A Thought Experiment for Jewish Parents

Suppose you could give your children a magic pill that would guarantee that they would never depart from the Jewish commitments that you teach them.  Why stop with children? Suppose the pill would guarantee the same for your grandchildren.

Should you do it?

If you do give them the pill, you will become a more relaxed parent.  You would get free of a major source of anxiety.  Trust the pill: your children will never abandon the teaching of their father or the Torah of their mother.  Do what you have to do to give them a good Jewish education, and then let go.  They will turn out, religiously, okay.

You will enjoy the deep satisfaction (okay, to use the technical term, the nahas) of knowing that you can share Torah and mitsvot and celebrations with them.

You will also have the confidence that you have done what you could to assure the survival of Judaism for another two generations.

What’s not to like?

On the other hand . . . maybe, as Tevya says, there is no other hand.

Or maybe there is.  When you children do mitsvot, exactly the way you want them to, they will not do their own mitsvot, but yours.   They will never have the experience of committing to follow a commandment, of discovering their own commitment, since they will always wind up living out your commitment.  They will never, in a profound sense, become bar mitzvah.

But so what? Judaism, just precisely your type of Judaism, will thrive in your family for at least another two generations.  That should give some satisfaction, because, wherever you find yourself in Jewish observance, you can find people at one side who depart from Jewish practices that you know to be vital, and people on your other side who punctiliously follow Jewish practices that you know to be insignificant.   The people who generally agree with you about what to value in Judaism have it right, and your children will follow that correct path.

Now it might actually turn out that our recipe for what matters in Judaism will hold up better than the recipe followed by any of our fellow Jews.  The people on one side will realize that we were right all along, and will start taking our principles seriously.  The people on the other side will realize that we were right all along, and they will start to discard their excessive stringencies.  Or perhaps in a few generations the current disputes will all continue.

Or it may turn out that the disputes of the future will differ from our current disputes, and some other recipe than ours will project Judaism into the future.   Perhaps my children will succeed in discovering a different recipe for Judaism than ours, one more effective than the one in which I firmly believe.   Who guarantees that I am wiser than my children? Perhaps they are wiser than I.

This thought experiment may provide some consolation to parents whose children have rejected their parents’ observance, become less observant (gone OTD, off the derekh), or become more observant (frummed out), or become rationalists or mystics or broken their parents’ hearts in some other way.

Because ultimately a thriving Judaism does not depend on parental power, but rather on children’s choices.

About the Author
Louis Finkelman teaches Literature and Writing at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. He serves as half of the rabbinic team at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park, Michigan.
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