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Family Is at the Center of Everything

T.M. Luhrmann, a Stanford University anthropologist, recently published a fascinating piece in the New York Times positing that over thousands of years, wheat people and rice people have developed distinct cultures. The cultivation of wheat depends on rainfall and individual work, while “a community of rice farmers needs to work together in tightly integrated ways,” she wrote.

As a result, wheat people (that is, Europeans and Americans) tend to be autonomous, self-motivated, and entrepreneurial and prize individuality, while rice people (in Asia) privilege coordination, cooperation and community.

The debate about Jewish fertility reminds me of this dynamic. I think of those who put family and procreation first and above all else as “rice people,” represented by the dictum, most pronounced in ultra-Orthodox communities, to have large families in order to replenish the lives lost in the Holocaust. On the other end of the spectrum are the “wheat people,” who reject any sense of communal responsibility for sustaining family life in favor of pure individual choice.

Being a modern Jew means to grapple honestly with both these dimensions. That is what I’m trying to do in making a case for developing the language to confront the dramatic decline in fertility among non-Orthodox Jews in America.

Contrary to what Kurtzer implies, I’ve never advocated the view that it’s our job to repopulate, nor have I ever embraced the strict expectations that such attitudes place on women, who have for centuries only been judged by what emerges from their wombs.

But even if it might make my liberal friends and readers uncomfortable, I do not believe that we can simply retreat into nonchalance about what lies ahead for those of us who wish to sustain the great achievements that progressive, inclusive, egalitarian Judaism has made of late. We need people to maintain community.

And family life is at the heart of that sustenance. It is the bedrock of an organized society, the very best way to raise children, the key to personal happiness, and the repository of unconditional love. I’m not saying this to be preachy; there are mountains of research to prove these points. Even as the definition of family has expanded, the principle remains.

A culture valuing family does not have to demonize or threaten those who choose to remain childless or have very few children. It makes room for them. It does not have to choose between quality and quantity, as Kurtzer asserts, but rather it must include both because we need both. You simply cannot be a Jew alone.

Yes, children are expensive — so we should push to support Jewish education, not surrender to its mounting and prohibitive cost. Yes, children can be a “career liability” for women, as Kurtzer put it, but less so with each passing generation, and that, too, should be confronted, not accepted.

We have the opportunity to go beyond the simplistic binary choice of wheat people versus rice people, the individual versus the collective, to craft a message that says: Modern Judaism values family life, in all its variety, and will seek to create the language to encourage it and the communal support systems to sustain it.

Kurtzer says that Jacob, with 13 children, is not the ideal patriarch; that appellation goes to Abraham, who had only two children and strived to pass along a commitment to justice and righteousness to the one child who remained. I’m not about to pick my favorite patriarch. I’ll just say this: We needed them both — the man who nearly sacrificed his only son and the one who secured a legacy.

Jane Eisner is the editor-in-chief of the Forward.


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