These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Learning to love my sons’ radical disobedience

Posted on December 24, 2017 by Rabbi Aryeh Ben David

Tags: ,

This article was originally published in The Times of Israel. Click here for the link.

We, religious Jews, are caught in a searing conundrum. On the one hand, we want to raise strong independent kids who make their own decisions; on the other hand, we are crushed when their choices are different from the ones we hoped for and wanted them to make.

But the real crisis and tragedy is not about the different choices our kids make, it’s about how we respond to them.

Parents tell their children countless times: “I love you.” We mouth the words day after day. But love is not just words. Words are the easy part. Love is fully respecting, listening to, and seeing each other. Even the parts that may be hard to see; even the parts that may break your heart.

It’s not about our feeling that we love our kids unconditionally. Of course we do.

It’s about our kids feeling that we love them unconditionally. Perhaps they don’t.

Ask them. It may be the most courageous and vulnerable act you ever do. Be prepared to hear:

  • I know you love me, but it seems to me that you would love me more if I…
  • I know you love me, but I don’t feel that you really respect my decisions. You don’t totally listen to me; I feel judged.
  • I know you love me, but often I don’t feel you see the full me. You see what you hope will happen.
  • I know you love me, but sometimes I feel that you love Jewish ritual and law more than me.

How is it possible to love our kids unconditionally when they are making choices that are incompatible with our most cherished values?

I think it becomes easier when we realize that their behavior is not entirely a reflection of our parenting. We are not the only influences shaping them. We may not even be the primary influence in their lives.

Sometimes I hear parents lamenting: “If only we had sung different songs, practiced different rituals, or followed different halakhic opinions — maybe things would have turned out differently. If only we had tweaked this or that.” Unlikely things would have turned out differently. What is happening now in this generation is way beyond any individual tweaks we think we should or should not have done.

The practice of raising children is not only personal or communal. The issue we are facing today is systemic. The system of traditional Judaism is not working for this next generation. When according to estimates over 50% are leaving traditional observance, the issue is not personal. It’s systemic.

Right now we are caught up in a wave of history washing over us.

This generation is experiencing the radical disruption of growing up in the State and Land of Israel, as a powerful majority, and one more generation removed from the Holocaust.

For our kids, for this generation, Jewish continuity has never been a question, has never been in doubt. Jewish existence is simply a fact. Our kids are walking their land, breathing their air, talking their language.

I underestimated the transformative power of being part of the majority. I underestimated the transformative power of not being obsessed with and anxious about Jewish continuity.

Today, for the first time in Jewish history, we can let go of that fear and anxiety. Continuity no longer dictates the ethos of the Jewish community.

For 2,000 years Jewish mothers prayed that their sons would sit and learn all day. Not become artists, actors, singers, athletes, or, of course, soldiers. They should become talmidei chachamim. Jewish continuity depended on it!

For 2,000 years Jewish fathers prayed that their sons would be regular shul-going daveners, sitting next to them, mumbling the words that their grandfathers had mumbled. Jewish continuity depended on it!

But now, for the first time in 2,000 years, the worry over Jewish continuity has become obsolete. We are here, a majority in our own land, getting stronger and more independent with each passing generation. Individual Jews may slip away, but the fear of the Jewish People not continuing is a worry of the past.

And this new reality creates a different spiritual world. A spiritual world in which obedience is no longer a prized value. Obedience sustains. It enables continuity, of repeating the behaviors of the last generation. Obedience, continuity, and the consequent fears are all part of living as a powerless minority during the last 2,000 years.

This generation does not know from obedience. They are breathing radical disruptions.

Sometimes I find myself asking myself whether I was religious, or whether I was just obedient. What was enough for me — to learn, daven, and observe — is not enough for so many of the kids of this generation. Often the kids staying observant are not the most spiritual ones, they are simply the most obedient ones. Witness the “I don’t know. I need to ask my rav” phenomenon. Often the kids who are not observant want more — more than knowing pages of Talmud and davening someone else’s words.

There is a famous disagreement between the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds. The Babylonian Talmud states that learning preserves Jewish continuity; the Jerusalem Talmud states that learning provides spiritual growth and change. In the Diaspora, we only dreamed of continuing the status quo. In Israel, we dream of more.

We have now entered into the historical stage of spiritual growth and change.

Obedience has given way to chutzpah, to radical disobedience. Rav Kook writes that one of the signs of living in the days of the Messiah is that the people will begin to hate rabbis, who are still consumed with the details of the details, while the people want deeper and more meaningful. Radical disobedience is a sign of letting go of the anxiety, neurosis, and obsequiousness acquired while living as threatened minority outside of one’s home.

How this will play out — I have no idea. God’s ways are mysterious and the unfolding of history is way beyond the scope of my understanding.

While this process is utterly mysterious and leaves me often bewildered and perplexed, there is one thing I do understand: That my children only have one father and my role is to make sure they feel and know they are loved unconditionally. Too many studies have shown that the fracturing of parent-child relations during and after adolescence leaves a lifetime of brokenness and scars.

My path is not the path of my boys. I don’t have to agree with the all of their choices. I do have the responsibility to educate, guide, and direct them as best I see it. I was taught to respect and listen to my parents. It took me much longer to realize that I also needed to respect and listen to my children. It took me way too long to realize that the truth of my choices does not override the truth of our relationship.

My two boys made different religious decisions and frankly, I didn’t see it coming.

What did I miss?

I was caught up in my own narrative. I thought that God wanted my sons to be a continuation of myself. I missed that they were growing up in a radically different historical setting than I did. I missed the wave of history.

Rabbi Aryeh Ben David is a Pardes alumnus and former faculty member