In a Facebook post this past week, a prominent Jewish thinker and teacher wrote as follows:
“It’s time to stop using the expression “broken home.” Please.
As a child of divorced parents,” she goes on to write, “I… wish that my parents hadn’t lined us up on the living room couch and told us that they were getting a divorce. But as the oldest, I felt the burden of their unhappiness on us, and that, too, was too much for children to bear.
Now 40 years later, in a loving marriage of my own and with children and grandchildren, I have one thing to ask of a society so sensitive about language. It’s time to drop the expression “broken home.” Each time I hear the expression, it breaks my heart a little. I want to shout back: “I am not broken. I am strong. And I am loved.””
With all due respect, and I mean that in the fullest sense of the expression, as I have the utmost respect for the writer of this comment – I disagree.
While she does go on to acknowledge that of course, divorce causes the children to be broken in some way, she argues that so many other things in life break you as well.
And that is true, so many things break you as well. But I would argue that none break you quite the same way as a broken family. And that’s something that we as a society seem to have forgotten – the value of an intact family.
In 2021, 40% of births take place outside of the context of marriage. This is up from 28% in 1990, and far higher than most other countries. Almost 50% of marriages in the US will end in divorce. And over 50% of Americans are single, whereas in 1950, that number was 22%. Something changed. Something dramatic changed.
While we all know how essential family is, admittedly, it’s hard to explain. The arguments against family, or the predominant modern way of thinking that may not be opposed to family, but certainly does not see family as being all that important, has some compelling questions for us, such as:
Why burden ourselves to this commitment called marriage? It’s just a ‘construct’ anyway? And if it’s not working, move on.
Why bother having children? Or why bother having more than 1.9 children with all the obligations and burdens it entails?
Why invest so much energy into familial relationships? If my siblings do not get along with me, who cares? I have plenty of good friends.
And at the end of the day, it’s just biology!
Maybe this thinker was right, a broken family is just one of many ways to be broken. What is family anyway?
And yet, we all know intuitively, even if we cannot articulate it, that family and family relationships are so important. There is a certain magic and comfort that we -usually- find with our family. What is it? What is the magic of family?
According to the Torah, the significance of family is not the shared DNA. The significance of family is the invisible matter that stands between us. It is the responsibilities that bind us – the care that a parent must provide a child, the respect a child must give to a parent, the concern a sister must have for her brother, and the commitment that a husband and wife must have for one another. And not only is it commitments that bind us, it is our family stories; the shared experiences, the joys and the setbacks and everything in between, that mold us into a single entity.
Responsibilities to one another and shared identity, two of the highest values in our faith, and simultaneously, those are two values viewed as backward and archaic by much of our society. Our society celebrates rights, not responsibilities. Our society celebrates the individual, not the collective. The pillars upon which family are established, a sense of identity broader than just myself, an alterable responsibility, are no longer in vogue. So it’s no surprise that families are falling apart.
In defense of the author of that aforementioned Facebook post, her main point was to not box in the children of a divorce; to not see them as less than or to make assumptions of their ability to have a solid relationship. And with that, I fully agree. Many have incredibly successful and loving relationships. But not because they were not and are not broken; they are. One way or another, the trauma of not having a full family cannot be escaped. Someone who has a prosthetic leg and successfully runs a marathon, still has a prosthetic leg. Similarly, someone whose family is not intact and has a wonderful marriage, still has an essential part of them, that is broken. If they are successful in not perpetuating what they experienced, it is not despite what they saw, it is likely because of it. My parents got divorced when I had already moved out of the home. I was independent. And nonetheless, there is a part of me that is forever broken. So yes, I firmly believe and try to live with the idea that divorce should not define a child of divorced parents negatively, but it will always define them. Our parents, our siblings, our children, are an integral part of who we are. Any fracture in those relationships is a fracture in our identity.
Tonight, we will be commemorating the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash. As we all know, its destruction is attributed to Sinas Chinam, baseless hatred. The story that is meant to illustrate this point is found in Meseches Gittin, the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza It’s a story of a man who is friends with Kamtza and an enemy with Bar Kamtza. This man makes a party and sends an invitation to Kamtza but the invitation ends up with Bar Kamtza. Bar Kamtza comes to the party, the host throws him out of the party, and Bar Kamtza goes ahead and informs on the Jewish People to the Romans which leads to the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash. This is THE story of baseless hatred; how the host hated Bar Kamtza, how Bar Kamtza hated the Jewish People.
Now who is to blame in this story?
The host, presumably. Bar Kamtza, most certainly.
And yet, the Talmud tells us that Kamtza is also to blame. Rav Yochanan proclaims that the Bais HaMikdash was destroyed because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. Now what did Kamtza do? He doesn’t even show up in the story?!
The Maharsha suggests that Kamtza was Bar Kamtza’s father. Bar, after all, means, the son of. Bar Kamtza is the son of Kamtza.
You see, the real story of Kamzta and Bar Kamtza is not one of societal hatred; it’s a story of a broken home. It’s a story in which a father does not have a loving relationship with his own child; how he is able to be best friends with a man who hates his own son. That is the sinas chinam, the baseless hatred, that we are meant to work on during this time. Yes, our society needs healing, but our first responsibility is healing our home.
On most years on Erev Tisha B’av, it is customary to eat an egg before the fast begins. An egg is a sign of mourning, some explain, because it is round, and reminds us of the cycle of life. I wonder if perhaps we eat an egg because its shell reminds us of the fragility of life. Perhaps we eat an egg to remind us how easy it is to lose what is important to us unless we constantly invest in it.
We all know how important family is – everyone here will tell you it is the most important thing in the world. But family, a solid family, takes work and effort; we need to constantly remind ourselves how fragile the bond between us is, especially in a world where the value of family is cheapened.
Obviously, not every marriage is meant to last forever, as Jews we believe in divorce. Not every parent-child or sibling to sibling relationship can be maintained, there are times when estrangement is the right thing to do. This is not a critique or commentary on any particular person or decision. It is an observation that as a society, we cannot lose sight of the importance of family and how we are obligated to those closest to us before anyone else; our family’s identity is our identity and family is our primary responsibility.
And so, we cannot work on bridges between communities or within communities, until the bridges of our own family are intact and strong. We cannot refrain from gossiping about others but speak about siblings behind their backs. We cannot afford to read books, listen to podcasts, or go to trainings on becoming better professionals before we become better parents, spouses, and siblings. We cannot spend so little time with our family, and when we do allow it ourselves to be so distracted. Let’s not allow ourselves to forget that the most precious things in life are fragile, nor to be swayed in thinking that family is unimportant. We know that a broken family is the worst form of brokenness.
One of the most well-known prophecies of the Messianic era, one that we sing at every Jewish weddings is, Od yishama b’arei Yehuda uv’chutzos Yerushalayim, there will be heard again in the cities of Judah and the courtyards of Jerusalem, kol sasson v’kol simcha, the sound of joy and happiness, kol chassan v’kol kallah, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride. We believe that the rebuilding of the Temple begins with the rebuilding of the home. May we see them both rebuilt speedily in our days.