In Bereishit 12:5 we read the description of God’s call to Avram to leave Haran, the land in which he had built his home, and travel to an unspecified destination. Avram took along his wife, Sarai, his nephew Lot, their possessions, and “hanefesh asher asu b’Haran.” It is a striking phrase: “the souls they had created in Haran.” Rashi suggests that it refers to servants they had acquired or to individuals whom they had converted. This notion—that an individual whom you bring into the Jewish faith is a soul you have created—is pretty radical. In the Talmud, Reish Lakish takes the idea even further when he states that anyone who teaches Torah to the child of another is considered the creator of that child (perhaps another parent?).
One of the things that always struck me about this story is the way that it fits in with the fact that Avraham and Sarah could not have children for so many years. It doesn’t seem to be too much of a stretch to suggest that this is how they responded to their inability to have children. Rather than isolate themselves, they opened their tent on all four sides to bring in others. Perhaps the fact that Avraham and Sarah could not have children is what forced them to look outside the traditional way of creating a family. It spurred them to reach out, to try to create a different type of family for themselves. In the process, they not only addressed their personal problem, but they also were able to lessen other people’s loneliness, isolation, and disconnection.
This feels like an approach many of us can relate to. How many of us, when faced with a new stage of life, attempt to build a new family for ourselves? Some of us do it because we’ve moved to a new place where we have no connections. Some of us do it because we are facing infertility when all our friends are having children. Some of us do it because our lifestyle choices are at odds with our family or our community. Anyone who knows me personally knows how much I mourned my children’s (healthy and normal) departure from our day-to-day lives when they left home. One solution for me has been to reach out to friends and create a part-time family for us with other people’s children included in it.
For generations, the Orthodox community has had one definition of family that worked well for most people. It consisted of a mother, a father, sometimes a grandparent, and children of varying ages. But that definition is not an inviting definition. There are many whom this definition cuts out of the community: widows and widowers, women or men who have not found someone with whom they would want to share their life, people who do not choose to share their life with anyone else, those who have dissolved a marriage that was painful, gays and lesbians, single mothers by choice.
Avraham and Sarah’s story is a strong reminder of another approach, of what openness, inclusiveness, and welcome can look like. Sadly, these are too often lacking in the Orthodox community. I recently heard a phrase that I loved: the “frozen chosen,” referring to people who, while seeing themselves as uniquely chosen to serve God and do His will, stay isolated in a cold identity that freezes others out. This illustrates the dichotomy between the Avrahams and Sarahs, who warmly invite in any who want to be a part of the group, and those who, no matter how devout, still develop intractable rules of engagement meant to keep people out.
Ultimately, however a family is composed, it must be something that allows us to bask in the connections and commitments of shared history, shared values, or just shared blood. A family, whether conventional or not, must provide us with a support system, a cheering squad, and something bigger than ourselves on which to focus.
This issue of the JOFA Journal, with a variety of scenarios, tries to imagine a wider, bigger tent for all kinds of families. Ultimately, if we can make them all feel welcomed, loved, and cared for, the entire Jewish community will benefit.
Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus is a certified sex therapist and the Clinical Director of Maze Women’s Sexual Health, one of the largest centers for women’s sexual health in the country. Dr. Marcus wrote her dissertation on women and vibrator use while earning her Doctor of Philosophy in human sexuality from the Institute of Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. She also has a Master’s in public health from the same institution. She is a licensed social worker with a Master’s degree from Columbia University. Bat Sheva is a past president of JOFA.
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