Wednesday, May 02, 2007

relating to non-observant family

I have been contemplating writing something on this topic for some time, but was never able to really formulate the idea in a way that I liked. I’m still not sure I can, but agav parshas hashavua I want to broach the topic. “Ish aviv v’imo tira’u v’es shabosai tishmoro” juxtaposes the mitzvah of honoring parents with the mitzvah of observing Shabbos – two ideas which seem to have very little to do with each other. Chazal already address the issue and read the juxtaposition as teaching that if a father or mother asks you to desecrate Shabbos, then you are under no obligation to listen. The Ohr haChaim haKadosh presents the idea more generally. There is no obligation to honor parents who are resha’im (though see Rambam Mamrim 5:11); keeping shabbos is an indicator of minimal observance; the Torah therefore expresses “ish imo v’aviv tira’u”, the command to honor, as contingent on “es shabsosai tishmoru”, the observance of shabbos by those whom one is honoring. The Maharil Diskin flips the equation around. He explains that by practicing “ish imo v’aviv tira’u” one assures “es shabsosai tismoru” – the pasuk is not a condition, but a havtacha, a promise that proper observance of kavod to others will lead to their greater commitment to observance.

I don’t want to get bogged down in the halachic particulars, but taken more broadly, the Maharil Diskin and the Ohr haChain reveal different approaches to a tension that is not easy to grapple with (and which I, and I am sure many others, have experienced). For a true relationship (i.e. beyond superficial amicability) to exist between people they must share like values. I may be friendly with my coworkers, but Thursday night for them is drinking night, for me is mishmar and Shabbos-prep night, and those different worlds we live in sums up why I would not seek advice on a meaningful life issue from them. But what happens when circumstances force us into relationships with people with whom we share dissimilar values – in particular, where a person’s commitment to torah and mitzvos is not shared by a parent or other relative, who may not understand or appreciate what that commitment means or entails? The Ohr haChaim’s approach places kibud, which I am taking the liberty of interpreting as having a meaningful relationship (as parents and children should), as contingent on the parent (or other) appreciating “es shabsosai tishmoru”, or at least what it means for those who are observant. It is very hard, especially for those (like myself) who are more introverted, to form bonds with people whose value system is different than their own, and we often eschew anything beyond amicability unless we can be met at least somewhat on our own terms. On the other hand, trying to develop a relationship with others despite their not sharing the same (or any) level of observance may be the very vehicle that brings them to appreciate the values we hold dear, akin to Maharil Diskin’s approach to the pasuk.

On a practical level, the issue is somewhat relative to the type of observance one practices. Many people observe shabbos and eat kosher but are otherwise completely steeped in American culture and society and its values. The fact that you can’t share a steak at the same steakhouse is surely an obstacle to dealing with people, but at least these people can share an appreciation of good food, good times, good olam hazeh, and in NY there are plenty of kosher restaurants to share that steak at. It is far harder when one lives or practices an “orthodoxy” that is based on greater prishus, where the desire for a good steak or a restaurant meal (or some other olam-hazeh desire) is something to be worked on in mussar seder rather than boasted about or valued. The typical American lifestyle is not built around kedusha or tahara, and for many (myself included) there is more to distance oneself from than embrace in popular culture. The fact that orthodoxy encompasses a range of behaviors just increases the tension – try explaining to an outsider why ploni, who is also nominally orthodox can have a TV or go to makom X or eat Y [worse still: if ploni is nominally a rabbi] and you can’t.

These sugyos are harder to deal with than the biggest kashes in shome'a k'oneh or other gemaras, and it seems like there is no one magic answer to dealing with situations where committment to torah and mitzvos becomes an obstacle to relationships with family. I may be over-extending my reading of the Ohr haChaim or Maharil Diskin, but the issue is something to think about.


  1. I have also struggled with the issues that you describe. One has to give credit where credit is due for nominal frumkeit, considering the alternatives, but it's still very frustrating.

  2. Outstanding post. An issue that we all grapple with to some extent or another. But I especially appreciated your distinction between the nominally Orthodox, "mitsvat anashim melumada" Jews, who essentially buy into American culture, and Jews whose lives actually center around Torah and mitsvot. How true! This is an element of the discussion that is often overlooked, not to mention completely beyond the ken of "outsiders".

  3. You reminded me of a story. My in-laws, who were baalei teshuva (my MIL has since passed away) lived in an area with very few observant Jews. The local conservative rabbi had the same problem - no one to visit or eat with on Shabbat, since he was the only observant person in his community - so he often came by with his wife and children and shared Shabbat and Yom Tov meals with the family. Aside from his strident anti-Orthodoxy, which he usually held in check, he was a friendly fellow. However, he relished opportunities to "show up" the Orthodox.

    I remember one incident where he arrived with an exciting story - he had just flown back from Israel, and he sat next to a fervently Orthodox woman who spent the flight reading trashy romance novels. See, those religious types are all just hypocrites anyway!

    I wasn't sure what he was trying to prove, especially since he was quite open about the fact that he strongly preferred watching sentimental and inspirational movies to learning dry, Aramaic-laden Gemaras.

  4. Maybe I'm hearing all of this incorrectly. But hearing this kind of diatribe makes me think that Jews who were already lackadaisical/ conflicted about mitzvot would run the other way if they heard it, finding comfort in Xianity, the religion of love.

    Just make it sweet, rabbosai. Just make it sweet. It's not about you and it's not about halacha, it's about your relationships. See people as people, esteem them, respect them, and they'll listen to what you have to say, perhaps even follow you.