The Jewish Peter-Pan Syndrome

Translated and adapted for Beyond Teshuva by Rabbi Dovid Schwartz

Bar/bat Mitzvahs, graduations and weddings are fêted and enjoyed by all in attendance. But no one awaits these celebrations with as much edge-of-the-seat anticipation as the bnai Mitzvah, graduates and brides and grooms themselves. For these primary revelers the parties are much more than opportunities to let the good times roll, they are rites of passage. These landmark occasions formally confer upon them new levels of adulthood, autonomy and, that which we all yearn for most, societal and self respect. The maturity that we so crave is always about achieving independence and individuation. What some of us tend to forget is that this is just as true for emotional and spiritual maturation as it is for education and finances.

All immature beings (AKA children) depend on the adults of their species (usually parents) for their physical sustenance. What is unique about the human condition is that in our youth, we depend on our elders not just for food, hygiene and medical care, but for information and ethics as well. The child does not know how to “do things” or how to distinguish right from wrong. More than by instruction and evocation, the child absorbs practical and moral instruction through observation of behaviors demonstrated by its elders (hence the vital importance of role models). Aware of its own limitations, ignorance and dependence the child possesses an innate learning instinct that compels it to imitate its elders. Children become masters of the art of monkee-see-monkee-do by constantly seeking outside cues, validation and approval. This is the only mechanism available to them to determine whether or not what they are doing or failing to do is “good” and “right” (or cool and hip!)

During adolescence peer group pressure to conform is enormous. In this transitional stage from childhood to adulthood the peer group supplants parents and other elders as the external validation mechanism for behaviors and attitudes. It is as if the “tweener” adolescent was declaring to his parents and elders “I’m old enough to think independently of you but not quite old enough to go it totally alone. I’ll get by with a little help from my friends. (Get HIGH with a little help from my friends).”

Although nature endows us with physical maturity at the end of adolescence other forms of maturity are not a given. BTs, especially those who began their return a bit later in life, are acutely aware of this. So many discover Torah only after becoming adults. Classically, very early in the Teshuva process, realization dawns that Vis a Vis Torah-Wisdom (and the skills to acquire it) and Mitzvah performance (and a sense of proportion) they are, once again, babes-in-the-woods. Then, the nearly forgotten and long-dormant powerful craving for maturity reignites with the force of an active volcano.

As we are all growth-oriented and spiritual-maturity-craving here at Beyond Teshuva it is crucial that we recognize signs of arrested development and confront possible causes of plateuing. Many among us may still be spiritual children in adult bodies taking cues from societal norms and constantly seeking external validation from peer groups/social structures. Paradoxically, others may be stuck in a kind of spiritual/emotional twilight where, IDF vs. Hezbullah-like, maturity and immaturity do battle with inconclusive and even counterproductive results. For such people the compelling rush to individuation often causes them to ignore the sage advise of those who are more spiritually ripe (and, at times, of HaShem Himself) and yet, adolescent-like, their inner emotionally-needy-child craves social approval and dares not deviate one iota from the notions and norms of their friends, family and neighbors.

The sainted Piaszetsner Rebbe ZY”A H”YD teaches us that for healthy and steady spiritual growth we need to cultivate the maturity to think and feel independent of our peer group but to retain the humility and childlike wonder to continue taking cues from our spiritual elders. Our bodies plateau at around 20-23, but if we just afford it the right conditions for growth, our neshomahs (souls) can continue growing until our last nesheemah (breath)!

11 comments on “The Jewish Peter-Pan Syndrome

  1. Anonymous – if ure questioning my comment on fathers ……no discrimination against mothers or females intended…. not sure what your point is .Yes, I am familiar with that iggeress haramban letter beginning “Listen my son to the admonitions of your father, and do not disregard the teachings of your mother” lovely letter… I was just taking the analogy on the actual post and comparing the fathers involved on both sides of the analogy. The immature child and his father (feel free to read it as mother if you’d like or absent parent(s)) & the spiritually immature person and the father (G-d) in heaven. Unless your point is that G-d in heaven is actually a mother ? Well i’ve never actually met him or her so I couldnt tell you .I’ve just heard him referred to as our father in heaven but then again Its not like i’ve always been fed the most accurate of spiritual info.Maybe G-d is both a father and a mother or since G-d is not human, wouldnt be classified as male or female and just as G-d dont know.

  2. Rabbi Schwartz , Perfectly profound Peter Pan imagery/& the not wanting to spiritually mature concept connecting . To take the analogy way too literally for a sec, if there is an absent father when the child is growing up ,then they learn to improvise and find other fathers. This out of line side track step in the tried and true linear graduating steps rules for rigid living can be classified as a misstep.The kind of misstep that’s a hindrance for maturing and being responsible/continuing the education / marrying/ and birthing and all that.And definitely causing some kind of distraction /hampering on the growth process and a longer or perpetual stay in immature hood “Peter Pan Syndrome”.Some dont know how to grow up and are too busy searching for fathers or paying fathers to care about them ,not understanding that thats the wrong way to buy fathers .

    This same concept could apply to the spiritually spent individual thats has no intention of growing spiritually anymore. If the main father up above the world so high….. is not listening or anything, then the immature spiritual seeker has to either stop being spiritual and just throw the spiritual rug runner thats tripping him up out the window for some fresh air and a spiritual rugless outlook, or seek meaning and depth elsewhere . Buying spirituality is not the answer just like paying someone to be your father is just missing the whole point of a father .Purchasing holiday or religion supplies or paying to pray or be spiritual whether monetarily or any other sacrificing comforts or feel good material makes about as much sense as thinking you can buy love and care with gifts and money. Both fathers the literal one and main one g-d dont need money or sacrifices/my personal discomforts/ or gifts as an incentive for them to care / fix /give /love /console/empathize/blank inside/love/encourage and all that hallmark card sentiment stuff. If g-d doesnt respond or if a father is just absent and out to lunch or if g-d is just being a little too harsh, being more mature or more spiritual or purchasing spiritual supplies or giving money will not override that fact.Nothing will, which is why continuing to make the trek down to the Jersey shore for tanning purposes still seems like the best way to bask in the sunlight of spirituality.

  3. “Hevey Goleh limokom Torah.”

    If moving means a willful choice for a peer group that will reinforce better values maybe it’s a blessing in disguise. (BTW some of those choices are lose/lose like “who by fire and who by water”. Can’t others be win/win?)

  4. Rabbi Schwartz,

    You continue to amaze me with your facility in both language and thought. Please be sure to notify me when you decide to share your thoughts, observations and translations on a more regular basis. I await this notification with great anticipation.

    E. Pflaster

  5. We said it in U’nesaneh Tokef yesterday “Who will rest and who will wander?” I guess sometimes wandering can be a good thing!

  6. In many places Jews live today, even the peer group itself is not a given. Some peer groups are more virtual/electronic than actual/local. People also move around a lot and not all friendships and other associations continue.

    So even one aspect of conformity can be a kind of personal decision; you try to pick the group you’d like to be part of.

  7. Thanks, sounded familiar. I own a copy and have also learned it via teleconference with R Moshe Weinberger (Woodmere, NY). The writing towards the end about Shabbos is amazing (along with the intro, Laziness, etc).

  8. Neil-

    This post was based on what the Piazeczna Rebbe ZY”A H”YD wrote in the 7th Chapter of Chovas HaTalmidim. It is available in English as “A Student’s Obligation” (Jason Aronson Publishers) with an excellent transaltion by my good friend Micha Odenheimer. If you’d like I could email you a more literal translation of the passage upon which I based this post.

  9. Rabbi Schwartz,
    Great read during the ten days of Repentance! I was curious though, was this based on the writings of the Piazeczna Rebbe? And if so, which writings?

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