum, as her changing shape alters what feels comfortable. With daily cuddly contact, the change in Mummy won’t seem so dramatic, and the children will be more accepting of the gradual changes. So, although the coming baby will not necessarily become the subject of every discussion, the fact of its growing will be evident and helpful for the children, in their ultimate acceptance of the fact of the new baby in their lives.

Parents and Divorce

At last, in this weekend’s SMH, there was a report on research showing the bleeding obvious – that children are hurt by their parents’ divorce!! At one level, it seems ludicrous that Paul Amato, Professor of Sociology at Pennsylvania State University, should even bother to do the research, because how can it not hurt children? But for twenty or more years, professionals working with couples have espoused the idea of the “good divorce”, and tried to make it okay for parents to split up.

Amato and his colleagues have shown, though, that even the best-intentioned divorced couple, who remain good friends, share the parenting and smile at each other as they do hand-over, produce children who do less well on a range of psychological measures than those parents who stay together. Of course, that is looking at a large group of children – there is no doubt that there are many individual cases of children from divorced parents doing better even than those children whose parents stay together. It clearly is not just parental marital status that contributes to a child’s self-esteem, or satisfaction with life and school. And it is not merely those measures that determine whether a child will experiment with sex, drugs and rock and roll. But Amato’s study contributes to our understanding of the value of working on an unsatisfactory marriage, especially when there are children involved.

Amato’s study makes it a little harder for parents to walk away from a marriage because they are feeling unfulfilled. It does not suggest that being a parent means that you have to tolerate abuse or neglect. A parent’s needs must be able to be met within a marriage before anyone should insist that they stay. The point is that with this extra information, parents may decide to WORK ON the marriage for the children’s sake. And this is quite different from the 20th century idea that one STAYS IN the marriage for the sake of the children. Now, in the 21st century, it is incumbent on parents to ensure that their marriage is one of quality, and that no-one suffers by its existence.

Which of course brings me to the solution: don’t be scared of investing in quality advice and support for your marriage, from premarital counseling, to interventions and support at times of crisis, to pre-parenting classes, parenting support and help in dealing with the challenges life throws up. Although this may entail some financial outlay, it will be less than you will lose in divorce proceedings – and the value you can add to your life can not necessarily even be measured in monetary terms.

Remember, intervene early and prevent big problems from snaring you. Talk to a skilled psychologist who takes a whole of life view and can assist you in developing a positive focus and an increased joy in living.