Rav Soloveitchik and Social Issues The Ideal Torah family (2)

Part one is summarized below.

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen

Judaism Chaim C. Cohen
Chaim C. Cohen

Introduction (summary of previous article)

Almost all of the social-halakhic issues confronting the national religious community, such as army service for women, homosexuality, and the role of women in synagogue life, concern gender role identity, and thus ultimately force us to consider the sociological question” How will liberal halakhic innovations affect the ability of the national religious family to build a happy relationship with G-d and his Torah?”

Liberal orthodox rabbis “trust” liberal social culture, and do not feel that halakhic changes regarding women’s gender roles will weaken the family’s religious life. Many even believe that these innovation have the potential to even strengthen family religious life.  Conservative orthodox rabbis strongly distrust liberal social culture, and thus feel that liberal halakhic innovations seriously threaten the religious life of the family.

In order to clarify the sociological implications of liberal halakhic innovations, the author proposes to define   an ideal typology of the Torah family, which will then provide us with ‘criteria-a gold standard’ with which to judge liberal halakhic innovations.  In this we adopt Rav Soloveitchik’s method of psychological and sociological analysis. He organized his writings by contrasting two differing typologies of human being and human society. He posits that man’s life is destined to be an inner, dialectic struggle of internalized, contrasting typologies of human behavior and thought.  Applying this social methodological insight of the Rav, we can say that many national religious families are struggling to build their religious family life caught between the contrasting influences of a Torah social culture, and a liberal secular social culture.  

This article now hopes to shed understanding on these dilemmas by presenting in general terms the major constituents of an ideal Torah family.

Ten premises that define the ideal Torah family

In brief, the ideal Torah family may be captured by that famous picture of a 50 year wedding anniversary, where the celebrating couple sits amidst a large four generation family, and each generation still shares a common commitment to making G-d and the Torah a very important part of their family life, despite differences in the patterns of observance. A four generation family that shares a common life style is fast becoming the domain of only religiously orthodox Jews, Muslims and Mormons.

Premise one. The individual Jew is organically bound and obligated to G-d, family and community

 Our rabbinic literature understands that the individual Jew does not exist as an independent private being. His spiritual and physical existence are organically /existentially bound (are one) in mutual obligation with G-d, spouse and children, community and nation, like the limbs of a single body. In contrast, liberal social culture sees man as an isolated, individual being that enters into transient, contractual social relationships in order to satisfy emotional and social needs, and to satisfy his drive for self actualization.  Liberalism thus emphasizes the importance of the civil rights and freedoms that will enable the individual to enter, and leave, his contractual social relationships in a way that will allow him to maximize his self actualization.

Premise two. Torah self actualization means fulfilling mutual obligation to G-d and family

 Our rabbinic literature teaches, thus, that the individual can only experience true self actualization, or self fulfillment, by actively participating in, and fulfilling, his mutual obligations to G-d, family, community and nation.

Premise three. The family is the main social framework for developing our relationship with G-d

Given the rapid social atomization of modern, secular society, the family is the central social framework in which the individual Jew can develop and conduct his deepest, truest relationship with G-d.  On the basis of a positive family relationship with G-d,  one can then go on to develop a mature G-d relationship in the beit midrash, synagogue and community. If a Jew does not have a healthy, mature dialogue with G-d in his family, his dialogue with G-d in other frameworks will also not be healthy and mature.

Premise four. G-d will be a real presence in our family if ‘we make Him real’

Though we are constantly surrounded by, and interacting with, the implicit atheism and moral relativism of liberal social culture, ultimately the sense of the presence of G-d in our family life is dependent on us. I believe in the premise that “G-d will be a real presence in our lives, if We act to Make him a real presence in our lives.”  His presence depends upon our actions. G-d thus gave us mitzvoth as ‘instruments’ for creating an active, meaningful relationship with Him in our family life. The family can, and should, be the most comfortable, secure meaningful social environment in which we can relate all aspects of our daily human existence to G-d’s presence and teachings.

Premise five. Parents must teach through personal example

 Torah family life thus should be based on the pro-active, freely chosen creative spiritual (Torah) activities of its members. Parents should convey the sense that they are doing mitzvoth out of happiness, honesty and free choice. Parents must primarily teach through personal example. Torah family life, in our very open and accessible modern society, cannot be based on regulated behavior and prohibitions. For example, a family life where reading material is religiously censored, but the parents do not learn with their children out of mutual free choice, is doomed to failure.

Premise six. Torah family must be individually adapted to each member

  Children and spouse must feel that their individuality, and inner emotional life, is respected, understood, and appreciated. Each family member will relate to G-d and the mitzvoth in a particular, individual manner.  “A single pattern of Torah family life Does Not fit all sizes”.

Premise seven. Building Torah family may require sacrificing aspects of career advancement

 Parents must be ‘family-Torahly ‘present at home. Parents have a unique contribution to make in teaching Torah, primarily through the happiness and honesty of the personal example that they create and transfer. The teaching contribution of the parent is different than that of the teacher in school. Inevitably ‘being at home’ may require sacrificing a percentage of income and career advancement.

Premise eight. Men and women have different spiritual personalities, and thus should have different family teaching roles

 Men and women have different social personalities and different spiritual personalities. This is a major teaching of rabbinic literature, and has Not been disproven by modern psychological studies. Based on this fact of different spiritual personalities, the halacha assigned different family teaching roles to father and mother. Despite the recent, very significant changes in the social and economic roles of women (that they are practicing occupations and receiving education in areas previously dominated by men) the basic gender –spiritual personality understandings taught by our rabbis are still greatly true and relevant. There is some room for halakhic modification, but the basic premise for modification should not be one of liberal, gender-blind egalitarianism, but rather should be the gender spiritual insights of our rabbis.

Premise nine. Family sanctity is primarily created by modesty of self bearing

 The family can only function as a social environment in which we build our primary relationship with G-d and his Torah if the family environment is one of kedushah-sanctity. The essence of kedushah-sanctity is modesty (humility, self sacrifice) of (our) self understanding with regard to our interpersonal relationships. Our family life has to be one where G-d can easily feel comfortable as a welcome guest, and not be embarrassed.  Sanctity-based modesty should be created primarily by positive acts of self-bearing and self conduct, with certain boundaries of prohibition when necessary. Modesty depends more on what We Do (how we conduct ourselves) than on ‘what we do not do’.

Premise ten. Torah family must be connected to the extended family and community

  This type of Torah family life can only be created if the family life is constantly being ‘recharged, and replenished’ by ongoing involvement with an extended family, and in synagogue-community life. Torah learning and acts of gemilut chesed in the beit midrash, syanagogue and community have their own independent worth, however here we understand them as being a very natural outgrowth and expression of the relationship to G-d and the Torah created within the family. An individual (man, women or child) who has been blessed with a happy family Torah life will naturally want to extend this life into , and express it in,   social environments outside the family. However, no amount of community Torah teaching and community involvement can be an adequate substitute, or alternative, for one whose Torah family life is barren, and sparse, or even bitter.

Summary: The religious family as the last surviving, stable social institution in post modern liberal society

Under the attack of the radical individualism and moral relativism of post modern liberal society, almost all of society’s traditional social institutions are crumbling. The bi-gender, biological, two parent, multigenerational religious family is one of the last, traditional social institutions ‘left standing’. It has literally become ‘the last refuge’. This article’s description of an ideal typology of the national religious family, takes into account the serious changes and challenges of the surrounding liberal society, and suggests how we can build a G-d centered family life, in a very secular-atheistic society, that will not only survive, but even flourish.

The three subsequent articles will expand our discussion on  1) why the family has become the primary social institution for building a real relationship with G-d in liberal society; 2) why men and women still need to have distinct and different teaching roles in the religious family, despite increasing egalitarianism in the work place; and 3) how to build a sense of family kedusha and sanctity in a way that goes beyond prohibitions.