Attitudes towards the Jewish family have been explored in two earlier chapters: the chapter dealing with attitudes to childbirth, and the chapter preceeding this one, which addressed and explored the question of marriage.
It should therefore be clear that Judaism and Jewish tradition view the family as a positive and a natural force - and as a framework through which the great drama of Jewish life is played out. The prototypical idea of the Jewish family is that a person spends his or her whole life involved in that framework, initially as a child in the parents’ family and subsequently, immediately following this, as a young adult within the framework of his or her own family structure. Ideally, between the two models, there is no gap: the one follows on naturally from the other in the rhythm of an individual’s life. In the Jewish scenario, all of life’s drama is played out within the context of family. This is perceived as natural, as well as an ideal.
For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife and they shall become one flesh.
This chapter will examine all of the cases of people who, for one reason or another, do not fit the traditional, cosy model of Jewish family as the life cycle norm within the Jewish community. The content may be addressed as a whole, or in part, as appropriate to the setting, the participants, and their age group.
From the outset, it should be recognised that, whatever the appeal of the traditional model to many, there are and have always been those in the community who are left outside of the model for one reason or another:
Firstly, there are those who become single, at one point or other: these include those whose marriage did not work out and who have become divorced from their erstwhile partners, together with those who have become widowed in the course of life.
Then again, there are always those who, for whatever reason, remain single throughout their life.
These categories have always existed and will continue to exist, although it should be emphasised from the outset of this discussion that, with a rising number of divorces within the Jewish community, the percentage of divorced people has risen considerably within recent years, while the percentage of young widowed people has decreased with the improvements brought by modern medicine.
In addition to the traditional categories of the divorced, widowed and single, recent years have added at least two additional, distinct categories that were either less conspicuous, or totally unknown in the past.
The first is the category of the intermarrieds and out-marrieds.
A second new category relates to the question of gays, homosexuals and lesbians, within the community.
It could legitimately be posited that the categories of the divorced, the widowed, the intermarried and the gay, do not all exist in the same continuum, and that it is therefore inappropriate, or even mistaken, to place them side by side in the confines of one chapter. However, it should be recognised that they do have one thing in common: they are all outside the familiar, conventional family norm and, as such, present a series of questions and challenges that can, indeed, be examined together. It is also, naturally, the educator's prerogative to use as little or as much of the material as he or she feels relevant, or even comfortable addressing, in the given context.
The intermarrieds and out-marrieds:
While it is true that there have been periods in the past when there has been considerable intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews, it has never reached the proportions being experienced today. In addition, and paradoxically, there has never been a situation where, largely as a result of conscious efforts by sections of the organised Jewish community, large numbers of intermarried couples have sought their place within, or on the borders of, the Jewish community.
In the past, intermarried families almost always left the Jewish community and thus ceased to be of major concern to the Jewish community as a whole, presumably assimilating into the surrounding society and the dominant faith. That is to say, intermarriage as a phenomenon was of considerable concern to the community, but the intermarried themselves as individuals were outside the circle of community - both in their own eyes and in the eyes of the guardians of community values.
This has changed: intermarriage today can signify that one or both partners wants to remain or become Jewish - or that the external partner may have no declared faith; someone who intermarries today does not necessarily cut themselves off from the community in the long term. This situation may arise in a range of communities, from the most liberal to established orthodoxy.
The issue of spouses having and living with their different faiths, with one wishing to remain Jewish, is another new variation, and equally demanding for those communities that will not exclude one or both partners of these marriages.
The mass phenomenon of “Jews by choice”, those partners from outside the Jewish community who wish to be accepted in the community, is a new factor in modern Jewish history which raises its own questions and demands examination, primarily and significantly - but not exclusively - in the Conservative, Reform, Liberal and Reconstructionist streams, which comprise the majority of affiliated North American Jewry.
The term out-marrieds can also be applied in many cases, as a means of distinguishing those who marry non-Jews (of, or without another faith), but without adopting another faith, and effectively opt out altogether: they constitute a substantial proportion of the numbers, in a greater ratio than Judaism has ever known, and effectively replace the historical category of intermarried or assimilated Jews.
Thus, the size and significance of the grey area in between intermarriage and out-marriage is the subject of much demographic debate.
The gays, homosexuals and lesbians, within the community:
This is the first time in the entirety of Jewish history that such a question has come to the fore. It is a category that has, predictably, raised tremendous questions and generated considerable argument within the community. In terms of the traditional family model, this represents not only another departure from, but a conscious challenge to the norm. Homosexual and lesbian families and, indeed, entire communities of gays, are a phenomenon that needs to be addressed.
Each category will be addressed in turn, in the context of their place in traditional Judaism and within the contemporary Jewish community. We shall encounter difficult and searching questions that touch upon the health of the contemporary community and possibly, its future. This process will also bring out new facets to the dynamics of Jewish community.
The examination of the subject will be accompanied, as always, by text and activity sections to address and explore the issues a little more deeply, within an educational setting.