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Jewish Grandchildren

Jewish Grandchildren

Beyond the usual platitudes, why is the family so important in Judaism?


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

Of course, in traditional Jewish law, a Jew is defined as someone born of a Jewish mother, or who converts according to halachah, although the American-Jewish community is now engaged in vigorous debate about those parameters as well. The above definition is only metaphorical. Innumerable Jews suffer the pain of being biologically unable to have children; others have chosen not to have them. Many have intermarried; others are unmarried, by choice or fate. And many now openly prefer relationships with members of their own sex. In any case, rare indeed is the Jew today who can be so certain of having Jewish grandchildren.

In recent years, there have also been arguments that the traditional Jewish emphasis on the family is obsolete because it excludes large number of Jews from Jewish life. Some have also said that the traditional nuclear family is a repressive patriarchal institution which has helped exclude women from full participation in Jewish institutional life. Singles, divorcees, and homosexuals often feel hurt and condescended to by a community which sees them as unfulfilled and not full adults as long as they are unmarried.

The other side argues that the family is the foundation of Jewish life and guarantor of Jewish survival; that the first mitzvah is "be fruitful and multiply," and that attacks on the Jewish family emanate not from a depth of true Jewish commitment, but an American ethic of self-gratification. Contemporary American political culture at large is also battling over invocations and justifications of "family values."

My aim here is not to engage directly in arguments about the Torah's view of homosexuality, or the challenges of feminism, or the problems of singles in the Jewish community. Rather, these questions have raised for me a deeper, underlying question: Beyond all the usual platitudes, why is the family so important in Judaism?

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

This is not at all to argue that simple survival or procreation is what being Jewish is all about. Yet beyond all the obvious reasons for our contemporary emphasis on "survival" ( the decimation of the Shoah, the tenuous nature of the State of Israel, declining birthrates and intermarriage), Judaism seems strangely obsessed with this theme and with the idea of the family from the beginning? Why?

The Book of Genesis, for instance, is a book all about families, barren wives, sibling rivalries, destructions by flood and fire, constant threats to the process of transmission and continuity. The Bible narrates these themes in part to demystify nature as an autonomous, controlling force and to stress the then revolutionary idea that the One G‑d is in control of both nature and history.

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

It's no accident that the critical test of Abraham was precisely the request to sacrifice his son... and not to be tempted in the wilderness or have to sacrifice himself. For the son was not his alone, and the crisis was not only personal; it was collective. The call to Abraham was for him to become a great nation; it was not a private concern with a single person. The covenant is not made with Abraham alone but with all his descendants, the family which was to grow into the nation that Moses led to Sinai. And the revelation at Sinai was collective, to an entire people, not just to a few elite spiritually advanced individuals.

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

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

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

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

This world, daily human relationships, are the scene of divine action, for both G‑d and Israel. The Jew is engaged in sanctifying the physical world and mundane historical time. That is why memory is important to the Jews — it is the sanctifying and linking of past, present, and future. In Jewish time, the past remembers the future. "Memory," said the Baal Shem Tov, "is the secret of redemption."

And to put it simply — there is no physical future, no history without physical reproduction. The family is the unit that creates life and is its most powerful agent of transmitting personal and collective memory. That, in part, is why there is such emphasis on "generation" in the Bible, why teaching and learning are so highly valued — because they are acts of transmission to, and reception and renewal by the next generation... of the heritage, of the gift.

Such an act of teaching and transmission itself is also seen as "giving birth," a non-biological way of being a parent. As the great Jewish philosopher and Talmudist Maimonides (1135-1204) wrote in his compendium of Jewish law on the Laws of Torah Study: "Just as a person is commanded to honor and revere his parent, so he is under an obligation to honor and revere his teacher, even to a greater extent than his parent; for his parent gave him life in this world, while his teacher who instructs him in wisdom, secures for him life in the world to come." And conversely: "The Sages said, 'Let the honor of your disciples be as dear to you as your own' (Ethics of the Fathers 4:12). A person should take an interest in his students and love them, for they are his spiritual children who will bring him happiness in this world and in the world hereafter."

The threat to the covenant is that there will be no one to carry it on into history. Perhaps that is one of the meanings of the famous midrash that when G‑d was about to give the Torah, He asked for guarantors who would keep it — it was not enough for the adult Jews themselves to pledge to keep it. Only when they said, "Our children will be our guarantors," did G‑d agree to reveal it.

Just as the children were pledged before they had any choice in the matter — the self is not an isolated, autonomous, entirely free creation. The family is a covenant. For in the family, we are continuously reminded of , obligated to, intruded upon and pained by, delighted and pleased with — others. We are in constant dialogue — even if it is angry. True, one can divorce a husband or a wife. But however severe the alienation may be, a child's biological bond to a parent is indissoluble. As Robert Frost once put it: "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."

In this way, family relations are a microcosm, training ground, reminder and enactment of the Jewish people's intimate and tempestuous relation to G‑d. Why, after all, are we called the "children" of Israel, the "children" of G‑d? The prophets, of course, exploit the full implications of these metaphors. In the book of Jeremiah, G‑d may angrily "divorce" the Jewish people as an unfaithful wife, but then cries yearningly for their redemption: "Return, O backsliding children." And the Kabbalah itself describes the various aspects of G‑d's mystical inner being ( the configurations of the sefirot) in terms of family metaphors, "father, mother, son, daughter."

The family can indeed be a repressive institution — as can any relationship that is distorted — but I have tried to argue here that the Jewish concept of family is distinctive and absolutely integral to Judaism; it is not reducible to a bourgeois societal arrangement or "lifestyle." It is deeply theological. A rabbi friend of mine once said that having children made him relate to G‑d a lot better. "How so?" I asked. "Because now I understand what is like to create something you have no control over," he answered. This is ironic and also very wise. Having children — biological, adopted, or spiritual — is indeed an aspect of being made in the image of G‑d. For G‑d's creation is an act of G‑d's free will, gives us free will, and so makes our actions in history meaningful, and makes the Torah ours, to be renewed in every generation.

A child is both oneself and completely other. Similarly in the process of transmission, Torah is the same and other — wholly accepted and also changed and enlarged through the newness of the next generation. As the Talmud says, "Even the innovations which a brilliant student will one day teach in front of his master were already given at Sinai." In this sense, the non-Jewish Latin-American writer Borges said: "Jews alone produced grandchildren, whereas [in the secular Western tradition of writing and texts], the nights of Alexandria, Babylon, Carthage, Memphis have never succeeded in engendering a single grandfather."

The Jewish family has weakened, and at the same time in the world at large, so many children are in distress, neglected due to poverty, disease, war, familial upheaval, abandoned or unwanted due to handicaps or parents' emotional incapacity. For those without biological children, there are so many ways to reach out and become a "parent" to those children who are lost. That is the Torah of kindness, and another way to be fruitful and multiply, to take hold of the covenant, and keep it. And so, the name of the famous memorial and museum to the Holocaust in Jerusalem, Yad VeShem, comes from the extraordinary visionary lines of the prophet Isaiah who consoles the people with a vision of a rebuilt Temple which will "be called a House of prayer for all the nations: "Thus says the Lord: Keep judgment and do justice, for my salvation is near to come...Happy is the one who does this... who keeps my Sabbath and does not profane it and keeps himself from evil..... Neither let the eunuch say 'Behold I am a dry tree.' For thus says the L-rd to the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant; and to them I will give in my House and within in my walls, yad ve'shem, a 'place and name' better than sons and daughters. I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off" (Isaiah 56).

Although no one except perhaps G‑d can guarantee it, it is our obligation to try to make sure, each of us in her or his own way, that we do have Jewish grandchildren.

Dr. Susan Handelman is a professor of English at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. A native of Chicago, she is the author and editor of numerous books on Jewish thought, a translator of the Rebbe's treatise On the Essence of Chassidus and a contributor to
Reprinted with permission from Wellsprings, a journal of Jewish thought.
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Mina Gordon Melbourne September 4, 2017

Although having children is a Mitzvah, the Torah promises those who were unable to fulfill this Mitzvah that He will give them an everlasting name in this world. See Isaiah 56 verses 4 and 5. Reply

Anonymous Chatsworth, CA September 2, 2017

Lack of grandchildren makes me pathetic I would love to have Jewish grandchildren but I can't because my son has stated that he will never marry or have a family. In the past I have had Jewish women comment on my lack of Jewish grandchildren. They say that I am a sinner and that is why I have not been blessed. Others ask me why I have such a bad son that he would not want to give me grandchildren. How am I supposed to respond to these hurtful comments? How can I answer these questions? I do not go to shul anymore because I hate being around families who talk about their children and grandchildren. Should I leave the Jewish community because my family will not continue? I am seriously thinking of joining the Unitarians so I will not be subjected to abuse and ridicule due to my lack of having grandchildren Reply

Rabbi Shmary Brownstein For February 6, 2015

Re: Too Little Too Late It would seem that we would strongly disagree on what it means to be a Jew and what the value of religion is. I, for example, would not accept that common sense is a reason for people to jettison religion, nor that its value is primarily faith-based fellowship. To me, the Torah is about having a relationship with G-d, which many people seek under one guise or another. However, we both agree that Judaism, whatever it might mean, is worth preserving. If it is worth extending our borders to include the 5 million people you refer to, it is certainly worth keeping our own families connected to the Torah. But the breakdown caused by intermarriage has little to do with the family not accepting it. The likelihood that children born of a mixed marriage will identify as Jews plummets compared to children of two Jewish parents. The families that successfully raise Jewish children are those who give their children uncompromised Torah values. Reply

Sitting On The Fence Leeds, England January 16, 2015

Too Little - too late, and religious antipathy will increase What needs to be said is that in all faiths religious fervour and observance has been slowly disappearing and it's sunset hastened by universal education, schools, universities, the practice of real medicine and scientific thought, by books, TV, and simple common-sense. What's left is the idea of faith based comradeship, community with friendship towards all. The Holocaust taught us so much, it attacked these values and failed, it was indirectly responsible for the creation of Israel.
I'm glad that the parameters of "Who is a Jew, is to be widened, and about time too." My personal view is that this change as come far too late in the day and the rot will continue. There must be around 5 million people in the world today who would have made ideal members of the Jewish faith, but they were turned away and rejected for various reasons, and the bitterness they feel still lingers deeply amongst them. The Jewish intermarriage laws and the strife caused by them amongst families were a curse and a total disgrace, if these are alleged religious values then include me out is what youngsters are saying today. Reply

M. Gordon Melbourne May 31, 2014

Many Layers This thought-provoking article has many layers to it. It would seem that the author did not write this flippantly, but only after deep introspection. The Chaza"l say that "the primary descendants of the righteous are their good deeds". Whether or not one has biological descendants is in G-d's hands, although it says that when a man dies and his soul comes before the Heavenly Court, he will be asked, among other important questions: Did you do your part to try and fulfill the Mitzvah of having children?"
The main idea that I understood from this essay is that every Jew has to look upon himself as an essential link in the golden chain of Jewish continuity. The choices one makes are not made in a vacuum, but have a universal impact,and affect not only the present but also the future.
As Jews we must each do all we can to ensure that "our grandchildren will be Jewish" whether they are the biological offspring of our sons and daughters, or the ripple effects of our deeds. Reply

Michelle Saint louis, MO via March 18, 2013

For those who don't have children This article is not really saying you are not Jewish if you don't have Jewish grandchildren. It is saying there are ways other than genetic to have "grandchildren." Teach, mentor, volunteer, donate to Jewish education and camps. Parents need help and you need a Jewish legacy. Let's help each other. Reply

Judy Resnick Far Rockaway, NY October 26, 2009

The Tragedy of Jewish Demographics Most of the Jewish kids whom I grew up with in the sixties were part of a two-child household. The idea was that each family had two Jewish children, and would go on to have four Jewish grandchildren, eight Jewish great-grandchildren, and so on. I was shocked when I started thinking about these families now. NONE of them have four Jewish grandchildren! Each family has a "deficit," so to speak, caused by a child not getting married, or not having children, or intermarriage, or having only one instead of two children. Without naming their real names, here goes: The S. family had two girls who never got married: zero grandchildren, deficit four. The M. family had two girls and three grandchildren, deficit one. The B. family had a boy and a girl: the boy never married, the girl had one child; deficit three. The T. family had a boy and a girl; daughter never married; son intermarried; no Jewish grandchildren; deficit four. That is the tragedy of Jewish demographics of our time. Reply

Ezza Amitai April 11, 2009

OK for some As a Jewish woman who spent my 20s & early 30s studying & working diligently in my chosen profession, I feel deeply hurt and ostracised by this description of Jewishness. I was in my late 30s when I met the man I wished to marry, and now he is gone. Battling cancer took another 4 years of my life. I would like nothing more than to have Jewish children and grandchildren, but so far, none. I've prayed to G-d since I was 26 for a family. The emptiness of my life aches every day.
I was "sold down the river" of 70s feminism, a movement instigated primarily by Jewish women. My generation was falsely led to believe we could work hard and then miraculously stop and become adoring housewives and mothers, leaving all of our worldly achievements behind at the chuppah. Younger women see the barrenness of my generation, and are having families at 18.They see how deceived we were. We suffer the effects of this social experiment. But we're doing gr8 things in our careers. Your article is unkind and therefore un-Jewish. Reply

Anonymous May 20, 2008

Jewish grandchildren Re the article on defining anyone Jewish as those who have Jewish grandchildren, I find this harsh and unfair.

My friend's grandfather was a very religious man - he embodied the kindness, understanding and love of all things Jewish that anyone following Torah should embody - but his daughter married out.

If instead of six daughters this wonderful man had had sons, his grandchildren would not have been Jewish - and it would have been for no fault of his own. He embued his children with love of G-d and Torah, sent them to Jewish school and lived the Torah by example.

Many infertile couples cannot have children and they are still Tzadikim and Jewish.

My point is that whoever thought that one up is totally wrong - otherwise not even the Rebbe would be considered Jewish and that is ridiculous and insultive! Let's keep to G-d's definition of Jewish! Reply

Laura Mushkat schenectady, new york January 6, 2008

re-Jewish Grandchildren One is responsible for oneself. You do what you can with what you are given in life. If you are lucky enough to want to become a mother and are, if you feel the right thing is to be Jewish in any way you wish and you pass that on to your child(ren) and they continue on wonderful.

One should not marry or have kids if you are not going to do it to the best of your ability. Some people should not marry, or have children, or even be a grandparrent.
Not because it is not meant to be but because of how you are.

G-d does not want children growing up in a loveless household unwanted and passing that on to other generations. Reply

Laura Mushkat schenectady, new york January 6, 2008

re anonymous perplexed UK In Judaism, at least maintream, nobody is damned for any reason-that sound more like Christianity. Put to death? in what century? There are gay shuls for heaven's sake!

As Jews we are lucky in that there are so many variations of Jewishness. Pick one where you are comfortable in all ways.

If you are in a fringe group who think like this then you are in the wrong one for you and your partner.

You need not leave our faith. There certainly is no western faith that would be better that I know of-maybe worse! Reply

Laura Mushkat schenctady, new york October 29, 2007

re Grandchildren All children are a blessing. Grandparents are seen by those who can not be one as lucky. Look throughout the internet and you will find many who agree and many who do not.

If for some reason your blessings do not include grandchildren G-d would no want you to get obsessive over it.

Instead one needs to count the blessings they do have. If you wanted and have children that grew up to be adults you can be proud of that is all one needs.

Grandchildren are extra blessings but one needs to that G-d for what is given not what could be. Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman Thornhill, Ont. December 3, 2006

To Anonymous You’re not alone. We’re all in the same boat, more or less. Let me explain:

As you may or may not recall, before each of us descended into this world, we were pristine, G_dly souls. They briefed us on what it was all about—and it was scary. Up there, everything was light and truth and beauty. But now, they’re planning to stick you in a human body full of passions and obsessions with a grey-matter clumsy control device that keeps crashing you into the walls and sinking into the mud.

Maybe we asked, “So what are my chances of success?” If so, they probably answered the truth—which is not what we wanted to hear. The fact is, most of us down here are pummeling into those walls on a regular basis. The passions of the human heart aren’t exactly made of soap bubbles.

So why in heaven did we agree to come down here? I’ll tell you why: Because, maybe, just maybe, for just one moment of our life, we might experience the beauty and joy of doing a mitzvah sincerely with all our heart and soul. And that makes it all worth it.

Why? Because “up there” our soul had light and truth. But only down here, where you have to rip this blood and guts human animal away from its desires and pleasures for just a moment, to do this thing just because this is your mission on planet earth--only here you touch G_d Himself. G_d where He really wants to be. G_d, so to speak, in the raw.

So we'll burn for all the messups throughout life. As they say, no pain no gain. Or as the sages put it, "One moment of teshuva and good deeds in this world is worth all the life of the world to come."

Come and join the rest of us. We’ll burn together. But, let me tell you, our hell will be way beyond lots of people’s heaven.

See also:
Man As A Verb ( )
The Glory of Doing Nothing ( ) Reply

Anonymous London, Uk November 23, 2006

I am perplexed I am a a jewish gay man. I have had a jewish upbringing but have rejected it because in halachic terms I should be put to death. I would love to become a ba'al teshuvah but I cannot do it because there is no way I would be accepted. Am I eternally damned because I love another man? Reply

D Herzlia, Israel April 3, 2005

community help Nice words!!! really! But from my experience as a single and married, Jewish communities need to help more!!! Not just by stating nice beautiful Torah articles !!! Reply

miriam karp cinicnnati, oh usa April 1, 2005

jewish grandparenting Dovid HaMelech says in Tehilim " May you see your children's children, peace unto Israel." Seeing one's progeny grow and thrive, both physically, in spite of our enemies, and spiritually- living as part of the unbroken chain of Jews, is a source of true peace and blessing, May we all experience it! Reply

Gary Utopia, Texas March 30, 2005

A goy's opinion As a "goy" desperately trying to be observant I may never become a "Jew" in the eyes of a Jew. Nonetheless, I say, hear, hear to the thoughtful argument of this article. Ultimately "His" people are those who keep His commandments. Whether your children or grandchildren are His will depend on your transmittance of His values to those generations. Having failed in that even your own faith is suspect. Hard lines for hard times. May the Messiah come soon. Reply

baruch tova greenleaf, wi usa March 30, 2005

Growing up in a small town southern community shortly after the shoah with few jewish families, our parents and grandparents kindled the light of survival of our people, traditions, celebrations, and, most importantly, the torah. my grandparents and others maintained kosher homes, received yiddish newspapers, and read the torah on shabbos. what we have allowed today is a tragedy as great as the holocaust. in fact, we have allowed those monsters to win.

now as a 58 year old male with a wonderful jewish wife and child, i only hope i am able to give my channah yetta a semblance of what i received. assimilation, intermarriage, conversion, and fear have bastardized judaism. i once visited the museum of the extinct people housed in a prague synagogue and the old josefov cemetery. i returned. may my darling daughter have this experience and may she keep us alive forever in blessed memory.

thank you for this profoundly touching writing. Reply

Anonymous Bay Area, California March 29, 2005

Jewish Grandchildren How long should a Jewish woman spend looking for a Jewish man to marry and have children? After 10-15 years, should she marry a Gentile, become a Lesbian, or go to a sperm bank on her own? Reply

Anonymous St. Louis, MO March 29, 2005

Jewsh Grandchildren Today's essay is very beautiful, but still does not address the fact that there are many same sex parents of children. My congregation has been welcoming these families for our entire 20 years and I have seen so many of these children grow up to be observant, inclusive and Jewish. Reply

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