"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In recent years, there have also been arguments that the traditional Jewish emphasis on the family is obsolete because it excludes large number of Jews from Jewish life.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.