The Soul of Parenting: Yaakov and Esav in Minnesota

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Debbie was 45 when she learned that she was adopted. Not only that, but she learned for the very first time that she had a twin! Although separated as infants, the two girls grew up with different families only 45 minutes apart in New Jersey. Debbie was eventually reunited with her twin sister Sharon with whom it turns out she shared a surprising number of traits. One intriguing difference – Debbie was raised as a Jew; Sharon was raised as a Christian. When they finally met, they were enriched by one another’s faith in ways that almost none of their adoptive siblings could relate to.  They seemed to share their religious passions almost genetically. As Sharon said, “I think I am programmed to be religious…whatever religion I was exposed to as a child would have been very important to me throughout my life.”

Debbie and Sharon were part of the world renowned study called the Minnesota Twins (not to be confused with the baseball team.) Its real name is the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart (MISTRA), a longitudinal study of twins who had been separated at a very young age, raised apart, even in different countries, and then reunited years later. I became intrigued by it in the wake of a question from a parent of twins who had asked about the nature versus nurture question (Nancy Segal. Born Together Reared Apart: The Landmark Minnesota Twin Study, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.). What better way to examine this issue than by examining identical twins who had been raised in often completely different homes?! For if we can remove “nurture” as a factor, namely, the influence of our families when we were growing up, then we can better identify what is “nature” and we can ask how religious would we be? How much of faith is something that is in our DNA versus something that we were raised with? If my parents had not dragged me to shul, would I still be religious?

Debbie and Sharon were just one example. Another is two volunteer firefighter brothers who didn’t meet until age 31. Both had been raised by Jewish adoptive parents. Both thought of themselves as Jewish when asked. But neither of them showed any interest in religion; was this coincidence, family environment or genetic destiny? Of slightly different interest is the famous case of Oskar and Jack – one of whom was raised in Nazi Germany and became part of the Hitler Youth and one of whom was raised as a Jew in Trinidad and went on to become an officer in the Israeli navy.

The study (not without its critics) ultimately concluded that the role of genetics was huge across the board, relating to everything from personality to preferences in food and jewelry. While we tend to recognize some of the genetically determined characteristics or character traits of our children, we sometimes miss the fact that religious sensitivities could also be one of them which the study seems to strongly confirm. In the area of religiosity, they determined that there was a 50% genetic influence! A subsequent study of twins (Bradshaw and Ellison 2008) found the number to range from 19% to 65% depending on what aspect of religiosity was being measured (Bradshaw, M. and Ellison, C. (2008). Do genetic factors influence religious life? Findings from a behavior genetic analysis of twin siblings. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 47:4. 529–544.). Assuming that these statistics hold true for the general population as well, what are the implications for raising religious children? How much influence can any of us, whether parents or schools, have on initiating children into religious life if it’s all encoded in their DNA from the very outset?

The answer, of course, is quite a lot. One of the founders of the Minnesota study framed the issue not as a nature vs. nurture but rather “nature via nurture.” That is to say, genetic factors are expressed by “influencing the character, selection and impact of experiences during development.” (Born Together Reared Apart, p. 104)  Some kids (who grow up to be us) have a predilection toward the spiritual – toward singing, toward awe and wonder, toward prayer and a sense of the transcendent. While others are inherently less comfortable with some of these things — this does not mean that they do not need these experiences, for we are all born in the image of God and all of us have a soul, however you define it. Rather, it means that each of these experiences does not necessarily come quite as naturally to them. We’ve spoken before about the need to recognize that each of our children has his or her own unique soul, that is to say, their own unique religious or spiritual orientation. Can you identify what is spiritually unique in your child’s nature? What makes her different than her sibling? And once you are familiar with his nature, you can now move on to exploring the question of how will you nurture?

Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz has been a day school educator and administrator for more than 35 years who currently teaches full time at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School. He is Educational Director of the Legacy 613 Foundation, runs tefillah education workshops for teachers and has served as an adjunct at Azrieli Graduate School. He is author of the Koren Ani Tefilla Siddur series, winner of the 2014 National Jewish Book Award.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.