For much of human history, family life has defined who we are as human beings. In families, we have reared the young and cared for the old; we have passed down the religious and cultural traditions of our ancestors; we have celebrated life’s joys and faced life’s sorrows; and we have given structure and meaning to human sexuality, to the relations between men and women, and to the intergenerational ties between parents and children. The family has also been and still remains a crucial economic institution—the first and primary place where the rising generation acquires the habits and skills to earn a living, and the first and primary safety net for loved ones in need.
Yet throughout history, the family has always had its rivals—the pursuit of sexual pleasure and sexual freedom, without the limits of monogamy; the pursuit of philosophical friendship, without the burdens of domestic life; and the pursuit of wealth and excellence in the world of affairs, undistracted by the anxieties and exhaustions of the home. Family life has also always had its troubles—sibling rivalry, loveless marriages, intergenerational revolts.
And in the modern age—especially in the most technologically advanced and least traditional societies—the family is arguably in a novel state of crisis. Marriage rates are down; divorce and illegitimacy rates are up, especially among the lower classes of society. Birth-rates are down, with nearly all Western countries—America and Israel as the exceptions—having too few children to sustain and perpetuate themselves into the future. In the meantime, as societies grow older, the challenges of caring for the needy elderly will raise new questions about the ties that bind one generation to the next.
This seminar will examine the state of the family in modern society and the idea of the family as explored and defined in some of the great theological, philosophical and literary texts of the Judeo-Christian West—from the Hebrew Bible, to Plato and Shakespeare, to Tolstoy and Sholem Aleichem, to Simone de Beauvoir and Joseph Soloveitchik. We will explore the big arguments about the meaning of the family, as well as the facts and trends that show us how the institution of the family is truly faring in modern times. And we will look at a range of concrete reform ideas—both cultural and political—that aim to strengthen family life for the generations ahead.