Part One: For the Parents
Is Orthodox Judaism Driving Our Family Apart?
Your daughter looks very different today. Your son speaks differently. They have become aliens from outer space. What in the world is happening to them? Are you going to lose them entirely? What does it mean to your home when your children become baalai tshuvah?
There is a growing movement in the world today, that we call the Baal Tshuvah Movement. It is not an organized movement, but its ranks continue to overflow in overwhelming numbers. A baal tshuvah (or baalas tshuvah, for women) is a formerly non-religious Jew who has chosen to become Orthodox. Surprisingly enough, this is not creating the social turbulence you would expect such a large movement to cause. Nevertheless, there are difficult moments in store for everyone.
When any person in a relationship undergoes sudden changes, the relationship will inevitably also change. And it is simply to be expected that the other partner(s) in the relationship will view the changes with some degree of anxiety. Most especially when a parent sees a child changing. Parents (healthy parents, at least) will always worry about their children, and that’s only right.
Some parents are concerned because their children have suddenly become impossible to live with. Their children will no longer eat their parents’ food, because it isn’t kosher. Suddenly they refuse to join their families on their weekly Saturday outings. They dress differently. They refuse to fit in. They want to go to a different school. Are all these changes healthy?
If you are the parent of such a child, the first thing you need to know know is that you are not losing your child. Your child is not rejecting you, and probably for the rest of his or her life he or she will say «My parents always taught me to…» about something or other. You will always occupy an important place in your child’s personality. Whether it’s a fond and happy place, is up to you and your child.
It’s important for you to know that to a large degree your relationship with your child is up to you. Not entirely, that’s true, but if you don’t reject your child, and if you don’t reject the choices he is making in life, you don’t need to lose your child either.
I’m not saying that it’s always the fault of the parent when something goes wrong in a family relationship. That is definitely not true. Nevertheless, as the parent, you often hold more control in the level of the relationship than you may be aware. The Talmud says, «When you have to push someone away, do it with your weaker hand. When you draw a person close, use your stronger hand.» This is applied most especially regarding children.
A father emailed me once to complain that Orthodox Judaism made him lose his children. His wife and children had decided to become Orthodox, and he had tried to prevent them. He and his wife eventually got divorced, and now he complains that the children refuse to visit him. Why? Because he refuses to comply with their religious requests. When they visited him, he refused to allow them to attend an Orthodox synagogue, he refused to serve them kosher food, and in general refused to accommodate their religious needs.
He argued to me that as one of the parents he has the legal right to decide his children’s religious future, just as much as their mother does. He doesn’t want them to be Orthodox, and therefore when they are in his house he should not be required to allow them to live Orthodox lives.
True, he has the right to refuse to feed them kosher food. But by insisting on his rights, he lost his children. His children have decided to be Orthodox, and he is ignoring their feelings on the matter.
I can’t say he was morally wrong for insisting that his home and life not be disturbed by his family’s choices. But the problem is that if you look at everything solely in terms of right or wrong, you are forgetting to take into account how people feel. He can’t, in all fairness, complain that Orthodox Judaism is to blame for their feelings about him when he himself never bothered to care about their feelings!
Yes, you, as a parent, have feelings too. And it is wrong for anyone to ignore that. It is also wrong for you to insist that someone change his life and compromise his own decisions to accommodate your feelings, no matter how close you are to that person. And yes, dependent children becoming religious should take that into account as well. They cannot and should not expect their parents to become religious on their account. And never should they forget that their parents are having difficulty adjusting to the changes taking place in their child.
If your children are adults, then the matter is less complicated. They have made a choice, and they have the right to stand by it. In all probability, they do not wish to lose you as a parent either.
If you are concerned about the way your child is acting, speak to the one who has the most influence on him right now — his Rabbi or religious teacher. Don’t be afraid to talk to the Rabbi. He is very unlikely to pressure you to become religious. That’s not the way Judaism operates. The Rabbi will probably be a good mediator, and can advise both you and the child how to work together.
The Rabbi or teacher should also be able to explain to you what is going on, if your child cannot. Another benefit of this is that the Rabbi or teacher can set your child straight if he is going about things the wrong way.
So talk to the Rabbi. But if you get upset with him, the Rabbi might get the idea that you are unreasonable, and that could hurt your relationship with your child.
Rabbis almost never advise anyone to cut off their relationship with their parents, unless the parents are abusive.
The Torah teaches us, «Honor your father and mother, I am Hashem.» The Torah means, «Honor your father and mother, but above all, I am Hashem.» One is required to honor and obey one’s parents in all things, except when they command one to transgress the Torah.
The Talmud also advises parents not to tyrannize their children. Being overbearing to your children is a good way to drive them away from you. Try to work with them in this new situation. If you suspect that your child is inventing Jewish Laws in an attempt to weasel out of chores, approach his Rabbi and ask him about it. It is not far-fetched to propose that someone who has recently become Orthodox may not know all the Laws perfectly.
There was a young woman whose parents tried their hardest to prevent her from being religious. When she got some kosher dishes, her parents took them and made them treif. The end result was that when she got married she was afraid to leave her children with her parents, for fear that they would spitefully feed them non-kosher food, or do something else of that sort. This severely harmed their relationship with their own grandchildren. Thus, these parents later regretted their earlier attitude.
Family harmony is of paramount importance. The Torah desires peace for all of us. It is possible to find a way to live together.
Because your child is still learning about Judaism, expect him or her to be attending classes, or reading a great deal of the time. This is healthy, but you are not out of line to suggest that they also occasionally get some physical exercise. Just bear in mind that in his (or her) new chosen way path, your former baseball star is quite likely now to opt for a more academic lifestyle.
Your child will also be spending time at the homes of Orthodox Jews, especially during the Sabbath. It is very difficult to properly observe the Sabbath in a home where everyone else is violating it. It is not another rejection. For your child, it’s a learning opportunity. If you are concerned about who these people are, you might call your child’s Rabbi and ask about them.
Readers of this website may already know that I married a baalas tshuvah, and that she has her own website, Kresel’s Korner. She has written about this subject as well, and on her site you can find an article called Mom and Me, which has an open letter from my my mother-in-law about how families can bridge their differences in religious approach. That, and my wife’s response attached to her mother’s letter, is the perfect companion article to this one.
Though my mother-in-law makes this point as well, it can’t be said often enough. Be grateful that with all the things that kids get into these days: drugs, cults, alcohol, raves, rampant pre-marital relations, suicide, and who knows what else, your child is turning to Judaism. It could be a lot worse.