The First Commandment Revisited (Parashat Yitro)

The author describes the event of the giving of the Ten Commandments and explains that the first commandment actually occurs at the beginning of the Torah: “be fruitful and multiple.” He explores the common push in Jewish communities for people to have children, arguing that this can be alienating for LGBT Jews.

January 26, 2019

By Rabbi Seth Goren

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Parashat Yitro
The First Commandment Revisited
by Rabbi Seth Goren on Saturday January 26, 2008
19 Sh’vat 5768
Exodus 18:1 – 20:23

The giving of the Ten Commandments is a vividly spectacular event. The combination of lightening, thunder, smoke and blaring horns at Mount Sinai echo and flash across time, setting the perfect backdrop for the divine enunciation of  Aseret HaDibrot (as they are called in rabbinic texts).

But Jewish tradition teaches that the First Commandment given in the Bible appears not in this week’s  Parshat Yitro, but all the way back in  Genesis 1:28. After their creation, the first human beings are commanded to “be fruitful and multiply.”

This directive takes on an even greater prominence when contrasted with the fertility struggles faced by the early progenitors of the Jewish people. For Sarah and Abraham, Rebecca and Isaac, and Jacob and Rachel, the push to conceive and bear children is so central that it serves to highlight the procreative command that is said to apply to all of humanity.

In some modern Jewish contexts, especially in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the centrality of biological reproduction manifests itself as what has been called “pediatric Judaism”. For such communities, the focus on raising and educating children supplants all other aspects of Jewish life, leading to the virtual educational abandonment of progeny when they complete high school and effectively ignoring the needs of young adults, the elderly and everyone in between. Although space is made for those who become parents through adoption, it ultimately excludes all those who are neither under eighteen nor caring for those in that age range.

In an era when GLBT parenting is increasingly commonplace, but still far from common, this emphasis on children can be alienating for queer Jews. Those who either cannot or choose not to enter into formal, legal parenting relationships may find themselves on the sidelines, effectively excluded from the centerpiece of Jewish life.

Legal hurdles can make this particularly aggravating. In some states, same-sex second parent adoptions are prohibited, while other jurisdictions, such as Florida,  bar adoption by openly gay individuals entirely. Even outside the U.S., in countries that have legalized same-sex marriage, one of the benefits often not conferred has been the right of same-sex couples to raise children as co-parents. In this way, secular legislation, Jewish tradition and the First Commandment all have the effect of marginalizing many. While strands of our tradition may advance the example of biological children resulting from an opposite-sex relationship, there are, at the same time, parallel examples of taking on parent-like roles outside the scope of the traditional model. In doing so, these mentors confer essential benefits on their protégés, allowing them to succeed in ways that they otherwise would not.

Take, for example, the relationship between  Moses and his father-in-law, Jethro, which is developed further this week. After Moses escapes and flees Egypt, Jethro takes him in, gives him a home, and eventually guides him in how to lead the Israelites after the Exodus. Indeed, it is the diversity of Moses’ parental figures, from his biological Israelite parents to his adopted Egyptian princess mother to Jethro, that give him an astounding breadth of experience and an ability to exercise leadership so effectively.

And Moses isn’t alone.  Eli, the high priest at Shiloh, takes the future prophet  Samuel under his wing and elevates him to a position of eminence above that of his own sons. In binding herself to the childless  Naomi,  Ruth leaves the land of her birth and flourishes under the tutelage of her mother-in-law. When Abraham leaves his home for the Land of Canaan, he takes with him his nephew  Lot, eventually giving Lot his choice of grazing lands and rescuing him when he is taken as a prisoner of war. These illustrations show the wide array of relationships that our heritage embraces and sets out paradigms beyond strictly parent-child relationships.

The ways in which we shape and mold the generation that follows us are manifold. Some of us will pass on our genes by having biological children. Some will become adoptive or foster parents, while others will play more informal—but similarly invaluable—parental or mentoring roles in the lives of others, transmitting teachings, experiences and instruction. And each of these relationships has an honored and respected place in our people’s history and tradition.

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