Religion Without Resentment
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses that when someone prefers to bring an offering, if he wants to reneg, the Jewish court compels him to fulfill his pledge. However, since the verse (Vayikra 1:3) implies that it is brought with his will and intention, we force him until he verbalizes that he is “agreeing” and “wants” to bring the sacrifice.
This is an interesting psychological domain of religious worship. On the one hand, for it to be meaningful it must come from the heart and be voluntary. On the other hand, since Jewish religious life is also part of a social and legal system, rules must be enforced at times, possibly for the greater good of moral order even if the individual’s level of worship is not being so well served. We can understand intuitively that even though religious practice should come from the heart, it may need to be enforced as well.
Religious parents are faced with this moral and pedagogical dilemma. Children must be disciplined and at times forced to comply in order to train them in proper religious habits and even in a secular sense, to self-control. Becoming obedient to religious laws and expectations are no less important than making a child memorize the multiplication table. The child might resent it and complain, but one day, he will understand why he needed to learn basic skills, and even just to learn the value of obedience and perseverance that comes from study and mastery. Yet, if a child resents and hates math his whole life, this is no major loss. However, what if religious compulsion and reinforcement causes a child to hate religion or certain rituals, God forbid?
Researcher Avanlee Peterson discusses elements that lead to success or failure in religious education (“The Double-Edged Sword: Unsuccessful versus Successful Religious Parenting and Transmission,” Intuition: The BYU Undergraduate Journal of Psychology: Vol. 15: Iss. 2, Article 3. 2020. Material below are quotations from the article):
According to Santrock et al. (2020), “adolescence and emerging adulthood can be especially important developmental periods in religious identity and behavior” (p. 375). As older children and adolescents develop cognitively and improve their ability to think abstractly, they are at a particularly sensitive time in their lives and, therefore, are increasingly moldable to their religious and spiritual environments. They begin to cultivate a greater awareness and ability to self-reflect, as well as an increased curiosity and motivation to wonder about the transcendent or divine meaning of life. In fact, research has shown that adolescents and emerging adults may be the most sensitive and responsive to spiritual and religious matters compared to any other age group (Good & Willoughby, 2008). Therefore, a child or adolescent’s time spent building his or her religious and spiritual identity plays a critical role in establishing personal religious values and shaping behaviors. Furrow et al. (2010) report that religious parenting that instills positive, religious sentiments helps children develop a greater psychological wellness and increases their sense of meaning and purpose. A greater sense of personal meaning and identity, coupled with positive ties to their religious community, boosts children’s willingness to care for others, stay out of trouble, commit to the common good, participate within the community, and behave in a more altruistic manner. Furthermore, when religious parenting is done right, children are more motivated to participate in religious activities along with their parents and practice other prosocial, positive behaviors.
According to Barrow et al. (2020) and Owen (1984), parents can balance their desire for religious continuity and their child’s religious agency in a number of ways. First, parents should teach principles more than they should attempt to enforce religious practices. If a child does not want to pray or attend religious services, parents should patiently explain the principles behind prayer and worship. Forcing a child to participate without explanation often leads to rebellion, bitterness, or blind obedience rather than true faith and understanding. Second, parents should clearly communicate household expectations and standards for religious practice in the home; nevertheless, these expectations or rules should still allow for some personal exploration.
Much of the research on parenting styles suggests that religious parenting is most successful when using an authoritative style of parenting (high structure, high warmth, high autonomy) rather than an authoritarian style (high structure, low warmth, low autonomy). Peterson defines Authoritarian parenting as aggressive and forceful interactions between parent and child, including fear-mongering, weak parent-child communication, and excessive control. Authoritative parenting, has both structure and independence, often including healthy parental support, guidance, and cooperation. Peterson asserts that, “Out of a desire or sense of moral obligation to pass their religion onto their children, parents may implement an authoritarian approach to religious parenting and teaching. In doing so, they may use excessive force to get their child or adolescent to participate in religious rituals and limit their religious autonomy. While there are differing opinions on whether authoritarian religious parenting is efficacious or not, there has been increasing evidence to suggest that an authoritative style is better suited for successful religious transference between parent and child. Consequently, when parents apply an authoritative approach to parenting, the child is better able to harness the many benefits that come with religious and spiritual affiliation. Conversely, when parents apply an authoritarian approach, they risk exploiting their child’s autonomy, often leading to religious embitterment later on (Bornstein et al., 2017).
Even though our tradition can endorse authoritarian approaches, as we see in our Gemara, culture and context count on how these experiences are internalized. A person growing up in poverty does not feel distressed if he is unable to get a new iPhone, but a child from a different status will feel genuinely deprived. So too, parents must be conscious of how they implement discipline so as not to arouse too much resentment. The Gemara discusses the idea of not being too harsh on a child so as not to tempt him to respond with chutzpah or rebellion, thus Moed Kattan (17a) warns against hitting an older child who is old enough that he might be tempted to hit back. Ritva (ibid) points out that there is no specific age, but it is based on the child’s nature and what would lead to aggression or disrespect. This is a clear indicator that we must use careful discernment in how and when we apply coercive measures in religious pedagogy.
Knowledge Versus Wisdom
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses an interlude where a sage, named Bar Ahina, explained to Rava how a certain law is derived from a verse. Apparently, this Bar Ahina had a knack for noticing scriptural derivations as we see in a different Gemara (Sotah 39b) that once again, Bar Ahina helps Rava understand a scriptural derivation.
Akeidas Yitschok (65:1) uses this relationship as an object lesson from the dictum, “Who is a wise man? One who learns from every person.” (Avos 4:1). He explains that although Rava was teaching Bar Ahina the basic halakhos, Bar Ahina contributed insight into how to see this hinted at in the verses. This is a paradigm for highly intelligent people to apply. Even when they possess superior knowledge, it is in the nature of study that a lesser student may have an insight or approach that the advanced sage did not catch.
Smart people are especially prone to making the error of assuming that other opinions have nothing to offer. This shows a lack of respect in relationships but also a lacking of the basic quality of wisdom. Even when the advanced scholar’s ideas are indeed more correct, and the less intelligent person is incorrect, there are aspects or angles within the discussion that still can lead to insight and new ideas. It is so refreshing when a spouse, child, or employee gets the sense that their opinion is valued, and it leads to more cooperation and closeness, aside from more wisdom.
Akeidas Yitschok discusses the difference between an “accidental wise man” and a “true wise man.” He uses the word “accidental” in the medieval philosophical sense, meaning that the quality is secondary to the person. The wisdom is just an acquired collection of data. But a wise person with the character trait of humility, which allows him to genuinely be curious and collaborative, realizes how little he knows in comparison to what he must acquire. This is wisdom in a deep sense, cultivated internally.
Memory vs. Analytical Skills
Our Gemara on Amud Beis tells us an interesting story about Rabbi Yehuda’s reaction to Rabbi Meir’s students:
The Sages taught: After the death of Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda said to his students: Do not let the students of Rabbi Meir enter here into our house of study, because they are vexatious [kanteranim]. And they do not come to study Torah, but rather they come to overwhelm me with halakhos.
Sumakhos, a student of Rabbi Meir, pushed and entered anyway. He said to them: This is what Rabbi Meir taught me: With regard to a priest who betroths a woman with his portion of the offerings, whether he did so with offerings of the most sacred order or whether he used offerings of lesser sanctity, he has not betrothed her.
What was Rabbi Yehuda’s objections about? The simple explanation is that Rabbi Meir’s students, like their master, were analytic and pilpulistic to an extent that Rabbi Yehuda felt it would interfere in his students’ basic comprehension and study. After all, here is what we are taught about Rabbi Meir’s learning style (Eiruvin 13b):
[Rabbi Aḥa bar Ḥanina said:] It is revealed and known before the One Who spoke and the world came into being that in the generation of Rabbi Meir there was no one of the Sages who is his equal. Why then didn’t the Sages establish the halakha in accordance with his opinion? It is because his colleagues were unable to ascertain the profundity of his opinion. He was so brilliant that he could present a cogent argument for any position, even if it was not consistent with the prevalent halakha.
And here is what we learn about his talmid, Sumakhos, who ended up pushing his way into Rabbi Yehuda’s Shiur:
[The Gemara stated that Rabbi Abbahu said that Rabbi Yoḥanan said:] Rabbi Meir had a disciple, and his name was Sumakhus, who would state with regard to each and every matter of ritual impurity forty-eight reasons in support of the ruling of impurity, and with regard to each and every matter of ritual purity forty-eight reasons in support of the ruling of purity.
This represents the two styles of scholarship that have always been in tension throughout Jewish history: Sinai versus Oker Harim, deep analysis versus broad encyclopedic knowledge, and metaphorically expressed as either a Mount Sinai who has all the information or one who uproots mountains through question and debate. While theoretically a person could be both, given human nature, it’s just not possible to focus and create excellence in both areas at the same time. This debate goes back as early as Tannaim and Amoraim, as described in Horiyos 14a:
[Rabbi Yoḥanan said:] Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel and the Rabbis disagreed with regard to this matter. One said: Sinai, i.e., one who is extremely knowledgeable, is preferable; and one said: One who uproots mountains, i.e., one who is extremely analytical is preferable.
Would this equation change in modern times, where we have access to material in writing and digital form that is even searchable? Perhaps a Sinai is much more valued when there was a real risk of losing the information, or not having easy access?
Rav Shlomo Kluger (Hagahos Maharshak, Peri Megadim OC 136) states that indeed in “our times,” when printed material is readily accessible, the ability in pilpul is valued over bekiyus. (If so, kal v’chomer in the digital age!)
Personally, I am not so quick to assume that accessibility is the key value of being a Sinai. Having all the teachings in one’s memory, especially in their syntax, can cause many subtle positive influences. The morals and modes of thought are more internalized when they reside in accessible memory. Within the text of Torah teachings are also cultural and psychological guides that operate subliminally on a personality.
Despite the fact that there have been occasions of passionate dispute over the years amongst various schools of thought as to which is ultimately superior, we do see a lovely Gemara (Eiruvin 67a), where each type of learner has great respect for the other:
The Gemara relates that when Rav Ḥisda and Rav Sheshes would meet each other, Rav Ḥisda’s lips would tremble from the teachings of Rav Sheshes. Rav Sheshes’ fluency and expertise were such that Rav Ḥisda would be filled with awe in his presence. For his part, Rav Sheshes’ entire body would shake from Rav Ḥisda’s sharpness, i.e., from his brilliant, analytical mind.
The above source suggests that it is less a matter of philosophy and more of a matter of preference. After all, if Rav Sheshes held regard for Rav Chisda’s pilpul, why did he not engage in that method of halachik study? And vice versa, if Rav Chisda had such respect for Rav Sheshes’ bekiyus, why didn’t he change his method and study more broadly? It must be, to some extent, personality and skill sets play a part in the choice, and not only philosophy. After all, the best study comes from engaging in what naturally motivates and interests a person , as stated in Avoda Zara (19a):
Rava says, in accordance with the statement of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi: A person should always learn Torah from a place in the Torah that his heart desires, as it is stated: “But his delight is in the Torah of the Lord.
Don’t Hog a Mitzvah
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph tells us that the modest Cohanim would not enter the fray to grab a portion of the Lechem Hapanim, despite it being a mitzvah to eat. On a practical halakhic level, this teaching is used as a source and reminder that it does not bring honor to a mitzvah if you fight over it, as we can see in Baer Heytev OC 53:27.
However, is this teaching so clear-cut? The Gemara (Yoma 39a) provides more detail to the story:
In the times when Shimon Hatzaddik served as High Priest, all kinds of miracles and blessings prevailed, including:
וְנִשְׁתַּלְּחָה בְּרָכָה בָּעוֹמֶר, וּבִשְׁתֵּי הַלֶּחֶם, וּבְלֶחֶם הַפָּנִים. וְכׇל כֹּהֵן שֶׁמַּגִּיעוֹ כְּזַיִת, יֵשׁ אוֹכְלוֹ וְשָׂבֵעַ, וְיֵשׁ אוֹכְלוֹ וּמוֹתִיר. מִכָּאן וְאֵילָךְ, נִשְׁתַּלְּחָה מְאֵירָה בָּעוֹמֶר וּבִשְׁתֵּי הַלֶּחֶם וּבְלֶחֶם הַפָּנִים, וְכׇל כֹּהֵן מַגִּיעוֹ כְּפוּל. הַצְּנוּעִין מוֹשְׁכִין אֶת יְדֵיהֶן, וְהַגַּרְגְּרָנִין נוֹטְלִין וְאוֹכְלִין. וּמַעֲשֶׂה בְּאֶחָד שֶׁנָּטַל חֶלְקוֹ וְחֵלֶק חֲבֵירוֹ, וְהָיוּ קוֹרִין אוֹתוֹ “בֶּן”
A blessing was sent upon the offering of the omer; and to the offering of the two loaves from the new wheat, which was sacrificed on Shavuos; and to the shewbread, which was placed on the table in the Temple. Due to that blessing, each priest that received an olive-bulk of them, there were those who ate it and were satisfied, and there were those who ate only a part of it and left over the rest because they were already satisfied from such a small amount. From then onward, a curse was sent upon the omer, and to the two loaves, and to the shewbread, that there were not sufficient quantities to give each priest a full measure. Therefore, each priest received just an amount the size of a bean; the discreet, pious ones would withdraw their hands since a bean-bulk was less than the quantity needed to properly fulfill the mitzva, and only the voracious ones would take and eat it.
Rashi (ibid) says that the modest ones held back from grabbing the bread only after the blessings ceased. This implies that even if there was a possibility of some fighting, as long as there was still a blessing in the bread, the modest Cohanim did not withdraw from the fray. Shall we then conclude, according to Rashi, that it is worth causing a l fight over a mitzvah? Machatzis HaShekel (OC 53:26) resolves these questions with the following approach: When there is a complete mitzvah and only a possibility of strife, one should not abstain. When there is only a partial mitzvah (such as Lechem Hapanim that is of a small unsatisfying portion) and a possibility of strife, one should surely abstain. When there is a sure mitzvah, AND a certainty of strife, Machatzis HaShekel is not sure if one should abstain or jump into the fray.
These discussions have obvious implications for those who are obligated to say Kaddish and similar situations. No matter how important it is to bring a zechus to the niftar, the greatest zechus is no fighting. Keeping a mitzvah pure is important, as we shall see soon in the Psychology of the Daf Kiddushin 56.