Shabbat Shalom Magazine

Written by: Shalom LC

Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel: Family

Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel has been spiritual leader of Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Chicago since 1988, after having been Rabbi of Congregation Beth El-Kesei Israel in New Haven. He has served as a board member of Tower One-Tower East, the New Haven Federation, and J.C.C., and as co-chairman of the Joint Television Commission of the Jewish Federation and the Chicago Board of Rabbis.

He is the past president of the Hyde Park-Kenwood Interfaith Council. He has been a board member and presenter for the Jewish Historical Societies in New Haven and Chicago. He is a contributing editor of Conservative Judaism (New York) and Jewish Spectator (Los Angeles) and is a film and TV reviewer for the National Jewish Post and Opinion (Indianapolis). He has written extensively on American Jewish history and literature.

Shabbat Shalom:* What is family?

Gertel: In Judaism, family (mishpahah) means much more than a nuclear family consisting of parents and children. The term has to do with various generations within a biological family, of which the nuclear family is part, and the extended family of uncles and aunts. Moreover, going back to the Bible, the term mishpahotam, “their families,” was used to describe the different Israelite tribes. Therefore, in its ultimate sense, the family has to do with the Jewish people as a whole. Today we do not have tribes according to the twelve, but certainly, in its ultimate sense, the family is the people.

Shabbat Shalom: What would a portrait of the traditional Jewish family be? What are the duties of the family members, and what are the traditional family values? 

Gertel: Judaism was designed for a very long time so that the public observance of the commandments in the synagogue and the community fell to the man, and the actual running of the home and of home observances fell to the woman. Women were not obligated to perform any of the rituals that had time-bound things, like evening and morning services that had to be done at such and such a time. Men were obliged, but not women, because they were bound by duties for children and other things. Technically, it was the father’s role to teach the sons the Torah and give them an informal education. The mother’s duty was to be with the daughters and show them how to keep the house.

However, I do not think that in Judaism, the economic and social aspects of the home are very strictly defined. I am going back to Proverbs 31, the description of a worthy woman. She is the one who cares for the home; she makes clothes for the family and prepares meals, but she is also in the market selling things and in the house making clothes. Actually, in Eastern Europe, the woman was running the store while the husband was studying the Torah. Furthermore, any of the prayers that men do at home, women can do as well, and vice versa. The woman is traditionally assigned to light the Shabbat candles, but she can also say the Kiddush prayer that sanctifies the Shabbat for the family if there is no man in the house to do it. In more recent times, women wanted to be equally involved in public worship, and so it was declared that if they wanted to take on themselves some public obligations as a permanent kind of status, they could do that. So, for these reasons, it is very hard to picture one kind of portrait of the family and each member’s role, and this is even more true in modern times.

Speaking of family values, certainly the emphasis in Judaism is that families should be held together. The family members are expected to respect and support one another. Both parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and the community of the synagogue have important and unique roles in nurturing the children. The children are required by the commandment to honor their parents and care for them. The husband and wife should live with mutual devotion and respect. There are many Bible accounts that illustrate exemplary family interrelationships—and many more that relate the drama and beauty of a family holding together despite terrible odds and circumstances.

Shabbat Shalom: There is a Jewish proverb that says, “God could not be everywhere, so He created mothers.” It seems that the mother occupied a unique place in the home. Could you elaborate a little bit more on this highly respected view of the mother?

Gertel: Oh, yes, that is a very nice proverb. In Judaism, the mother is depicted as having unlimited compassion for her children. She brings life to the earth and nurtures that life. You remember the description of an honorable woman in Proverbs 31. She is really worthy of all the praise from her husband and children.

Yet, there is something more than a mother’s love and compassion that makes the mother worthy of such high respect. As I have already said, the public observances of the commandments in the synagogue fell to the father, while the home observances fell to the mother. The latter ones were viewed as more important because they kept people Jewish even more than the synagogue, which is a big problem for us today because many homes have no such observance and rely only on the synagogue and the Hebrew school.

Shabbat Shalom: Now that you have mentioned the home observances, can we say that the Jewish home is “a small temple”?

Gertel: Indeed, the Jewish home is a small temple, and many Jewish rites and ceremonies center on the home. For example, the table of the home became the altar of the Temple, and the dietary laws preserved were the last connection to the system of sacrifices. Thus, every meal with blessings and prayers said before and after it was an act of worship. The home is the place of worship and study of the Torah.

Now, to make a connection with your previous question, it was really the role of the mother to be involved in getting the home ready to be kind of a second sanctuary, which was designed for different holidays’ observances, although each member of the family participated in some way. She was the one who would light the candles for Shabbat and the festivals. She cared for the dietary laws to be observed and prepared different foods and other things for the holidays.

Therefore, the life of Judaism has been sustained primarily at home. Statistics have shown that in homes where the dietary laws were kept, children were more likely to feel comfortable in traditional synagogues. Otherwise, even that was lost.

Shabbat Shalom: In Western society, families enjoy birthdays, Thanksgiving, Mother's Day, etc. What are the most important events in the life of the Jewish family?

Gertel: Interestingly, traditionally, birthdays were not emphasized too much for various reasons. Certainly, my grandmother had an idea of the season of her birth. She knew my birthday well, but hers was an approximation appealing because of all their activities.

Let’s take some of them, for example. Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish year, is a time when parents and children go to the synagogue to recall the blessings of the past year and pray that the year ahead should be a good one. At home, special foods are prepared for dinner. Apples and honey are always included as a symbol of hope for the coming sweet year. Sukkot is the holiday when we recall that the Hebrews dwelt in huts (sukkah) on their journey from Egypt through the desert to the land of Israel. Now, families are making their own huts, decorating them with branches and fruits. It is a time of special thanksgiving.

Hanukkah is a jolly festival when the candles in the menorah are lit. There is a festive meal, and gifts are happily exchanged. Especially children enjoy this holiday. Then, of course, the Passover Seder is a wonderful time for families to get together. We invite many guests. It is a really tough holiday: the whole house has to be cleaned, other sets of dishes have to be prepared, etc. A lot falls on women, but men are helping a little bit more today. There are many other meaningful holidays, like Shavuot or Yom Kippur.

Shabbat Shalom: What about the bar and bat mitzvah?

Gertel: Bar Mitzvah is the ceremony when a thirteen-year-old boy becomes an adult member of the Jewish community. Bat Mitzvah is a fairly recent thing. The first bat mitzvah was held in the 1920s by Mordecai M. Kaplan with his own daughter. Girls were regarded as coming to religious maturity at the age of twelve.

In earlier times, for example, in Europe, it was not done on Shabbat but some day during the week. We read the Torah on Monday and Thursday mornings. The bar-mitzvah boy would read one of those texts assigned for that day. After that, there would be a festive meal, and after that, it would be a regular work day. So, it has only fairly recently become a big thing on Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom: What does daily family worship look like?

Gertel: Daily worship is generally tied to the synagogue, ideally. It is more ideal to come to the synagogue service than to pray at home alone, even with your family. Therefore, daily family worship per se is not encouraged. That belongs to the community.

However, there is home family worship when a person gets up early in the morning and certain prayers are said. The children can see their father taking the Tallit, the prayer shawl, and the Tefillin (phylacteries), black leather boxes worn with straps on the head and left arm containing four key Bible passages. In Europe, the mother prayed at home from a women’s prayer book. In the evening, at bedtime, parents read the Shema with their children. Furthermore, blessings for the bread that begin the meal and blessings after the meal are also part of the daily home worship. Interestingly, the tradition says that a hundred blessings need to be said a day for various things like new clothes, weather, etc. So children are learning about Judaism from these more spontaneous blessings and acts their parents are doing every day.

Shabbat Shalom: Because of the home traditions and values we have just discussed, the Jewish home has remained a bastion of strength over the hundreds of years. However, as the film Fiddler on the Roof illustrates, the traditional Jewish family has experienced some changes. Have modern trends that have brought breakdowns in family structure in Western society had a serious impact on the Jewish family too?

Gertel: Yes. Unfortunately, the portrait of the Jewish family becomes less idyllic in these modern times. The Jewish community goes where society goes, and it does what the Christian community does. You see, if you had asked that question maybe twenty or twenty-five years ago, I would have said that things like drinking and wife-beating were much more common among other groups than among the Jews. However, social trends like divorce, abortion, alcoholism, single motherhood, and even child and wife abuse have put strain on family life. Divorce was always permitted in Judaism, but it tended to be rare in Jewish communities. One rabbi said that the altar wept when somebody divorced the wife of his youth. The high incidence of divorce is really a modern trend.

The Talmud discourages the practice of abortion, but it allows abortion in cases where the life or even psychological health of the mother is in danger. Actually, it is imperative that the life of the mother be saved. Interestingly, the Jewish laws were even more strict about the Gentiles than the Jews when the matter of abortion was concerned. In the case of a Gentile mother, abortion was allowed only when the life of the mother was in danger. The reason for that can be seen in the wide practice of abortion among the Romans, and that was a Jewish attempt to preserve all life because the Jews always viewed the commandment to multiply and be fruitful to refer to the Gentiles also.

Interdenominational marriages are also a real challenge today. In Judaism, a wedding is defined as a marriage between two Jewish people, so I personally discourage mixed marriages. But, of course, once it happens, we try to welcome them. Yet it is very hard, for obvious reasons.

Shabbat Shalom: What has the Jewish community undertaken to combat the disintegration of the family?

Gertel: There are programs oriented to family education where, in synagogue, the parents and children have classes together. Then, there are premarital programs and counseling and teaching about various aspects of married life. Still, I have to say, all these things are not as good as what the Catholics have been doing. But we do have Jewish Family Services in each community of any size that offer a number of seminars and support groups.

Shabbat Shalom: What are the differences between the Jewish and Christian families?

Gertel: Well, I don’t know. My response to that question would be more in terms of hope that there is not much difference between the Jewish and Christian families in terms of nurturing the children, the commitment between the husband and wife, etc. It would be very sad if there were many differences. As Anna Karenina said, “Every happy family is alike, and every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The Jews have always considered God’s commandment to multiply and be fruitful to refer to every man, so as far as family happiness is concerned, the Jews never wanted there to be any difference.

Shabbat Shalom: Would you share with us an example of a model family or some insights from the rich Jewish tradition to be the leading principle for our families?

Gertel: I am very reluctant to give any formula in the sense that I do not want to be self-satisfied about the Jewish family, because when that happens, the particular flavor and values of it may be taken for granted and even disappear. The best example of that is Philip Roth, an author and essayist who was often making fun of mothers and fathers in his novels, saying that he was permitted to do so because he himself was a Jew by birth and thus inevitably a better Jew than somebody who converted to Judaism. What counted, he said, was his Jewish background. Now, this is a great insult from our Jewish point of view. Tribalism is not what family is about.

I would recommend to you at least two books written by Jewish authors that talk about family life and values. The first one is The Rabbinic Mind by Max Kadushin, which talks about concepts that grew out of the Talmud and were observed in Jewish homes. The second one is The Brothers Ashkenazy by I. J. Singer, a novel that is about the time when Hasidic life began to disintegrate under the Industrial Revolution. It is one of the best statements of what happened to families and family relationships when modernity crept into Poland and other centers of Jewish life in the time between the two wars and even earlier.

As for the guiding principle, I would point to the concept of mitzvah, of being holy by doing God’s commandments. We need to be decent human beings and do more and more acts of holiness, including giving, helping others, and helping the community in general. Today, when you have two working parents, they need to set some time aside to communicate and say prayers with their children, especially on Shabbat. Every one of us has to do our best to preserve our family and its values. This is the mitzvah, our obligation.

Shabbat Shalom: We have already seen a portrait of a worthy woman in Proverbs 31. Maybe we could conclude this interview with a portrait of a worthy husband!

Gertel: Well, I think that was in whatever book women wrote at that time, which unfortunately we do not have.

Shabbat Shalom: So, it is now up to women to write such a book, isn’t it? Rabbi Gertel, thank you so much for your willingness to take part in this interview.

* Interview by Dragoslava Santrac, now a teacher at the Belgrade Theological Seminary in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

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