Last week (click here), we left off discussing the distinctions between a mitzvah, minhag, chumrah, and something that is none of those three categories, but rather a cultural practice.
We gave some examples:
* Putting on tefilin every day is a daily mitzvah (a mandated commandment) incumbent upon all Jewish males above the age of thirteen.
* Wearing long(er) peyos is a minhag (custom).
* Not using an eiruv that has been approved by the vast majority of your city’s rabbonim is a chumrah (stringency) that many accept upon themselves.
* Wearing a black fedora is a cultural practice prevalent in some communities.
It is of utmost importance that you fully understand the difference between these categories of Jewish practice – in your personal life and especially as you guide your children. It may be helpful to think of these categories as spiritual “needs and wants.” Mitzvos are mandatory practices. Chumros need not be observed, especially when one is first beginning Torah observance.
If any of you needed convincing that the lines between mitzvah, minhag, and chumrah often get blurred, kindly read the first post to the previous column (click here), where a reader took me to task for misrepresenting a mitzvah as a chumrah. (As with so many other issues, these are not “ba’al teshuva issues,” these are issues we all face – that are compounded by the fact that many ba’alei teshuva find them all the more challenging.)
As we noted last week, the complexity of these issues only underscores the need to find and maintain contact with a Rov who understands you well and can guide your family with wisdom. (Click here for an article about seeking rabbinic advice.)
Maintain Ties With Your Family
I think it is very important for the stability of your family life and your level of personal menuchas hanefesh (tranquility) to maintain ties with your non-observant parents and in-laws. I am well aware that there are those who advise ba’alei teshuvah parents to sever their ties with non-observant family members for fear of confusing your children with the non-observance of extended family members. However, I think that this thinking is fundamentally flawed in theory and practice.
In theory, what kind of message does it send when you walk away from your parents and siblings once you begin Torah observance? Shouldn’t the Torah teach you an enhanced level of respect for your family members?
In practice, as it relates to your children, I think that severing relationships with your family robs your children unnecessarily of the unconditional love that grandparents have to offer. It will be difficult enough for them to watch their FFB-family friends celebrate their simchos with large extended family members. Why compound the pain by having them feel that they are rootless?
I would like to mention a final point on this subject – one that may not be evident at first glance. When you exhibit tolerance for family members, you are making a profound statement – that family bonds run deep and they override any differences that you may have with each other. Over the years, this unspoken lesson will serve your children well and enhance the respect that they will have for you. For you never know how things will turn out with your children. What if one of them decides to take a different path in life than the one you charted for him or her? If you send clear and consistent messages over the years that ‘family matters,’ that child will, in all likelihood, remain close to your family members. However, if you decided that spiritual matters are grounds for severing ties with parents and siblings, how do you know that this logic will not be used against you in a different context one or two decades down the road?
To be sure, there are many challenges that you will face regarding kashrus (kosher food requirements), tzniyus (modesty), and other matters. But they are very manageable provided that an atmosphere of mutual respect is created and nurtured. Over the years, I have attended hundreds of lifecycle events of ba’alei teshuvah where their non-observant family members were active and respected participants.
Find a Community and Schools for Your Children that are Tolerant and Understanding
It is of utmost importance that you find a community that will accept you with welcoming arms. That means one where you will not cringe with what-will-the-neighbors-think when your non-observant brother comes to visit. If you do feel that way in your community, you may not be in the right one.
As far as selecting schools is concerned, there too, see to it that the school’s educational philosophy is in general sync with yours. Often, I get calls from parents who are put off by certain policies (dress codes, media exposure regulations, etc) that their children’s schools maintain or the culture of the institution (What will the rebbi say about Thanksgiving, and does it match what you feel regarding that subject). And equally often, these guidelines were in place when the parents enrolled their children in the first place. One cannot blame a school for enforcing their stated policies.
Generally speaking, I think that ba’alei teshuvah parents should not enroll their children in Yiddish-teaching yeshivos. I am aware of the cultural reasons that people are inclined to do so, but in the case of ba’a’lei teshuvah, I think that this is simply bad practice – unless you are fluent in Yiddish yourself. It will be difficult enough to do Judaic studies homework with your children as they grow older without compounding matters by adding language barriers that will virtually guarantee that you will not understand what your child is learning, let alone be in a position to help him or her.
To sum up, when raising your FFB children, as with all other areas of life, follow the timeless advice of Shlomo Hamelech (King Solomon) and stay on ‘the golden path’ of moderation.
© 2007 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved