NATURE AND NURTURE
“On the first day of the second month they convoked the whole company [of fighters], who were registered by the clans of their ancestral houses—the names of those aged twenty years and over being listed head by head.” (Numbers 1:18)
What is more important, nature or nurture? What has a larger role in making us who we are, our genetic input or our upbringing? I must admit that I am biased on this question. As the adoptive father of three children who are not my genetic offspring, I believe upbringing is most important. But in our materialistic culture with its emphasis on genes (think 23andMe), many disagree. The believe life is all about genetics.
This disagreement is part of this week’s Torah portion. The portion centers around a careful census of the Israelite community before they travel through the wilderness. The counting takes place family by family, according to their ancestral home. Everyone’s identity depends on their father. (Later Jewish law would change this tradition, making Jewish identity based on the mother. But tribal identity like kohen and levi still depends on the father.) The Torah seems to imply that lineage is everything.
Later in the portion there is a verse that gives a different opinion. “This is the line of Aaron and Moses at the time that the Lord spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai. These were the names of Aaron’s sons” (Numbers 3:1,2). Rashi asks why the Torah says the line of Moses if it only mentions Aaron’s son. He answers that Aaron begot them, but Moses taught them, and whoever teaches a child is as if they gave birth to the child (based on Talmud Sanhedrin 19b). What is important is not being the progenitor but being the mentor. The one who raises the child, not the one who gives birth, takes precedence.
So, we have two verses in the same portion. One says nature and genetics take priority. One says nurture and upbringing take priority. One says we are the product of our physical self, the genetic material that created us. One says we are the product of our spiritual self, the home in which we were raised and the parents who taught us.
Like so many disagreements, there is truth in both points of view. We are products of both our genetic code and our upbringing, our nature and our nurture. That is why my own tradition places great importance on lineage – our identity is established by the biological identity of those who gave us our genetic gametes. But that is why my own tradition also places great importance on upbringing. “Anyone who raises a child in their home, scripture considers it as if they gave birth to them” (Sanhedrin 19b).
When my children were young, they sometimes had to create a family tree for school. Who had blue eyes or brown eyes, who was tall or short? Such assignments were always confusing for my children. They could make a family tree based on the family in which they were raised, but it contained no genetic information. Not only children raised by adoptive parents, but children raised by stepparents or foster parents run into the same difficulty with family trees.
Today we live in an age where people search for their genetic background. They test their DNA and often seek out formerly unknown biological relatives. In general, I consider this a healthy activity. I have told my adopted children that I would support them in any effort to track down their biological background. But I am also aware that seeking out biological relatives can often disrupt families and create pain as well as joy. What happens when a child discovers that his or her biological father was unaware that he had ever sired this child, that he is happily married with children of his own? How disruptive would contact be from such children?
That is why I consider that our genetics and biological lineage are secondary to upbringing and mentoring. Our true parents are the ones who raised us, and our true identity is established by our upbringing. Yes, we are products of the material that makes up our genes. But more important, we are the products of the homes in which we grew up and the families that nurtured us.