Demystifying Family Values

Family Values – Winter 1994

That “family values” has become the issue of the ‘90s is very clear. Those who champion “family values” will not let go of this issue. It is going to persist. It is going to be the thing that will (ostensibly) distinguish the people who are in favor of morality from those who are opposed to morality.

Now, I do not believe that Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson embody decent family values. But neither do I want to say that those who oppose them are always right. I want to take the criteria of Humanistic Judaism and apply them to some very practical problems that need to be solved.

A couple in their seventies want me to perform a ceremony. They don’t want to get married for inheritance or tax reasons. They’re living together, and they want a celebration but not a marriage ceremony.

A woman has one child and a troubled marriage. She and her husband fight all the time, primarily over her commitment to her career. She’s debating about whether to get a divorce. It is very clear that if she chooses to get the divorce, the child will be seriously harmed. The child is deeply attached to both parents, and it is quite possible that if the divorce takes place the father will leave the area. The woman asks me, “What do you advise?”

Two men come to see me. They are homosexuals, and they have been together for six years. They want to have a celebra­tion and invite all their friends. They want to know whether I can help them, whether I do gay marriages.

A professional woman wanted to be married but didn’t find the right person. She’s now thirty-seven years old and is contemplating artificial insemination. She wants to have a baby, and she can’t allow whether or not she finds the right guy to determine whether or not she’ll be a mother. She asks me how I feel about it.

All these questions have become part of real, everyday life in middle-class America. Today, the family — Jewish or otherwise — is not what it was twenty or thirty or fifty years ago. The life that we live is not sim­ply the conventional one of husbands and wives and children and perhaps grandpar­ents living together. It’s a world of people who are divorced, and people who are sin­gle, and people who are living alone, and people who are living together without marriage, and people who are living in homosexual unions. Is our society going to the dogs? Or is what is happening a signal that it is time for us to serve people’s needs in a more effective way?

The family is not a trivial issue. It is the oldest continuing human institution in the world. It has a long history of rules and regulations. Why? Because a force as pow­erful as sex and a need as important as the appropriate rearing of children are incompatible without rules and regulations. What are those rules and regulations that developed over the past eight to ten thou­sand years?

  1. The ideal family consists of at least a mother and a father.
  2. The ideal family has many children.
  3. The ideal family is one in which the mother recognizes that her primary role is to produce and to take care of the chil­dren.
  4. The ideal family is one in which the father has authority.
  5. The ideal family is one in which men know what male roles are and women know what female roles are, and they dress accordingly.
  6. The ideal family is one in which chil­dren are reverent and obedient and do not talk back to their parents.
  7. The ideal marriage is one that is not preceded by premarital sex.
  8. The ideal marriage is one in which the two partners under no circumstances con­template divorce.
  9. The ideal marriage is one in which nei­ther partner engages in extramarital sex.
  10. The ideal marriage is one in which all the children grow up knowing that they, too, will marry.
  11. The ideal marriage is one which any thought or act of homosexuality will threaten.

A lot of that has collapsed. We now live in a world in which at least one of every two marriages ends in divorce. We now live in a world in which mothers work out­side the home. We now live in a world of unisex, in which sometimes you can’t tell from the costume or the job whether it’s a man or a woman. We now live in a world in which there is gender equality, and the chain of command is not clear, and couples spend a lot of time on negotiation. We now live in a world in which children feed on the largesse of their parents and then open their mouths and tell the parents off. We now live in a world of contraception, in which it is possible to have frequent sex without serious consequences. We now live in a world, therefore, of sexual libera­tion. We now live in a world in which homosexuality has gone public — gone public and gone political and is demand­ing equality. We now live in a world where there is hardly a family in which at least one person isn’t living with another person without marriage.

The response to all of this is threefold. There are some people who call these changes progress and want to provide the political and legal framework that will rati­fy them. Most people mumble and grumble but don’t want to do anything. They sit around at cocktail parties and moan, “The world’s falling apart! Do you see what’s happening?” The third group absolutely and totally reject the change; they find it completely intolerable. They believe that the change is responsible for crime and dis­ease. They see it as a sign that, like ancient Rome, our society is on the decline. They are abortion opponents, who burn down clinics or kill the doctor. They are funda­mentalists, who are very, very well orga­nized, and who say to the political parties, “If you do not change, we will punish you at the polls.” But the main influence they have is over the ambivalent middle group.

There are two questions here: Is what is happening good or bad? And how should we respond to it as Humanistic Jews?

We can’t avoid the issue. The Presbyterians are dealing with it, the Methodists are dealing with it, the Roman Catholics are dealing with it. In the Jewish world the Reform movement has dealt with it, the Reconstructionist movement, the Conservative movement — everybody is dealing with the issue. We as Humanistic Jews need to confront the issue and begin to explore it. This is a personal issue: we’re talking about our lives, our children, our parents, our homes, who and what we are.

Before I try to answer the two questions, let me give a little background drawn in large part from Helen Fisher’s Anatomy of Love. For most of human evolution, peo­ple lived in a hunting and gathering cul­ture. It was in that culture, which lasted for hundreds of thousands of years, that the family emerged as a unit to arrange for the rearing of children. As far as we know, monogamy generally prevailed. Men had to organize themselves into hunting parties, and if one man were to monopolize all the women, that would have been unaccept­able. In this hunting culture, there devel­oped strong male bonding but also a fair amount of gender equality, because while the men went hunting the women went gathering. Families tended to be small because food was hard to find and disease cut down the number of children.

Farming caused the big change. About ten thousand years ago, people settled down on the land, and they developed the concept of property. They began to raid each other’s property, and they developed organized war. In this culture the owners of property were men, so there was male authority. In an agricultural world, cheap labor was needed, and the cheapest way to get labor is to have babies. Thus, the func­tion of women was to produce children and more children and more children; and every child stayed and worked on the farm, and, when the parents grew old and feeble, the children took care of them. That is the world we think of as traditional. Actually, in evolutionary history, it represents only a little drop in time.

In this world, women often became the property of their husbands, and polygamy developed. If one wife couldn’t produce enough children, and if a man was rich enough, he could have more wives. And, since agriculture now produced more and more food, the population began to increase and families grew in size.

All of this was reinforced by the institu­tion of religion, which in itself is a reflection of the agricultural family. Every family has at its head the papa. Therefore the community or the nation must have at its head the papa, the king; and the universe must have at its head the papa, God. These relationships were justified by mythology. The story of Adam and Eve is very clear: Women are the source of evil. They tempt men. Therefore, they must be restrained. Woman is to obey her husband in all things.

Ultimately this agricultural world fell apart. We Jews were one of the first peoples to enter into urbanization. And out of that emerged an economic system called capital­ism, which revolutionized the structure of society. The fundamental unit of a capitalis­tic society is not the family. The fundamen­tal efficient unit of capitalistic economy is the individual who can move freely from place to place. It’s very expensive for the individual to schlep his family along. So the family interfered with mobility. Also, the role of children changed. The role of chil­dren on the farm is cheap labor. The role of children in an urban culture is that of para­sites. Children are very expensive. You invest hundreds of thousands of dollars, and then, when they’re eighteen, they go away to school and you’re lucky to see them again. Or they may show up when they’re thirty- two, having failed the first time and wanting to come back home for a short while. So, having children in a bourgeois culture sud­denly becomes a matter of choice.

The consequence of this change was the emergence of the nuclear family. The his­toric family was you, your mother, your father, your Aunt Sadie, your Uncle Hymie, your zayde, your bubbeh, and they all lived in a family compound. If you didn’t like your husband, that wasn’t a problem. There was always somebody else in the family you could talk to. Today, two people live alone. They have moved to San Diego. They could have moved to Detroit or Chicago. It’s the new urban world. You now have nuclear families. A nuclear fami­ly is this vulnerable couple without bubbeh, without zayde, without Aunt Sadie, without Uncle Hymie, and they’re there in the house together. And, because of medical science, they may stay together for sixty years. So you try to amuse each other, entertain each other, make yourselves interesting; but after twenty years you have to be very creative.

In addition, in an urban capitalist cul­ture, men and women no longer work together as on the farm. When the nuclear family emerged, the husband began leaving the house to go to work, and the woman was left alone with the children. And these changes were enhanced by the affluence and democracy that grew out of this new capitalistic culture. (On the other side, since everybody does not make it, is a world of poverty: families living in urban slums with no support system.)

Now we have this tremendous moral change I outlined before. How do we eval­uate it?

When we as Humanistic Jews deal with the question of family values, we do not ask, “What is it that God commands?” We try to find answers by turning to the author­ity that we recognize, the moral authority that lies within us. That authority consists of three things. First, our needs. It is legiti­mate to say that a moral enterprise should serve basic human needs; but what are our needs? A lot of people are deceived as to their needs. The second source of moral authority is reason. Reason says, “What will happen if I do this? What are the con­sequences for me and for other people?” And the third is conscience or empathy, the ability to identify with the pain and suf­fering of other people. So, referring to the moral authority embodied in human needs, reason, and conscience, I have, not ten commandments, but ten suggestions or guidelines.

Guideline 1: There are no absolute rights. Ultimately all rights are tempered by virtue of living in a community. There is a moment when the community is surround­ed by the enemy, and you have to defend it, and you say, “I don’t believe in the draft,” but you fight. There is the moment when somebody says, “I am your parent, I have an absolute right to control you,” and you say, “Not if you’re abusing me.” It’s not an absolute right. What if a community is threatened with extinction and the one per­son who can bear a child says, “I’m not in the mood”? There are strong rights, but there are no absolute rights.

Guideline 2: No choice is perfect. Life involves weighing advantages against dis­advantages. Take the woman I mentioned who is considering divorce. The advantage is that she would be free of this impossible relationship forever. The disadvantage is that her child, who is deeply attached to his father, would suffer the consequences. If you’re a realist, you recognize that all lifestyle decisions have both advantages and disadvantages. A homosexual man is trying to make a decision about going pub­lic. His parents, whom he deeply loves, know about his lifestyle, but they would be very, very embarrassed. In fact, they’re hav­ing difficulty dealing with the whole issue. So he’s debating: “Should I or shouldn’t I? On the one hand, I want to assert myself; on the other hand, I love my parents.” All of life is this way.

Guideline 3: Dignity is important. The need for dignity arises out of the need for sur­vival. A young child is totally dependent and therefore very vulnerable. As children grow up, they begin to rebel. It’s a neces­sary stage; if they don’t assert themselves, they remain vulnerable. Dignity is the need to be increasingly in control of one’s own life. A resulting value that we treasure highly in our culture is individualism. I as an individual have the right to be the mas­ter of my own life, to make my own choices. It’s a fairly new idea — only an affluent culture can produce it. I know somebody who has decided to remain sin­gle. She likes having her own space. She likes being in charge of her own life and not having to go through continuous negotia­tion, which she did for six years in a mar­riage that didn’t work because she didn’t want to compromise. This is her space, this is her life, and she likes it.

Guideline 4: There is more than one agenda. Life is always a balancing act between the personal agenda and the social agenda. Let’s take a situation in which a woman is unhap­py in her marriage. If she did not have chil­dren, she would sever the relationship. But there are children, and they might be adversely affected. So she may say to herself, “Well, I’m only moderately unhappy.” I know some people who are sexually promis­cuous. They say, “It’s my right.” And they go around dumping their garbage on other peo­ple, ignoring the social agenda.

Guideline 5: The test of moral behavior is the consequences. Recently studies have been done on the long-term consequences of divorce. The findings are that the chil­dren of divorce have less stable lives and perform less well in school, on the average, than children whose parents remain mar­ried. Of course, there are instances of suc­cess, but divorce can be a traumatic event for children, and whoever makes the deci­sion has to weigh carefully the conse­quences. What about gay parents? The test is not their right. The test is the conse­quences. What’s happening to the child? If the child’s okay, then it’s okay.

Guideline 6: Every decision has social con­sequences. If you live in society, there is nothing you do — nothing! — that does not have social consequences. Everybody who acts in a society is a role model. If you have a lot of promiscuous people in your neigh­borhood, they’re role models for the chil­dren. If you have a lot of single people, they’re role models for children. If you have a lot of gay people, they’re also role models.

Guideline 7: Parenting is primary. The pri­mary profession of a society is parenting, because without the raising of children who can function adequately in society, the society has no future. Generally, two par­ents are better than one: a man and a woman, two women, two men, whatever — but two parents. Sometimes the father is the better parent. I know two situations in which the man has decided to stay home, and the woman goes to work. It’s a very rational relationship. The roles have been reversed, and, consequentially, it works. One of the things that happens in our cul­ture is shared parenting, in which a group of people function as parents. It is true that one’s parent is the most important person in one’s life. But it is also true that children don’t spend all their time with their parents as in a farm culture; they go off to school. So when teachers say, “It’s not my job to be a parent,” it’s ridiculous. When children are with you, you are a role model; you have to perform in a parental way.

Guideline 8: What is old is not necessarily good. Let me mention some things that are traditional: Polygamy. Female subordina­tion and confinement. And male stereo­types that condemn men to macho roles whereby they cannot express themselves either in terms of their own personal hap­piness or for the social good.

Guideline 9: What is new is not necessarily good. Let me mention some things that are new: Single parents. (You may have to make the best of it, but it’s not necessarily the best of the alternatives.) Multiple part­ners. (Once I was asked to perform a mar­riage ceremony for three people. Where’s the limit? Eight? Twelve?) Then there’s sequential promiscuity. The person chooses somebody, and it lasts for three months, and then chooses somebody else, and it lasts for two months, and so on. Of course, it’s people’s right to marry whomever they choose, but what is the damage in terms of social relationships?

Guideline 10: We all need support. All of us, no matter how much dignity we have, no matter how much strength we have, need the emotional support and input of other people. Although one of the original reasons for marriage was reproduction, now an increasing reason for marriage is the need for companionship. Most people want a significant other, a partner. But there are some people who are single, whose family consists of themselves and their friends. I know a lot of people who develop very effective friendship circles. To be a friend today means more than it meant a hundred years ago because today you often can’t call up your cousin, or in some cases even your brother or your sister. The family of choice that you call upon in a moment of crisis is your family.

A family, therefore, is a partnership or a group of people that is bound together by three things: love, and by that I mean nur­turing behavior; respect, which means that I choose to protect the dignity of the other person in this relationship; and loyalty, which means that when problems occur I am willing to put forth effort to maintain a relationship in which I have invested time and energy.

What are the implications of all this for Humanistic Jews?

First, you cannot prejudge a relationship. Relationships are to be judged by their con­sequences. You can use information from the past about similar relationships to begin the evaluation. But in the end, your evaluation of the nature of the relationship has to be determined, not by old rules, but by the consequences of what that relation­ship produces.

Second, we are committed to the defense of dignity. As a Humanistic Jew, the prima­ry value I seek in terms of human relations is the opportunity to achieve my own dig­nity and to defend the dignity of others. I readily agree that there are other value choices that one might make, but for me dignity is a primary concern.

Third, there is no single lifestyle that is appropriate to all people to protect their dignity, affirm their happiness, and arrange for appropriate social consequences.

Fourth, tradition is not always bad. Nobody has yet found a desirable alterna­tive to two parents. You may have only one parent functioning, but two parents certain­ly are better.

Fifth, single life can and does work. In this country, close to 40 percent of the households consist of one person, and all of these people are not desperately unhappy. Most of them are functioning and are socially productive.

Sixth, living together can work. There are many relationships in which people live together with love, respect, and loyal­ty, relationships that promote dignity and happiness and are socially useful.

Seventh, homosexual unions can work. There are people who live together as homosexual partners, are supportive of each other, and do productive work. They are good for their society, and in some cases, if they choose, they even are able — very, very creatively — to raise children.

Eighth, divorce can work. There are many cases in which the difficult struggle of single parents to raise their children is necessary, because to maintain the mar­riage would adversely affect both the par­ents and the children. And, in some cases, even if the children would retain benefit from it, the marriage has such adverse con­sequences for the parents that their needs will be totally ignored if some change is not made.

Ninth, we have the right to make mis­takes. If we affirm personal dignity, we’re saying that people are free to make a choice. And if people are free to make choices, they make mistakes.

Finally, we have the right to be coura­geous. I say this to people who choose a new and sometimes difficult lifestyle. I say, “The advantage is that you’re now in a meaning­ful relationship, or separated from a disas­trous one. But you may be encountering public hostility.” A lot of people don’t want the hassle. They would rather go into the closet or just conform. It’s easier. But with­out courageous people, we never would have pioneers, like the first person who went into farming, or the first nuclear fami­ly. The first step is always regarded as dan­gerous, as socially disruptive.

DeWitt Parker, a philosophy teacher I had at the University of Michigan, said: “I am not completely happy with what is, but I am less happy with what was.” I recognize that there are many things from the past that we as Humanistic Jews find valuable. We want to protect the two-parent family. But there were so many other things about that society that were restrictive and had bad social consequences. So much talent, the talent of women and others, was inade­quately used. So, I am not happy with what was. I like many of the changes that have occurred. But, as a rational Humanistic Jew, I must recognize that in our society today there are problems. There are advantages and disadvantages.

One thing I can say: If we are going to begin the exploration of this issue, we can­not come into the discussion with slogans. We have to come into the discussion with evidence. We have to look at the conse­quences of behavior. And we have to go into it with open minds, because we are defend­ing the two most important things we have: our personal dignity and our society.