What is a Family?
Many people say today that the family is an arbitrary cultural structure. As society changes, so does the family. In Biblical times, the family was a patriarchal clan - a man with his wives and concubines, and their many children. Through most of history, the family changed to encompass a monogamous couple raising their children.
According to this view, a new definition of family is emerging today - "a group of people held together by bonds of love and affection." This definition encompasses a variety of family forms: a man and a woman, married
and unmarried, with or without children, gay and lesbian couples, singles, with and without children, and even larger groups of individuals in various communal living arrangements. According to this view, what is important is not the actual family structure, but the quality of the relationships. Any attempt to create a hierarchy of family values is considered judgmental and insensitive to those in alternative families.
The first two chapters of the Bible reject this approach. They see the family not as an arbitrary cultural construct, but a fundamental God given institution built into the very nature of the universe. God created both man and woman in His image, commanding them to "be fruitful and multiply." The Bible makes a value judgment that "it is not good for man to be alone." A man is to "leave his father and mother and cleave on to his wife, and they shall be one flesh." All of these establish monogamous marriage and the raising of children as a God given ideal from the very dawn of creation.
One may ask, what is the difference if the traditional family is a cultural construct or an ideal built into the very nature of the universe? It makes a difference because ideas have consequences. If marriage and family are mere cultural constructs, then marriage becomes a social convention with no deeper religious meaning. One may choose to marry or stay married, to have children or stay childfree, based on ones personal needs and sense of self-fulfillment. When one finds that family commitments no longer gives one self-satisfaction, it becomes easy to bail out. This is precisely the cause of the breakdown of family life today.
When the traditional family is seen as a God given institution, then marriage and procreation take on a more profound meaning. They are not simply ways to achieve self-fulfillment. Rather, they become ways of serving God and fulfilling His will. When family relationships become difficult, this Biblical perspective makes it more difficult to bail out. There is a religious reason to work on making one's marriage work, being a better parent
, and strengthening one's family.
The secular view that the family is a mere cultural construct has contributed to the breakdown of the family. Why work to save a "cultural construct"?! On the other hand, traditional Biblical values can become a way to strengthen family life.
Certainly not all individuals nor all families
will live up to these Biblical ideals. Certainly we must be sensitive to all individuals, whatever their particular family structure. Still, we need an ideal, if for no other reason than to give us something to strive for. The first two chapters of the Torah lay out such an ideal. We can ill afford to lose sight of it.
© Rabbi Michael Gold