Tikkun olam begins at home

J. Martin Rochester

By Marty Rochester

Jewish tradition nobly stresses the importance of tikkun olam, repairing the world through doing good works toward others. The question I want to raise here is whether societal trends are moving in the direction of other-directedness or, instead the opposite, toward increased self-gratification. A related question is whether one can be considered truly other-directed when one is more concerned about repairing the world than ensuring the well-being of one’s own family.

On the one hand, it is often said that young people today, thanks to character education in our schools and other messages being sent by the larger culture, are more dedicated than ever to inclusion, community service and other such values that support tikkun olam.

Young people do have some wonderful qualities. However, if one bothers to look beneath the surface, one might conclude that today’s millennials and younger cohorts are possibly the most “me generation” ever produced. How so?

Read Nicholas Eberstadt’s recent Wall Street Journal article “The Global Flight from the Family,” which reports alarming statistics on the extent to which, not only in the United States but all around the world, “family patterns are being upended by a revolutionary new force: the seemingly unstoppable quest for convenience by adults demanding ever-greater autonomy.” That is, young people are seeking to free themselves “from the burdens that would otherwise be imposed by spouses, children, relatives, or significant others with whom one shares a hearth.” 

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Eberstadt writes that “our worldwide flight from family constitutes a significant international victory for self-actualization over self-sacrifice, and might even mark a new chapter in humanity’s conscious pursuit of happiness.”

There is plenty of empirical evidence to support Eberstadt’s observations about the ambivalence toward commitments and the resultant decline of the family. It is well known that young people in America are now marrying later, or not at all; that almost 50 percent of all children in America are born out of wedlock; that roughly 50 percent of marriages end in divorce; that 25 percent of all children live in a fatherless home; and that dysfunctional families can cause edu cational, economic and other difficulties.

We have a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. I recently attended a lecture at Washington University given by Robert Putnam of Harvard on his new book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” which focuses on the widening economic gap in the United States. While poverty contributes to dysfunctional families, the latter also contribute to the former.

This is the 50th anniversary of Daniel Moynihan’s report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” which raised alarm bells about the rise of “illegitimate” births among African-Americans. Where Moynihan focused especially on how these trends affected the black community, Charles Murray and others more recently have observed the negative effects on society as a whole, as single parenthood has been on the increase among blacks and whites alike.

See the latest issue of Education Next for hard data on how single-parent households can affect everything from the math scores of children to their tendencies toward delinquency. Single parents often heroically succeed, but there is no question it can complicate childrearing.

The so-called demographic transition theory predicts that fertility rates will fall as societies industrialize. What is most striking of late is the growing reluctance of young people to have any kids at all. Out of curiosity, I asked my class last semester at the University of Missouri-St. Louis how many students were either parents or planned to be parents, and only a minority indicated such.

This is a worldwide phenomenon, as Eberstadt and other demographers have written about a “childless Europe” as well as growing “childlessness” in other parts of the world, with children increasingly viewed as a burden even in traditional cultures such as Japan and China.

For example, Eberstadt reports that in Belgium, the odds of a woman getting married and remaining married are under one in five. The percentage of “childless 40-something” women is one in five for Sweden and Switzerland, one in four for Italy and higher in much of Germany.

In “autonomy-prizing Denmark,” almost half of all homes are “one-person units,” having less to do with a “graying” of the population than a preference for a hermitic existence free of obligations. It is estimated that in Japan within the next 20 years, 40 percent of all Japanese women in their mid-40s will be childless.

Despite the “imperatives of Confucian familial tradition,” China is experiencing the same pressures; although the Chinese government has relaxed the official one-child policy recently, many couples are not having more children, owing to concerns about increased expenses and lifestyle constraints associated with child-raising.

We hear a lot about the over-involvement of “helicopter parents” and “Tiger Moms,” but the bigger problem is the disappearing parent.

Why this trend away from children and away from the very idea of “family,” especially among the less affluent? It is true that parenting is hard work and kids are expensive, but this has always been the case, all the more so when people had large families in the past. Perhaps it has to do more with changed gender roles, more women in the workplace, and the changing nature of the family unit.

Or perhaps it is being driven by the signals we as a society in the United States and elsewhere are sending young people through our media and other cultural gatekeepers. If you read The New York Times and look at other elite opinion shapers, it is obvious that the signals being sent are anti-family.

It is not just that we should be nonjudgmental about adultery, serial cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births, divorce and other behaviors that used to be stigmatized, but “traditional family values” themselves have become a punch line to be bad-mouthed and ridiculed. We are not supposed to be judgmental about Murphy Brown, but it is OK to be judgmental about Ozzie and Harriet.

What seems inescapable, as Eberstadt says, is that it has become fashionably acceptable to be self-absorbed, self-indulgent and even hedonistic, to the point of no longer caring about propagating the human race, including caring for the most vulnerable members – children.

I recall reciting during Yizkor service every Yom Kippur the poignant passage that asks, “If the existing generation were given the chance to live forever” but “never again would there be a child, or a youth or a first love … could the answer be in doubt?” Well, this now seems an open question.

If we are serious about tikkun olam, we need to re-examine the values that our schools, media and other institutions are teaching our children lest, as they grow up, they completely lose sight of their most fundamental, immediate obligations to those around them and to humanity generally. 

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including the forthcoming “New Warfare:  Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”  In addition to teaching courses in international politics, international organization and law, and U.S. foreign policy, he has served as Chairperson of the Political Science Dept. at UM-St. Louis.