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SIDIC Periodical XIV - 1981/2
The Family: Jewish and Christian Perspectives (Pages 05 - 15)

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Perspectives on the family in Christian and Jewish traditions
Eugene J. Fisher

 

An Interfaith Conference on the Family was held in Memphis, Tennessee on April 25, 1980, sponsored jointly by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the American Jewish Committee and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Memphis. The following paper by Dr. Fisher was presented on that occasion.

Introduction

In the Roman Catholic community today,' the diagnosis and prognosis of the state of the Catholic family seems to have replaced even sex as a topic of acute concern. Conferences on family proliferate. The American Bishops have developed a major Plan of Pastoral Action for Family Ministry, a form of ministry unknown (at least by that name) in the Church only a few years ago. (It is a ministry both to families and by families to the community). Religious educators are working out highly sophisticated models and programs for family religious education. Liturgists are experimenting with family liturgies. And last October, bishops from around the world met in Synod in Rome to discuss a major document on the family.

I would suspect that the Catholic community is not alone among religious communities in feeling deeply threatened, precisely as a religious community, by what is happening to the American family. Why? Why should religious people care so deeply about it? Can we, as religious communities, Christian and Jewish, face the challenge together and learn from one another in the process?

The three sections of this paper will attempt to provide some (by no means all, or even the best) answers to these questions: first, by looking sociologically at what is happening to families today, especially with regard to families in religious minorities; secondly, by taking a brief overview of the role of the family in Jewish and Christian traditions and of the values, both shared and divergent, which our traditions have posited on the family and lastly by suggesting some areas in which today we can learn from one another's traditional family patterns and religious support structures.

I. The Current Crisis Which Brings Us Together

A. General Sociological Perspectives


It has become a commonplace of late in our Sunday newspaper supplements and professional journals to speak of the American family as an institution in crisis. Dire statistics (we are a people who love to dwell on, and be muddled by, statistics we seem to feel that a properly laid out table of facts and figures is, almost sacramentally, the reality itself that it only signifies), dire statistics, then, are proferred in abundance to record the break-up of the family. Divorce rates are soaring, even in the Catholic and Jewish communities which traditionally have been most resistant. People are getting married later and putting off having children.

Once, sociologists tell us, the basic family pattern was "extended". Now it is "nuclear". The extended family was characterized, typically, by three generations living in the same household. This unit itself was supported by a large network of relatives living nearby in the same, roughly homogeneous neighborhood. Relatives could be called on in time of trouble and could be counted upon to support, and in many ways to enforce, the same set of moral and religious values as those of the parents, thus helping to ensure the transmission of those values from one generation to the next.

Social and spatial mobility, and the allurements of economic opportunity, however, have exerted tremendous centrifugal pressure on this once tightly-woven structure, spinning family members away from each other and spreading us, like butter, across the face of the continent.

The communal support structure also appears to be spinning apart, held together like the family itself only by long-distance phone calls and occasional, festive or sad, celebrations of life's major events. The ethnic communities of our youth have not survived intact the transplantation process from the cities to the sub and ex-urbs. Increasingly large percentages of us, whether WASP or ethnic Catholic or Jewish or black are, simply put, on our own. This isolation is reflected in the term "nuclear". The nucleus of the family, parents and young children, remains. But the protons and electrons, lifelong friends and relatives that once encircled and protected that nucleus, have spun away.

We should not, I would insist, bemoan our fate in contemplating this reality. We chose it. We, in fact, worked hard for it. Immigrants all (save for the American Indian), we wanted a society of upward mobility and economic opportunity. We worked hard to create it and, for the sake of our children, we should preserve it. I think our nostalgia over the "good old days" of immigrant ghettoes should be kept in perspective. Manhattan's lower east side and the Midwest's Catholic ghettoes are picturesque to visit today in coffee table books and old photographs. But those who lived there wanted, above all, to get out. Yet the costs, in terms of our present ability to share our deepest religious and moral values with those who come after us, now seem to have been somewhat greater than we bargained for.

There is a second, less tangible yet equally troubling aspect that comes into play as soon as one mentions this question of the transmission of shared values. This is the insight, put in different ways in the literature, that the crisis may most deeply be one of authority. Just as the support system of family and community has been sheared off by social mobility, so have chunks of the traditional authority of parents been sheared off by society. The traditional role of parents as primary educators (to educate, remember, means to "lead forth") has more and more been assumed by our schools. Again, this is not the "fault" of professional educators. Wedumped much of this task, whether wisely or not, on the schools in a time when we felt that formal education could cure all of society's ills from the task of assimilating and "Americanizing" masses of raw immigrants to the more recent task of achieving in the classroom the racial integration we have been unwilling to achieve in our communities. The State, through its social work agencies and courts (again, brought into being for good and necessary reasons) is more and more taking on itself the right to decide "what is best" for our children, even to the point of establishing procedures to determine whether the home environment is a "healthy" one.

Even the most intimate medical decisions are now seen as properly made between doctor and individual patient alone. Parents and spouses have no right to a say (and in some recent court cases no right even to be informed) in such matters as abortion or the use and type of birth control even in the case of minors. And the Church and Synagogue, many of us feel today to judge from overwhelming percentages in the polls, may also be seen by many of us as attempting to exercise authority that properly belongs within the family unit in matters of sexual ethics.

B. Religious Minority Survival

American pluralism has been seen by the religious communities who came to these shores seeking a guarantee of religious liberty as something not only to be tolerated, but also to be cherished as a good in itself. So positive has been our reaction, and now I speak as a Catholic, that we have to a great extent succeeded in "exporting" our enthusiasm to the rest of our Church, most spectacularly in the form of the declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae Personae), formally promulgated by the Second Vatican Council in December of 1965. Yet for pluralism, as for all true freedoms, there has been a price to pay.

It was almost easier in the 19th Century when Catholics (along with Jews) first came to these shores in large numbers to settle, in the main, near their ports of entry, in the industrial areas of the Great Lakes and the Northeast. Here they encountered a society "developed under the religious influence of largely Calvinist and Anabaptist provenance", a society characterized from the beginning by its commitment to religious voluntarism and by a "puritan ethic" which sought to hold the state responsible for the support of religious ideas "to such an extent that civil law tended to be identified with the moral".2

In such a setting, to be Catholic (or Jewish) was to be markedly different. Our names were "funny" and unpronounceable. The "public" schools actively taught Protestantism in the classroom.

Our own solution was straightforward: to create a "Catholic" or a "Jewish" world within the larger society in which to live, complete with schools, hospitals and political machines.

Yet in the last half-century the power and conceptual content of this Protestant establishment have gradually eroded. Along with it has eroded our strong sense of "over-againstness". American society has shifted its frame of reference from a specifically supernatural, staunchly calvinist social morality to a humanistic, utilitarian ethos. In matters of sexual morality, for example, Americans have largely succeeded in getting rid of the old "Victorian" norms, only to discover that we cannot agree on a commonly acknowledged set of relevant beliefs and normative standards. In such a case, societal paralysis regarding ethical questions can occur because, as John L. Thomas has pointed out:

"Particularly under conditions of democratic procedure, conflicting moral ideals and ideologies tend to neutralize each other in the public forum since the concerted effort needed for shared thinking and acting is paralyzed by the divergence of opinions".3

Religious minorities in a pluralist society face particularly acute difficulties in retaining their unique beliefs and practices in the face of a "market place" morality. For the same factors which act centrifugally to unravel familial and communal support networks act centripetally with regard to values. Thomas refers to what he calls a "strain toward consistency" in democratic societies, since in them the very structure of social arrangements, over time, will "tend to embody values consistent with the beliefs about the nature of man and his needs held by the dominant majority".4 Much of Protestantism, for example, rejects the Catholic belief in the sacramental character of the marriage bond. Legal systems in societies with a Protestant majority thus tend to favor a relative ease in obtaining divorces. The result on the popular level, in turn, is that the expectations of those entering marriage and their approach to such questions as the solution of conflict within marriage or openness to extramarital relations can come to be based on the assumption that divorce is always possible. Divorce becomes simply another option.

Religious minorities seeking to maintain their traditional patterns of conduct can also be stymied by the interrelatedness of factors in a social system dominated by others. Catholics, for example, share the life style expectancies of the rest of the American population. Given economic necessity, more and more couples must have both spouses contributing to the family income, and often enough limit the size of the family, in order to provide the standard of living their peers enjoy. Couples that reject contraceptive family limitation, yet accept contemporary cultural goals in all other respects, will thus experience considerable frustration unless they are fully aware of the social mechanisms involved.

Given such social realities, along with the profound sense of change now occuring within Church and Synagogue alike, the powerful supernatural, communal and psychological sanctions that formerly operated to enforce family values within the Christian and Jewish communities seem also to be eroding. Each of these changes, from spatial and social mobility to renewal of the liturgy, have resulted in positive good. Yet the prevailing sense in many families is undeniably one of "normative ambiguity". (There are just too many options!)

II. A Common Foundation: The Hebrew Scriptures

A. The Creation Narratives


It is more than coincidental that if you ask either a Jewish or Christian scholar to give a talk on religion and family he or she will, likely as not, open with one of the following references to Genesis:

"God created humankind in the image of himself... male and female he created them.
God blessed them, saying, 'Be fruitful, multiply..." (Gn 1:27-28)

"This at last is bone from my bones,
and flesh from my flesh...
This is why a man leaves his father and mother and joins himself to his wife,
and they become one body". (Gn 2:23-24)

These two texts establish the ideal of marriage (and, in the perspective of the authors, automatically family as well) within the very act of Creation. The purpose of this creational setting is at least two-fold, as both of our traditions clearly reflect.5 The first two goals are easily discerned in the above texts: the union of the partners as a reflection of God's oneness 6 and procreation, the bearing and raising of children.7

A third function of marriage and the family, I would argue, can also be discovered in Genesis: stewardship over the earth, or "standing in" for God in working out in history God's sacred purpose in the act of creation. This is seen immediately in the priestly account: "Fill the earth and subdue it. Be masters of the fish of the sea", etc.. The theme is equally strong in the Yahwist account, which portrays the sad state of creation before the first couple is made:

"At the time when the Lord God made earth and heaven,
there was as yet no wild bush on the earth nor had any plant yet sprung up,
for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth, nor was there any man to till the soil." (Gn 2:5)

The family is thus the single human institution which our traditions accept as ordained by God in the very act of creation and for the sake of this same creation.

In both biblical accounts it should (but alas doesn't) go without saying that male and female are creationally, which is to say ideally, equal, and that any subsequent suppression of one by the other represents a disordering of the basic pattern of nature. It can be maintained, 1 believe, that while neither Judaism nor Christianity has been, on the practical level, very successful in working out this fundamental biblical insight of equality before God, the theological basis for it is firmly embedded in the sacred texts.

In Judaism much less emphasis has always been placed on the Eden narrative as a primal fall from grace to sin than in Christianity. Perhaps this is because Judaism has wisely approached Genesis 1-11 as a whole. Read this way, it becomes clear that for the biblical author, the flood (Gn 6-9) has wiped creation clean of all past evil and God has established a new creation and a new world order. This new order is expressed as a covenant between God and "every living creature", including humanity (Gn 9:1-11). In it, even the curse of the earth is removed: "Never again will I curse the earth because of man, because his heart conceives evil from his infancy. Never again will I strike down every living thing as I have done". (Gn 8:21).

In Christianity, of course, such a radical new ordering is truly begun for the world only with the coming of Christ, whose Paschal mystery of death and resurrection sets not only the Christian community (the Church) into the first stage of the eschatalogical age, but all of creation with it .9 It is in this sense of about-to-be realized eschatology that the Pauline saying forms a constitution for the equality of men and women within the Church: "And there are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus." (Gal. 3:28; see 1 Cor. 12:13 and Col. 3:11, the latter two of which, however, do not include "male and female" in their parallel listings) .

B. The Patriarchal and Matriarchal Narratives of Genesis

It is in the patriarchal and matriarchal narratives, the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, that the notion of the family as both the primal, founding unit of the people of God and indeed, the carrier of the salvific promises, is most vividly portrayed. Genesis 12-40 is perhaps best understood as family saga. Of critical importance for the authors is the question of who is begetting whom and in which family line. Indeed, Israel's relations with all of her neighbors are here depicted in terms of familial relationships, for example the descendance of the Edomites from Jacob's older brother, Esau (Gn 36).

Throughout the Genesis narratives it is, time after time, the women, as wives and mothers, who take matters into their own hands and by their initiative ensure the continuance of the promise. Thus, Sarah acts to exile Hagar so that the promise will follow the line of Isaac (Gen 21). Rebekah prefers Jacob even though Isaac favors Esau (Gn 25: 28) and she engineers Isaac's blessing for Jacob (Gn 27). Rachel and Leah provide the impetus and reasoning for the return of Jacob's family to the Land of Promise from PaddanAram. And it is Rachel who finally outwits the wily Laban by taking with her the family idols (teraphim), the possession of which seems to have constituted a legal claim to the right of inheritance (Gn 31).

C. Torah

Laws concerning the family take up a large portion of the Pentateuchal codes,' from questions of divorce (Dt. 24:1) to the most detailed listing of the lines of consanguinity then known in the ancient world (Lev. 18). Preservation of the integrity of the family unit appears to be the motivation for no less than three of the ten commandments: Honor your father and mother; you shall not commit adultery; and you shall not covet your neighbor's wife (household) (Dt. 5; Ex. 20).

The principle of family cohesion is reflected, if negatively, in the juridic disposition of Ex. 20:5 and Dt. 5:9, that God punishes the sins of the father in his children even to the fourth generation, though the principle of individual moral responsibility is central to Deuteronomy's vision of a law written on the heart. "(God) punishes in their own persons these who hate him" (Dt. 7:10-13). Legally, Deuteronomy rules that "Fathers may not be put to death for their sons, nor sons for their fathers" (24:16).

Adultery, which destroys family unity and the line of inheritance, is so heinous that it becomes a matter of capital punishment for both offenders (Dt. 22:23; Lev. 20:10) and eventually becomes a primary symbol, in Hosea, for idolatry itself. Bastards who are not the product of, and eunuchs, who cannot participate in, normal family life are not, according to Deuteronomy 23:1-2 "to be admitted to the assembly of the Lord". Women on the other hand, are consistently listed by Deuteronomy among the people assembled for covenant ceremonies and feasts (29: 10, 18; 31: 12; 12: 12, 18; 16: 11, 14), showing that by this time the people came together, not as isolated individuals, but as family units. The primacy of family cohesiveness also has its positive side. The institutions of the go'el and the levir ('avenger", "redeemer") included the obligation to purchase the freedom of family members who have been forced by debt to sell themselves into slavery (Lev. 25:47-55); the obligation to marry the widow of one's brother to ensure the continuance of the brother's family name and inheritance line (Dt. 25:5-10; Jer. 32:6-7; Ruth 3-4); and, within strictly limited circumstances," to bring to justice one who has injured or murdered a family member.

Family according to biblical law was an extended concept, including not only relatives but all retainers and even the animals who lived in the household. Thus, the Sabbatical Year (Ex 23:10-11; Dt. 15:1-11; Lev. 23:10-13, 25:1-22) like the Sabbath itself (Dt. 5; Ex 20) marked a period of rest for all members, as well as the possibility of freedom for slaves (Dt. 15:12-18). This latter passage, among others, also illustrates the extension of the concept of family to the whole people, especially to the poor but also to the alien immigrant (Dt. 10:19), providing humankind with an enduring terminology of moral intimacy that can still be found in use today, for example, among members of Catholic religious orders, the Black and women's movements in this country, and even in Marxism.

"Is there a poor man among you, one of your brothers,
in any town in the land the Lord your God is giving you?
Do not harden your heart or close your hand against that poor brother of yours, but be open-handed and lend him enough for his needs" (Dt. 15:7-9; cf. Lev. 19:11-18).

Family feeling is so strong in Torah that it extends to the animal world. In one of the most intriguing and unique of all laws, Deuteronomy stipulates:

"If, when out walking, you come across a bird's nest, in a tree or on the ground, with chicks and eggs and the mother bird sitting on them, you must not take the mother who is brooding the chicks. Let the mother go; the young you may take for yourself. So shall you prosper and have a long life" (Dt. 22:6-8).

The famous dictum "Thou shalt not cook a kid in its mother's milk" (Ex 23:19; 34:26; Dt. 14:21), which gave rise in time to so many of the laws of kashruth in later Judaism, seems likewise to be at least partly motivated by a delicacy of respect for family feelings.12

The blessing of prosperity, parenthetically, is normally connected with a promise of many children (e.g. Dt. 28:3-4), a mark, again, of the central role of the family in the biblical world view.

Sensitivity to the family colors and mitigates a whole range of biblical laws, even when respect for the family comes into conflict with other legitimate and pressing needs of the state. Deuteronomy thus exempts men from conscription in the army to give the marriage a chance to establish itself:

"If a man is newly married, he shall not join the army nor is he to be pestered at home. He shall be left at home free of all obligations for one year to bring joy to the wife he has taken" (Dt. 24:5).

Protection of those with no families to provide for them, especially widows and orphans, is a responsability that devolves on society as a whole, which thereby assumes the role of extended family (Ex. 22:22; Dt. 24:17; 27:19). The prophets make this protective concern a basic charge on the people (Is. 1:17-23; 10:2; Jer. 7:6; 22:3; Mal. 3:5) as the Lord's special concern.

D. Family As Center of Cult in Judaism

The sabbath, as a day of rest, seems to have been from the beginning a home festival as well as "a day for sacred assembly" (Lev. 23:3). Other festivals likewise may have had both home and public components.

Chief among these is Passover (Pesach) which, combined with the feast of Mazzoth (unleavened bread) is depicted solely as a home or family religious ceremony in the basic text on its observance, Exodus 12:1-28.13 Here, it is a ritual meal recalling the central events of Jewish freedom. The ritual, a shared meal, is inherently ordered to family observance, a fact emphasized in the fact that already in the book of Exodus it is seen as an occasion for religious instruction:

"And when your children ask you, 'What does this ritual mean?', you will tell them,
`It is the sacrifice of the Passover in honor of the Lord who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt" (Ex. 12:26).

The revival of the Passover in the time of Josiah reflects Josiah's attempt to centralize all worship in the temple. Interestingly, even this attempt at centralization must respect the essential family-orientation of the feast, for Josiah orders the priests to

"Take your places by families according to your orders, in compliance with the written decree of David king of Israel and his son Solomon. Stand in the sanctuary according to the divisions of the family groupings, at the disposal of your brothers the laity; the Levites are to have a portion in the family" (2 Chr. 35:4-5).

Throughout the ages, Jewish tradition has preserved the essential "family liturgy" aspect of the Sabbath and Passover, and continually ordered major festivals toward the religious instruction and simple delight of the children (e.g. Purim). In a real sense, as the family observes the Sabbath and the feasts at home, so do these celebrations elevate and preserve the Jewish family. We Christians, I fear, in jettisoning so much of our Jewish heritage, have lost this invaluable aspect of religious support for the integrity and vitality of the family. In Judaism, the family is a religious worshiping institution. This is a major lesson Christians concerned for the family today can learn through dialogue with Jews.

Not only prayer but liturgy proper is, in Judaism, validly undertaken in the home setting. Every week, when the mother lights the Sabbath candles, when the blessings are uttered and the songs are sung to welcome the Sabbath bride, the Jewish home is consecrated anew as a sacred place. In our Christian terminology, the home becomes, for the Sabbath and the feasts celebrated there, a Church, the point of contact between the whole people and God.

Rabbi Leon Klenicki, in introducing a Passover Haggadah which he prepared for Christians and for joint Jewish-Christian use, states it beautifully:

"The celebration (of Passover) at home is a reenactment of the Exodus experience. The home is transformed into a sanctuary where rituals and observances change family life and where time, secular time, the time of everyday life experience, suffers a transfiguration: it becomes sacred time. It is a time paused in eternity, a time rooted in the passage from bondage to the desert and freedom, a time in solidarity with other moments of painful history, a time sensitive to present oppression. But is is also a time of hope, of renewed Jewish hope in the ultimate victory over evil, and the final reality of the kingdom of God".14

Judaism, then, has worked out in a marvelous way its sense of being a priestly people. Every Jew in the family, adult or child, has a specific and significant liturgical function to perform. Jewish liturgy breaks down all barriers between sacred and profance by transforming the everyday, the family home itself, into a sanctuary fit to receive the indwelling presence of God. In such a perspective, it is not to be wondered why Judaism survived the destruction of its Temple. The true dwelling place of God on earth was never so much the Temple as the people themselves.

This perspective likewise makes more comprehensible for Christians the central role of halachah" in Judaism. If the people are to be a priestly people, formal offerers of official worship in their homes, then they must be ritually pure as were the priests for the Temple sacrifices. The Pharisaic and Rabbinic tradition thus extends to the whole people many of the biblical commands originally meant for priests and levites alone.

One example of the intimate relationship between synagogue liturgy and home liturgy will here have to stand for many more. The central event of the synagogue service for Passover is the reading of the Song of Songs, a collection of frankly erotic poetry which is interpreted by rabbinic tradition as the love that exists between God and His bride, Israel. Medieval Jewish commentators pointed out that this biblical text, which on the surface may seem to have nothing to do with the Exodus events, was an appropriate synagogue reading because it described the dialogue of love between God and Israel, a dialogue that became a wedded reality at. Mount Sinai when God's revelation and Israel's acceptance of the Torah became a love affair for eternity"." Thus, the synagogue service itself turns the people back to the home, to the conjugal love which is the foundation of the family, and of the people.

III. Diverging Traditions: Rabbinic Literature and the New Testament on the Family

Early Christianity, because of its unique self-definition as an ecclesial community and out of its strong sense of eschatological imminence, soon began to make significant modifications in the theological understanding of the family which it had inherited from its parent tradition. As it developed, significantly new, though still biblically-linked traditions concerning the family began to form. Some of those, such as the substitution of Christ and his Church for the God-Israel dialogue seen by the rabbis in the Song of Songs, represented simply the logical shifts flowing from the acceptance of the divinity of the risen Christ (see Eph. 5:25). Others, as we shall see, appear to be of more fundamental importance in terms of forming Christian attitudes, theologically and structurally, toward the family.

Judaism too in this period was developing radically new forms of self-understanding which influenced its views toward the family. With the fall of the Temple, the center of public cult moved from temple sacrifices to prayer services and the reading of Torah in the synagogues. On the one hand, the loss of the Temple brought about a renewed understanding, as we have seen, of the role of the home as, itself, a sanctuary. On the other hand, the central position of the role of the scholar-rabbi as interpreter of Oral Torah made halachic learning the supreme achievement of the Jew. And in Jewish society, as in surrounding societies, (and perhaps, in a diasporal situation, in reflection of the patterns prevailing in those societies) higher learning, with the few exceptions that proved the rule, came to be defined more and more as a male function. Rabbinical schools, gatherings of masters and pupils around the study of Written and Oral Torah, and to some extent the synagogue itself, became a "male-only" preserve, moving the family from the center of religious life.

Much the same process occurred in the early Church as women, who originally seem to have functioned on many levels of leadership within the Christian community, gradually were shunted into the home, with the center of the religious community becoming the churches and the rituals performed in them by the cultic priesthood.17

In both cases, it must be cautioned, a mixture of often countervailing trends prevailed and the process was gradual. More to our point here are the major texts in Talmudic literature and of the New Testament which define the essential attitudes of each community toward the family. How do these diverging religious traditions view the role of the family?

A. Family in the New Testament

Considering the central role of the family in modern Christianity," it is somewhat disconcerting, when ap proaching the subject, to come up against so many sayings which appear to denigrate marriage. In the lengthiest discussion of the topic in the New Testament, 1, Cor, 7, for example, St. Paul appears to accept marriage only grudgingly and only for those "who cannot control the sexual urges... since it is better to be married than to be tortured" (1 Cor. 7:9). Virginity, presumably his own state, is the preferred state for the Christian, though Paul does acknowledge that "everybody has his own particular gifts" (v. 7).

The background of such negative views in the Epistles is the expectation of the imminent end of the world. Christians, for Paul, are best off staying as they are and devoting all their passion and attention to preparation for Christ's triumphant return. Marriage which necessarily involves one with practical necessities, can be a distraction from spiritual matters (1 Cor. 7:32-35).

Yet imminent eschatology does not seem to explain fully Jesus' dicta as rceorded in the Gospels. Here the background, while eschatological, is ecclesial as well. The Christian community, its very lifestyle, should reflect the perfected state of the world at the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God. Marriage will not exist in that Kingdom (Mt. 22:30; Mk. 12:25; Luke 20:35).

Likewise, Jesus in some sayings seems to view marriage and the family as, at best, distractions. Marriage is one of the activities of the heedless generation destroyed by the flood (Luke 17:27). It is an excuse offered by the man who is not ready to accept the call of God (Lk. 14:20).
Several sayings seem to envision a community ordered on different lines than those of traditional family ties. For example:

"His mother and brothers now arrived and, standing outside, sent in a message asking to see him (Jesus). A crowd was sitting round him at the time the message was passed to him, 'your mother and brothers and sisters are outside asking for you.' He replied, 'who are my mother and brothers?' And looking round at those sitting in a circle about him, he said, 'here are my mother and brothers. Anyone who does the will of God, that person is my brother and sister and mother" (Mk. 3:31-35; cf. Mt. 12:46-50; Lk. 8:19-21).

A community ordered on such a vision will, in its manner of liturgical assembly, reflect the definition of entry into its ranks: individual choice rather than family descent or ties.

Some of the harsh bite of Jesus' sayings, of course, can be explained as deriving from his homiletic style. Jesus often sought to shake his listeners into deeper understandings, in the manner of the prophets, through overturning expected patterns of discourse. But when one finds such sayings set down by the Gospel authors in the context, for example, of the basic commissioning of the disciples in Matthew, one can only conclude that the early Church itself saw the sayings as having significance for the ecclesial ordering of the community.

"Brother will betray brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by all men on account of my name; but the man who stands firm to the end will be saved..." "I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man's enemies will be those of his own household. Any one who prefers father or mother to me is not worthy of me... Anyone who finds his life will lose it, anyone who loves his life for my sake will find it" Matt. 10:21-22, 34-39).

The rhetorical device used to startle his audience is clear here. But just as clear is the underlying insistence that the choice, for or against the Kingdom of God, is a choice that must take priority over all other human considerations, even if it means the dissolution of the primal family bonds. The Christian community is to be a radical one in which the perspective of the Kingdom relativizes and places into secondary importance even that closest of human ties, the family. It is no longer creation which measures and defines the religious pattern of conduct, but the eschaton.

Christianity did, indeed, create institutions to implement on a literal level the implications of this New Testament thrust relativizing the family. Virginity, life-long celibacy, came to be practised as a "higher" or more fully "Christian" way of life in the monastic movement 19 (in which, by the way, the religious community came to be conceived as one's "true family"). Thus, for example, despite the fact that matrimony was given the status of a sacrament by Eastern and Western Christianity alike, the fulness of the priesthood came to be preserved only for the celibate. Even in Eastern Christianity, where parish priests way be married (though not bishops, who alone exercise the "fulness" of cultic priesthood), the practice is to be married before being ordained, since marriage is somehow a "lower" state than celibacy and hence it would not be fitting for one in a higher state (priesthood) to engage in it. Thus, if a priest's wife dies, he is not allowed to remarry.

Side by side with the relativizing tendency of the eschatalogical perspective, the New Testament also contains a rich vein of teachings that are very supportive of marriage and the family. In several passages in the Gospels the messianic age is described as wedding feast (Mt. 9:15; 25:1; Mk. 2:19; Jn. 3:29). In the Epistles the relationship between Christ and the Church is repeatedly imaged as that between bridgegroom and bride (2 Co. 11:2; Rev. 19:7-9, 21:2; 22:17). Ephesians 5 uses the analogy beautifully to expound both the mystery of the Church and the mystery of marriage itself.

It is on this latter passage, most especially, that Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions rest for their understanding of marriage as a sacrament and therefore, as a reality constitutive of the very essence of the Church.

Jesus' judgment against divorce (Matt. 5:31-32; 19:1-10; Mark 10:2-12) is made on the basis of Genesis 1, arguing strongly for the integrity of the creational perspective, even, with the Kingdom near at hand. The Epistles likewise show pastoral concern for the family by exhorting husbands to love their wives (Coal. 3:18; 1 Peter 3:1-7). And Jesus himself seems to have been particularly fond of children since "it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs" (Matt. 19:13-15; cf. Mk. 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17).

B. Family in Rabbinic Literature

While the practice of celibacy seems to have been practiced among certain Jewish religious movements of the first centuries such as the Essenes and the Therapeutae, rabbinic tradition does not seem to know it at all. As we have seen, much of the liturgy developed during the period was home or family oriented. The rabbis, laypersons rather than priests, were family men who, to judge from numerous sayings, delighted in their wives and children. Asceticism, except in so far as it was of use for the study of Torah or in the fastings prescribed for certain feasts, was not favored.

While women, especially those other than one's own wife (or wives!) are often regarded in the Talmud as distractions for study or temptations to lust, love within marriage and the family itself is extolled. Three examples, among many others, should suffice to make this point.

"R. Johanan said: If a man's first wife dies, it is as if the Temple were destroyed in his day. R. Alexandri said: If a man's wife dies, the world becomes dark for him. R. Samuel b. Nahman said: For everything there is a substitute except for the wife of one's youth" (Sanhedrin 22a).
"R. Jacob said: He who has no wife lives without good, or help, or blessing, or atonement. R. Joshua of Sikhnin said: He is also without life. R. Hiyya b. Gammada said: He is not really a complete man, and some say that he diminishes the divine likeness" (Genesis Rabbah, Bereshit 17,2).

"R. Hanilai said: A man who has no wife lives without joy, blessing and good... In the West they said: Without Torah and without (moral) protection. Raba b. Ulla said: And without peace... The sages say: Of him who loves his wife, and honors her more than himself, and brings up his sons and daughters rightly, and marries them early, the Scripture says, 'you know that your tent is in peace"' (Job 5:24; Yebamot 63a; Sanhedrin 76b).

While polygamy was possible in societies in which it was acceptable practice, monogamy came to be the norm among Western Jewry, as in the famous quotation of Rabbi Judah b. Bathyra:
"If it had been fitting for Adam to have been given ten wives, God would have given them to him, yet God gave him only one. So I, too, will be satisfied with one wife and my one portion" (Aboth de Rabbi Nathan II, 5a).

The perspective, here, is creational.

One of the six major divisions of the Mishnah, the central and earliest portion of the Talmud, is devoted to Nashim (women), treating a range of family and marriage questions from betrothal arrangements and marriage deeds (Ketuboth) to divorce (Gittin). Indeed, the extensive body of rulings and sayings in rabbinical literature dealing with all aspects of family life, from preparing food to the proper raising of children, testifies to the centrality of the family in rabbinic Judaism.2

The importance of children in Jewish liturgy we have discussed above. In contrast to Christianity, where official worship is mainly an adult affair, children and their religious instruction are the focus of a remarkably high proportion of Jewish rituals.

The religious training of children (especially, though not exclusively, sons) was the subject of extensive discussion among the rabbis. Sophisticated curricular and pedagogical devices were developed, tested and refined through the centuries. Learning of the Hebrew alphabet, for example, was facilitated for the young through games, songs and even letters traced with honey so that the child's first impression of learning would be sweet and joyful. Again, it became the pattern to begin a child's reading of Torah not with Genesis (whose stories demand maturity for comprehension), but with Leviticus, whose "do and don't" precepts, while dry, are at least comprehensible to young children. This appreciation of the psychology of children, of what we would call "age group objectives" in education, contains wisdom we Christians can still learn from today.

The importance of religious education is articulated in many vivid Talmudic sayings. A midrash on Ex. 25:34, which describes the golden candlestick in the Holy of Holies, for example, interprets: "its flowers: There are the children who learn in school" (Pes. R. 29b) Some other examples:

"R. Hamnuna said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because the children did not attend school, but loitered in the streets" (T.B. Sab. 119b).
"Resh Lachish said: The world stands only upon the breath of school children ... Let not the children be kept back from school, even to help in the building of the Temple" (Sab. 119b).

The careful consideration of psychology for the service of education is evident in the following passages:

"Children are not obliged to fast on the Day of Atonement, but they should be trained a year or two before they are of age " so that they may become versed in the Commandments".
"As soon as a child is free from his mother's care, he is old enough to be under the obligation of dwelling in the Tabernacle on the feast of Booths. If he knows how to wave the palm-branch he must wave one. If he understands the commandments of fringes and phylacteries and can put them on, it is his father's duty to provide him with them. As soon as he can speak, his father teaches him the Shema, Torah and the sacred tongue; otherwise, it were better he had not come into the world" (T. Hag. 1,2).

The second passage also shows that, while an educational system had been developed for the training of children by professional (or semi-professional) teachers, the parental responsibility was clearly maintained and not simply abdicated to the schools.

One final aspect of Judaism's supportive approach to the family might profitably be raised here. This is the extent to which the tradition has integrated the commandment to honor one's parents into the system of mitzvoth (religious duties). "Honor" for Jews does not lie simply in the obedience of the small child to parental commands. It is a life-long commitment, and a religious obligation of the highest order. Kiddushin 30-32 in the Mishnah is, perhaps, the locus classicus for this highly developed and nuanced approach to what is involved in fulfilling the biblical command. A few samples:

"In what does reverence for a father consist? In not sitting in his presence and in not speaking in his presence and in not contradicting him. Of what does honor for parents consist? In providing for them food and drink, in clothing them, in giving them shoes for their feet, in helping them to enter or leave the house" (Kid. 31b-32a).

"If a father makes a mistake in the words of the Law, let not the son say, 'Father, you have made a mistake' but let him say, 'Father in the Law it is written thus"' (Kid. 32a).

"When R. Joseph heard the footsteps of his mother, he said, 'I rise up before the Shechinah (God's presence, a feminine noun in Hebrew) which is approaching" (1 Kid. 31b).

Honoring one's parents parallels the reverence owed to God.

"Torah puts the reverence of parents side by side with the reverence of God. And so it does as regards cursing God and cursing parents (Ex. 21: 17; Lev. 24:15). And this is just, because all three are partners in our Creation. R. Simeon b. Yochai said: So great is the honor of father and mother that God has made it more important than His own honor. For it says 'Honor your father and mother' without qualifications (Ex. 20-12), but it says 'Honor God with your substance" (Prov. 3:9). T. J. Kid., I, 7 61b).

Honoring parents therefore cannot be overdone:

"One day R. Tarfon's mother's sandals split and broke and as she could not mend them, she had to walk across the courtyard barefoot. So R. Tarfon kept stretching his hands under her feet so that she might walk over them all the way... The rabbis replied: 'If he had done to (his mother) a thousand times more, he would not have done half of the honor enjoined in the Torah" (Ibid.).

Finally, one saying almost seems to be in direct contradiction to the New Testament passages we saw above:

"Let not a man say to himself: 'Seeing that my Father in heaven was the first cause of my life, therefore will I go and do the will of my father and mother', for it says 'Honor thy father and mother" (Tan. d. b. El. 134).

Many reasons for the strength and vitality of Jewish family life, I believe, are clearly apparent from such strong religious expressions of support.

C. Family in Catholic Tradition

While maintaining a tradition of celibacy, Roman Catholic tradition has produced over the centuries a rich body of liturgical and cultural practices that have served to support the family.

The tradition of the Holy Family (Mary, Joseph and Jesus) as the ideal for family life, of course, comes immediately to mind. Along with the central role that Mary has always played in Catholicism as the mother of Jesus and thus the model of faithful motherhood, the Holy Family tradition has been embellished in art and on the level of popular piety in a way that elevates the family itself to a central role in the religious life of the faithful. Indeed, in addition to the many Marian feasts of the liturgical cycle, the Sunday in the Octave of Christmas is designated specifically to the Holy Family (Christmas itself, of course, providing an archetypically family setting for the celebration of the mystery of the Incarnation itself).

The first reading of the feast of the Holy Family, taken from the book of Sirach, chapter three, reveals the sense of continuity between Judaism and Catholicism in their understanding of the what it means to honor one's parents:

"The Lord sets a father in honor over his children; a mother's authority he confirms over her sons. One who honors his father atones for sins; he stores up riches who reveres his mother."

The Epistle (Col. 3:12-21), while reflecting the patriarchal setting of the period ("wives, be submissive to your husbands") concludes with a rather beautiful and delicate pericope:

"You children, obey your parents in everything as the acceptable way in the Lord.
And fathers, do not nag your children lest they lose heart."

The gospel readings of the various cycles are all from the infancy narratives: the flight into Egypt (Mt. 2); the presentation in the temple (Lk. 2); and Jesus in the temple as a child (Lk. 2).

The last of these three passages includes the verse which has become a locus classicus for Christian religious educators, not only in terms of obedience to one's parents but also in setting the prime responsibility for religious education (following the model of Jesus) in the family:

"He went down with (his parents), and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them... Jesus, for his part, progressed steadily in wisdom and age and grace before God and the community" (Lk. 2:50-2).

By centering so much of the liturgical calendar on the family, Catholic tradition fosters in practice the sacredness of the family and its importance within the life of the Church. It is not to be wondered then that so much of Catholic life traditionally centers on the family or that so many major Catholic activities, such as the Catholic Family Movement, have prospered in recent American history. For Catholicism, the family is sacred both creationally and salvifically. Here again there is a point of common linkage between Jewish and Catholic experience, and the basis for a shared agenda of concerns.

IV. Fruits of Dialogue: The Rediscovery of Judaism and the Renewal of Family Life in the Church Today

The Second Vatican Council in its Declaration, Nostra Aetate, stressed the continuity between our two religious traditions and mandated theological dialogue on the basis of mutual respect in order to probe more deeply "the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews" .22

Already in the Council's basic statements on the Church (Lumen Gentium) and on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), I would argue, the renewed biblical perspective that lies at the heart of the Conciliar documents reflected in a real way a re-integration of several basic Jewish insights into the self-view of the Curch. This is evident in the concept of the People of God as the Council's central definition of what it means to be Church.23

This concept of peoplehood, which is profoundly biblical, opened up exciting new possibilities not as easily discerned in the monarchical model of ecclesiology which applied the terminology of the state rather than that of the community to the mystery of the Church. In this context of Church as a people called into being by God, the Council was able to reactivate the ancient notion of the family as a form of the Church, in fact, as Church realized in a unique way:

"The family is, so to speak, the domestic Church. In it parents should, by their word and example, be the first preachers of the faith to their children".24

Karl Rahner, referring to the Council's definition of family as "domestic Church", comments:
"In marriage the Church is made present. It is really the smallest community, the smallest, but at the same time the true community of the redeemed and the sanctified... the genuine individual Church" .28

For Christians, theology functions to define the religious community in much the same way that halachah defines the community in Judaism. Thus, in Roman Catholicism today, the granting of a central theological position accords to the family a remarkably parallel position within the community as that enjoyed halachically by the family within Judaism.

Viewing the family as an authentic ecclesial reality has numerous implications for family ministry today. Parish and home life, for example, must be woven more tightly together, with the parish viewed as an extended family and, in turn, as a primary support system for the family. Any distinction between the Church building as a "sacred" place and the home as a "secular" place is theologically inappropriate. Here again, Jewish practice, which as we have seen never admitted the distinction in the first place, can be of great help to Catholics in their attempts to implement their theological insights in practical reality.

If the family is an ecclesial unit with salvific significance, it follows that there should be, as in Judaism, specific liturgical means of expressing and celebrating this reality. In fact, this is just what is happening in the Church today. We are beginning (though only beginning) to develop liturgical celebrations for the home. Resource material published to aid dioceses in the implementation of the Bishops' "Plan of Pastoral Action for Family Ministry" raise just this possibility:

"The mystery of the Church ... is lived out on many levels, from the Church universal to the Christian family. Therefore, the family ought to manifest liturgically its ecclesial status... There is a growing theological appreciation that the Christian family is both a worshiping community and a living community in the Kingdom of God worth celebrating".26

The author, David Thomas, envisions these liturgical expressions not "simply as a peripheral devotional practice" but as a "formal expression" deserving "a central place in the theology of worship".27 Obviously, one cannot merely adopt (or adapt) the well-developed Jewish home liturgical tradition to the Christian context which, as we have seen, has some unique views of itself as community which radically distinguish it from Judaism's self-view. But Judaism has a rich home liturgical tradition from which, through respectful dialogue, we Christians can learn much.

The final category of sharing I would suggest for further dialogue is that of religious education. This too, as the same document on Family Ministry 28 illustrates, is something that Christian families are more and more learning to re-appropriate as having its proper context in the family. Again, this strikes one familiar with both traditions as an area where we Christians can learn much from Jewish practice.

In all of these areas, I would maintain, the Jewish community stands as much to gain as does the Christian. While I have centered my remarks, being a Christian, on what we as Christians can learn form Jews, Christianity is also an ancient religious tradition with a wealth of spiritual insight. Jews have picked up Christian practice in the past and adapted them to their own religious needs i9 We are, as religious communities, in covenant with the same God, whatever our differences may be. In that sense we are, whether we may like it or not, spiritually bound one to the other. Through the link of the One God whom we are both called to proclaim in our homes as well as in the religious institutions we develop, we can, we must, share and learn together for the sake of the Kingdom.



1. As a Roman Catholic, my references on the Christian side will be mainly to those from my own tradition. This is not to say that this is the only source for Christianity as a whole, but merely represents the limitations of my own expertise.
2. John L. Thomas, The American Catholic Family, Family Life Division, United States Catholic Conference, 1974, p. 8.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid., 11.
5. The two-fold purpose of marriage as both procreation and the loving union of the partners was clearly stated by the Second Vatican Council in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (De Ecclesia, no. 48), which carefully avoids any sense of "primary" or "secondary" ends of marriage.
6. De Ecclesia thus refers to Jesus' dictum, commenting on Genesis, that the partners become "no longer two, but one flesh" (Mt. 19:6).
7. The priestly tradition in Gen. 1:28 ("Be fruitful and multiply") posits this function of conjugal love in the act of creation itself. The Yahwist tradition mentions childbearing for the first time in the context of the admonition to the woman: "I will multiply your pains in childbearing" (Gn. 3: 16).
8. 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15; Eph. 2:10-15; Rom. 8: 18- 25; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1-5.
9. Jewish tradition has numerous sayings on the equality before God of the sexes (e.g. Sifre Num., Pinehas 133, f. 49a) including two that are remarkably parallel to the wording of the Christian epistles (Seder Eliyahu Rabba, 9:14). These however, date from a later period, perhaps as late as the 10th Century (so also Yalkut on Judges 4: 17).
10. Cf. Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel (N.Y.: McGraw-Hill, 1965), Vol. 1, pp. 17-61.
11. Num. 35:9-34; Dt. 19:1-13.
12. Maimonides and modern scholars, however, tend to stress the existence of such a practice in the pagan cults of surrounding peoples as the primary motivation for this law. See Cyrus H. Gordon, "Canaanite Mythology", in S.N. Kramer, Ed., Mythologies of the Ancient World (N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor, 1961), pp. 181-218.
13. The critical literature, both Jewish and Christian, on Passover is voluminous. An excellent survey can be found in Santos Ros Garmendia, La Pascua En el Antiguo Testamento (Spain, Vitoria: Editorial Eset, 1978).
14. Leon Klenicki, Ed., The Passover Celebration (Chicago: The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith and the Liturgy Training Program of the Archdiocese of Chicago, 1980), pp. 203.
15. A term normally mis-translated by Christians as "Law". In fact, halachah is derived from the verb, "to go" and is better understood as "the Way", as in going, or walking, with God (cf. Gen. 5:24). Jesus statement, "I am the Way", seems to reflect this sense of halachah.
16. Klenicki, op. cit., 2.
17. On the role of women in the early Church and in Judaism, see Leonard Swidler, Women in Judaism (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1976). For a different view see M. Meiselman, Jewish Women in Jewish Law (N.Y.: Yeshiva Univ./KTAV, 1978).
18. Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution De Ecdesia, for example, denotes a major section (nos. 47 to 52) to an excursus on "Fostering the Nobility of Marriage and the Family".
19. The dictum on "Eunuchs who have made themselves that way for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 19:10-12) likewise was seen as an argument for celibacy as the Christian lifestyle: "Let anyone accept this who can".
20. Jewish family ties have long been close, and have shown themselves capable of remaining firm even across international borders. Thus, the success of Jewish banking and trading establishments, in those periods where they were allowed to operate by the host nations, was traditionally dependent, not so much on any special aptitude or skills, as on the shared trust between various branches of the same family even though spread throughout many nations. Such connections, for example, provided almost the sole link between the Christian world and Islam during the high Middle Ages. It was mainly through Jewish family channels that the insights of Muslim philosophy and culture were brought to the "less civilized" West during this period. Thus, to the Jewish family, Western civilization in a real sense owes the impetus for the rise of medieval scholasticism and of the Renaissance itself.
21. C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe in A Rabbinic Anthology (N.Y.: Schocken, 1974, p. 520) comment on this passoge that "Boys were 'of age' at 13 and girls at 12 A year or two before coming of age, the plan was that they should have rather less to eat than usual on the fast day". (Most of the translation of rabbinic sayings I have used are from this very handy anthology).
22. Walter Abbott, The Documents of Vatican II (N.Y.: The America Press, 1966), p. 665.
23. Lumen Gentium, 24 and 32.
24. Ibid., 11. This approach to family as domestic Church owes much to the writings of John Chrysostum, cf. In Genesim Sermones, 6, 2, P.G. 54; pp. 607-8; In Epist, ad Ephes. V, 20, P.G., 62, pp. 143-4.
25. Karl Rahner, "Marriage as a Sacrament", Theological Investigations X (N.Y.: Seabury, 1973), p. 221.
26. David M. Thomas, "Theological Insights into Christian Family Ministry", page 7, in D.B. Conroy, Ed., General Introductory Materials for Family Ministry, Department of Education, U.S. Catholic Conference, 1978.
27. Ibid.
28. Ibid., p. 8.
29. Such practices as confirmations and the ordination of rabbis are two among many which deserve study in this regard.

 

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