If a child (teenager or older) chooses to observe mitzvot differently than their parents, does a parent have a right to try to persuade them otherwise? Where is the line? What if the child wants to observe tzniut (modesty) or a level of kashrut (dietary laws) with more stringency?
I must say that of all the questions I have received, yours is the one I have been hoping for. I, as many others, have pet peeves and this question of minhag or minhagim (pl. customs) is one of my favorites.
Let us first look at a few major Rabbinic sources pertaining to the place of minhag in Jewish life and observance. The concept of minhag is related to Torah observance but is not necessarily a direct commandment itself, per se. Often it concerns more how to observe a particular mitzvah.
The major book of Jewish Law is the Shulhan Arukh from the 16th century. It is well known that the author Rabbi Joseph Karo (Israel, d. 1575) known as the Mehaber or Maran, presented halakhah in accordance with the common religious practice of the Jews originating in the Iberian peninsula, known as Sepharadim.
This binding presentation was in many ways at variance with the common religious practice of the Jews of Ashkenaz especially those of the lands associated with Poland. Rabbi Moses Isserles (Poland, d. 1572) known as the Rama, whose original intent seemed to be to write his own type Shulhan Arukh, wrote glosses or hagahot to Rabbi Karo’s work. This reflected the differences in custom or minhag of much of Ashkenazic Jewry.
This being said, this presentation is far too simplified since the reality is that there are differences in religious practice from country to country, community to community, synagogue to synagogue and family to family. All of these traditions and practices are considered sacrosanct and not to be violated.
A major problem that is found in today’s world, is the reality of disruption, dislocation, the break up of communities and the breakdown of families. Numerous reasons can be given for this, especially migration, the Holocaust, expulsion of Jews from their native lands and assimilation.
The Shulhan Arukh presents in the section dedicated to that which is prohibited and that which is permitted, “There is a major principle that the custom of our parents—ancestors (minhag avoteinu Torah hee) is Torah.” This means that the practices of our parents are definitive as far as far as our religious practice is concerned. (See Code of Jewish Law, Yo-reh Dei-ah, Section 376, Law 4, also Kitzur Shulhan Arukh, Section 199, Law 10)
The Babylonian Talmud states that it is forbidden for a person to make a change from the received custom. “One may never deviate from the accepted custom (l’olam al ye-sha-neh adam min ha-minhag.” (Tractate Baba Metziah 86b)
From the above, it would seem quite clear that whatever was is what will be forever. However, life is not quite so simple. There are hash-pa-ot (influences) surrounding us and a break down of authority. There is also a move to the right in many communities, where stringencies (hum-rot) are being set in place causing some Jews to feel put upon to conform or be ostracized.
Few communities remain unaffected by such forces. I consider myself blessed, having been Rabbinically trained by a great Sephardic hakham (sage) who always made clear that in accordance with the teachings of Maimonides(12th century, Egypt), that the path of moderation, the she-vil ha-zahav (golden mean) is the correct one.
According to your question, your concern is with a child or youngster who desires to practice stringencies in the mitzvot or even minhagim which are not in accordance with those of his or her family. There is no doubt that this is not to be countenanced by the Jewish tradition that they seemingly wish to respect.
It is necessary to do your best to understand the reason for the desire, but also gently, but with firmness to make certain that the youngster realizes that they must adhere to family custom.
There are many influences upon people, including Jewish outreach movements which almost invariably attempt to coax initiates to adopt their movement’s leader’s customs and not to investigate the initiate’s own past and adopt or readopt their ancestral observances. This approach is to be avoided wherever possible. No one is a tabula rasa (blank slate).
When it comes to issues of tz’niut (modesty) and kashrut (Jewish Dietary Laws) observances, our day has seen a move to the right, in the direction of hum-rah (stringency). Growing up as I did in a family where both of my parents were raised in strictly observant families from Europe, I have a first hand exposure to frumkeit (religiosity). Much of what is seen today with regard to modes of dress and grooming, as well as strictures in kosher eating and food preparations, or looking askance at other Jews, suspecting them of not being “frum” enough or kosher enough would be deemed improper.
It is nonetheless important that one understand, even a parent, that a particular family custom may be rooted in an incorrect tradition that is at variance with the rules set down in the Shulhan Arukh and the Rama. An example is standing or sitting for the recitation of Kiddush over the wine on Shabbat evening. There are a variety of practices pertaining to when to stand and at what point to drink while seated. All of this has a basis in local or family customs. But, I have seen those who will stand throughout and even drink while standing.
They believe, incorrectly, that standing is the correct observance. Looking into the codes, it is clear that drinking when at the Shabbat table is to be done in a sitting position.
If the family tradition turns out to be incorrect, one should turn to a competent, respected Rabbinic authority to decide what should be done to rectify the situation. There are even errant minhagim which have been termed by some authorities, minhagei she-toot (foolish customs).
In my own family, one exceptional relative termed himself a “Jewish orphan.” Not being raised “religiously,” in adulthood he strove to catch up and become “religious.” Not knowing where to turn, he started adopting someone else’s minhagim, not knowing the family traditions. This is understandable, until one has the opportunity to return to his or her own place of origin—your own family roots.
As you can see, the subject is far from simple. My advice is to follow family custom, preserving it as the precious heritage that it is.
Adolescent rebellion is a normal part of growing up. All of us as adults can remember fond—and perhaps not so fond—memories of issues that we have experienced in our early youth. That being said, whatever response a parent crafts must be expressed in a loving and positive manner. Authoritarian power will more likely create greater resentment and only serve to create more family disharmony and dysfunction. Adolescence is the time when our children attempt to define their identity. The words of Kahil Gibran are especially appropriate:
·Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself. They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts. For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodiesbut not their souls . . .
When a young person looks at the parent, s/he may ask themselves, “Am I my own person? Or am I just a mini-Me of my parent?” If the adolescent is to develop his or her own identity, it behooves parents to allow their children (to some degree) to have some space to make that discovery. If anything, verbally acknowledging your child’s uniqueness can take the sting out of Oedipal or Electra Complexes from developing.
The last thing any parent wants is for the child to consciously overthrow the parent’s authority —which will psychologically happen if the parent chooses to rule the home like a dictator rather than as a wise counselor. Wise parenting demands that parents be attuned to the child’s unspoken desire to be accepted and respected by one’s peers and family.
On a practical note, I would suggest that if it is a matter of adhering to a higher degree of kashrut, then parents need to ask: Is my daughter’s request for glatt kosher meat affordable? Or, would it make the observance of kashrut more of a financial hardship? In these tough times, the daughter needs to be sensitive to the fact that stricter observances of kashrut often comes with a heftier price tag. If the adolescent wishes to contribute a little bit toward purchasing a higher grade of kosher meat, the young adolescent might rethink her position. It’s always easier to be super strict if someone else is footing the bill.
If my adolescent son/daughter wanted to keep a stricter standard of kashrut, I would definitely wamt to know why my child is feeling this way? Are the teachers at the Day School or Yeshiva speaking critically about those kosher-observing families observing what they consider to be an “inferior standard, or not?” If someone from the yeshiva is attempting to persuade my child to keep a higher degree of kashrut or modesty, I would be upset at the yeshiva for attempting to seize parental authority away from the parents!
As a parent, if your family is invited to a friend or family’s home where their kashrut observance is less than your present family is, then I suggest that your daughter observe the level of kashrut of the host, so as to not embarrass or humiliate the host family. Shaming someone is a much more serious sin because failing to observe kashrut is considered to be only a sin affecting one’s relationship with God alone. Shaming anyone is a sin that weakens our relationship with God and people alike. If your daughter wishes to be extra religious, it is imperative that her interpersonal behavior be as exemplary, otherwise she is not being religiously consistent.
With respect to the tzniut issue, I think it’s important to dialogue with your daughter about the importance of being modest. Obviously, some women wear stylish pants, others insist on wearing as much clothing as possible. Some women in Jerusalem, known as the “Jewish Taliban,” look indistinguishable from the Taliban women in Afghanistan. The local Haredi rabbis have taken the position that this degree of modesty is excessive even for them!
Parents should engage the adolescent and ask her, “What do you think is the real meaning of tsniut? Obviously modesty is more of an interior attitude; it should not be about showing the world how pious one is.
Lastly, with adults, the problems become more nuanced. If the parents are not observant at all, it is important for the parents to try to accommodate the child and be support the child’s desire by maintaining separate dishes, foods, and so on. Actually, my parents did that for me when I was becoming observant in my early teens. If the child is an adult, it is important for the child to act respectfully—and give simple instructions how to cook kosher for whenever s/he visits. There is always one principle that remains unchanging: one’s ways should always be conducted in the manner of “Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace” (Prov 3:17).
·Recognize the virtues of wise parenting vis-à-vis authoritarian styles of parenting
·Encourage the adolescent to explore her own freedom within the confines of Jewish tradition.
·Examine the practical and economic changes a family would have to undergo and ask yourselves, “Is it still worth it?”
·Try to understand the person(s) or institution that is pushing her in this austere Halachic direction.
·Never embarrass anyone for keeping a “lower standard” of kashrut.
·With respect to modesty; focus on the question: “What does it really mean to be ‘modest?”
·Adults ought to show respect and kindness before asking a non-observant parent to undertake any religious behavior upon his/her behalf.
Judaism teaches us that it is incumbent on parents to teach their children. There is a wisdom that comes with age and life experience. The issue is not the level of stringency, but the intelligent level of observance that is learned with experience. The question needs to be raised, what is your rationale for the level of observance that you have chosen, whether machmir or mekil? Children need to learn to think independently, and not merely to follow rules for their own sake.
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