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Family matters

Back to the Jewish home. Although the marriage covenant is the starting point, the natural consequence is the building up of a family. The Jewish family unit has been the bedrock of their culture and a key factor to the incredible survival of the Jewish people. While mayhem ruled around and about, this God-ordained unit ticked away doing its stuff, feeding, nurturing and educating the next generation. For example, the Passover ceremony is primarily geared towards teaching the children and reminding them of their heritage.

As you enter a religious Jewish home the first thing you notice is the small object affixed to the door post. This is the mezuzah, a box containing a scroll. On the scroll are the following verses from the Bible.

"Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates." (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

This defines everything. It is the Shema, the most revered Jewish prayer. It declares the centrality of God and His commandments in this home and the necessity of passing on these beliefs to the children of the household.

The Hebrew word for family is mishpochah. The key concept here is that it is not the nuclear family of 2.4 children that we have been brought up with, but the extended family that includes grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins, where the cooking pot is in permanent use, where the atmosphere jangles with human voices, cries, prayers and laughter, where caring and sharing crosses the generations. This has become an utterly alien concept to most of us these days. We strive for our own space, we crave personal expression. Community has been replaced by individuality as we disengage our lives from people and replace them with stuff, such as consumer electronics, furniture and objets d'art. Stuff doesn't answer back, stuff doesn't have demands, stuff doesn't need looking after.

But stuff doesn't look after you when you're poorly, stuff doesn't go that extra mile for you, stuff doesn't love you. Mishpochah ensures that the wisdom and stories of your grandparents are not lost, mishpochah celebrates family occasions as extended times of joy and sharing, mishpochah provides an endless supply of babysitters, household operatives and shoulders to cry on. Mishpochah means you never need to be lonely, though it could also potentially be stifling and claustrophobic. Mishpochah, though, does require a big house.

Central to the whole concept of home and family in the Jewish world is the need to teach the next generation.

"These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children." (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)

The centre of religious life, as I said earlier, is the home not the synagogue. In fact the Hebrew word for parent, horeh, has the same root as moreh and torah. The latter two words mean "teacher" and "teaching", so a primary role of a Jewish parent is as a teacher. Traditionally the three roles of a Jewish father are to support his family, study the Bible (Torah) and see that his children study the Bible.

The rabbis tell us that the world is poised on the breath of schoolchildren and the education of Jewish children was always seen as an absolute priority. The Talmud (Mishnah Avot 5:21) tells us what sort of education these kids would have received, at the time of Jesus. It started at the age of five, when Bible training started, first from the Book of Leviticus, to understand the rituals and then from the Psalms, to understand the nature of God. At the age of ten, study began on the Oral Law and at the age of thirteen one was old enough to fulfil the laws and commandments. At fifteen they learned the works of the sages. By this age Holy Scripture was as familiar to them as the history and characters of our favourite soap, or line-ups of our sports teams are to us. To be fair, they weren't burdened with the distractions we have now, with the internet, TV, radio, satellite and cable, magazines, paperback books and so on. But, then again, we're not exactly forced into filling our heads with nonsense and trivia.

Despite living in the most deprived, precarious conditions, Jewish communities in Christian Europe never sank to the lows of those who surrounded them. Their communities flourished where possible because of the strength of the family unit and the centrality of the home in all aspects of their lives. They lived lives of wholeness in mind, body and spirit, guided by the Hebrew Scriptures and the wisdom of the rabbis. It wasn't an easy life, or even a particularly happy one, but they did the best that they could, secure in their perception that God was with them, despite the sorry state they found themselves in.

Steve Maltz
November 2012

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book How the Church Lost the Way)

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