Parashat Yitro: The First Commandment Revisited

Torah Queery: A Queer Take on the Weekly Torah Portion

Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Rabbi Seth Goren revisits the commandment to be fruitful and multiply, and what Judaism demonstrates about families of choice.

creative common - dMad photo

Creative Common/dMad

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.