Monday, May 12, 2014

It's Not Too Late- A Letter to a Chassidic Mother

I didn't want to discuss my feelings about Mother's Day yesterday. Talking of how my my mom died on that day, just didn't seem right. I felt as I'd be adding a sad note to a day, that for many people has a lot of meaning and joy. So, I was silent. I “liked” a whole bunch of posts and pictures, and enjoyed my friend's happiness, even as I felt a twinge of jealousy. I also read several articles and a post by my friend Malky, which got me thinking. While Frimet Goldberger, a former Satmar chossid wrote of a partial reconciliation with her mother, Malky, who comes from the same community wrote of the poor relationship with her mother which has never healed. Finally, I read Ruth Margalit's moving article, about being “unmothered” on Mother's Day. Moved by the ideas shared by these three insightful women, I share the following letter, written to a fictitious mother whose child has chosen a different course for her own life. (Although it is addressed to a mother, it expresses an idea that just as easily could apply to a father as well).

Dear Mrs. Schwartz,

I hope you'll forgive me, a total stranger, for writing to you. Although we come from very different worlds, I believe that my thoughts might be helpful to you.

I remember the first time I came home from yeshiva having learned about what the Pesach seder was supposed to be. I eagerly awaited the night of the seder, when my family would join in a long discussion and analysis (forgive me, I was a bit of a Litvak) about the Exodus from Egypt. I prepared various divrei Torah and topics of discussion which would involve my whole family. I'm sure you can imagine my disappointment when, after my second devar Torah, my father A”H, who never received a yeshiva education, made it clear that he was hungry, and not in the mood for any more long discussions. This was not a one time event. Each year, including in all the years after I married and had children of my own, the seder was heavy on food, but light on discussion, at least as far as sippur yetziyas Mitzraim. After my father passed away, I had the opportunity to conduct sedarim of my own. They had everything that I had ever wanted, discussion, analysis, singing and meaning. Well, everything except for my father. Despite the fact that I greatly enjoy my sedarim, I would give anything for one more rushed seder with my father.

I have only an outsider's understanding of your community, but I believe that in many ways, people are people. Chazal say that a father is never jealous of his son. This is generally understood to be a positive statement, but I think there is something a little dark hiding behind these words. At least in some cases, the reason a parent is not jealous of her child is because parents sometimes live vicariously through their children. Both their children's successes, as well as their children's failures, are seen by the parent as their own. We all invest so much in our children; time, money and hope, and we want the best for them. Often, the best we want, is what's best for us, assuming that what we want must be right for our children. It is indeed a comforting feeling to see one's children live a life similar to our own. What of the child who takes a different path? How can we not feel a twinge of disappointment when our son or daughter picks a different path?

HaShem has given us all bechira chofshis, free-will. Inherent in that gift, is the opportunity to live in the way he asks of us, or to reject it. Even then, even when it is objectively what He, as the creator knows is best for us, he still loves us. Af al pi sh'chat'u, banai heim, regardless of our choices, we remain God's children. How much more so should we, as mere humans, make this same choice? Is this not another instance where we are commanded to follow in God's ways?

In no way do I make light of your pain. I'm sure that it must be hard to see so many of your neighbors have children who all live according to the ways of your community. Perhaps you wonder whether some of your friends blame you for how your children turned out. I ask of you, for your child's sake, for your grandchildren's sake, and for your own sake as well, to not hurt them or yourself. As much as we don't like to think about it, none of us live forever. There will come a time when it is too late for hugs, apologies, acceptance and all that comes with being a mother and grandmother. Take advantage of the opportunity for reconciliation. You have so much to gain, and nothing to lose.



  1. Dear Mr. Sommer,

    Yes bechira chofshis, free-will, allows a child to take "a different path." That different path might include following the customs of a different,yet equally valid, Jewish community. But when that different path includes Chillul Shabbos and worse, it is a path that is unacceptable and something that no parent can condone.

    Free-will does not constitute a free-for-all.

    As you write the opportunity for reconciliation always remains open. That opportunity should and must be utilized by she who abandoned the ways of Hashem. Indeed, "there will come a time when it is too late for hugs, apologies, acceptance." That time is when one is recalled to our father and judged according to His laws. Then it is too late to repent.

    1. David,

      It saddens me that you see things as going in one direction. A person's choice is between them and God and a parent's love should be unconditional.

    2. Love and acceptance are two very different things. Free will is not a license to choose any path.

      Pesach, would you equally apply your above letter of admonition to Mrs. Schwartz to a parent of a child who converted to Christianity?

    3. Actually, it is a license to do just that.

      Yes, I would.

    4. How do you account for the halachas, as brought in sh"ut, for a parent to sit shiva for a child that shmads? (And many state even if the child intermarries without shmadding.)

    5. Different era, where it was the exception, not the rule.

    6. So in a previous era the "free will" path of the intermarried or shmadded child was attacked with the parent sitting shiva?

    7. If you study the Shutim from the 19th century, you do, in fact, discover a new attitude towards all sorts of halachic violations. There was a recognition that the motivation behind it had changed. Even if you do not, halacha has room for nuance and complexity.

    8. Rabbeinu Gershom sat shiva for his child who converted to Christianity - forced against his will - in the *11th century*.

      Halacha throughout history, from talmudical times through the codification of S"A, grants beis din the right to beat someone into submission until he complies with his halachic obligation.

      Violation of free will?

    9. You are ignoring what I said. Halacha has certain requirements. That does not change the fact there is bechira. Again, if you are willing to learn, take a look at German shutim from the 19th century.

    10. You ignored my previous comment. 1) Force is permitted to compel halachic observance 2) When "free will" results in shmadding/intermarriage the person is cut off from the community and treated as dead.

      Of course there is bechira. Someone can use bechira to murder people. That doesn't preclude severe consequences for their use of free will in various manners.

    11. Do you see any poskim who advocate force today? As I have repeatedly pointed out, there is reason to treat it differently. Look how the Rambam related to those who had converted to Islam.