The Dear Rabbi column offers timely advice based on timeless Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally respectful and meaningful to all varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Please mail your questions to the Jewish Standard or email DearRabbi@
Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
My 20-year-old son, whom we brought up Orthodox, has decided to move to the Upper West Side and lead a secular life. My spouse and I, though disappointed, respect his decision. But my friends insist on offering me consolation for my loss, because my child has gone “Off the Derech.” I feel hurt when that label is used to describe my child. And I do not feel any sense of loss. What should I say to my friends?
Pained in Passaic
To be clear to my readers, “Off the Derech” means “Off the Path.” In recent years it’s been used to describe those who leave the fold of Orthodoxy. It’s likely that of all the words in this label it’s the innocent little word “the” that is most hurtful to you. The implication and intent of OTD classification clearly is that there is one and only one acceptable path through life. In the Torah True town there is one street on which to travel. When you leave that street you are off the road. And without proper direction you are lost.
This categorization of your son may be hurtful to you for two reasons. First, no doubt there’s a value judgment built into that OTD label. One lifestyle is kosher. All others are not only treif, they are path-less. And you don’t want your child to be branded in that way. He has chosen another path.
Second, though you may not realize it, you are hurt by the realization that your community has created a metaphoric label based on a factually incorrect model of the world. Obviously, our open, modern, pluralistic society abounds with a myriad of paths, streets, highways, and byways through life. Most of them are productive, not destructive. To say that only one is valid and viable and worthy is a blunt denial of reality. It hurts you to realize that your community bases its thinking on that kind of skewed worldview. It hurts you to realize that your community believes and says there are only two ways, the way of Torah and the way of those who “sit idle.”
This worldview is expressed most clearly in one of the prayers recited at a siyyum, the celebration of the completion of the study of a book of the Talmud:
“We are thankful before you God, our God and God of our ancestors, that you have made our portion from among those who sit in the house of study and you have not made our portion from among those who sit idle. For we wake early and they wake early. We wake early for words of Torah and they wake early for idle words. We strive and they strive. We strive and receive reward and they strive and do not receive reward. We race and they race. We race toward the afterworld and they race toward destruction, as it says: ‘And you God will bring them down to destruction, men of blood and deceit will not live out half their lives, and I will trust You.’”
Right there in our liturgy is a rigidly provocative dualistic narrative depiction of the world.
Those who offer you consolation imagine that everyone must lament when a child leaves the community. In their view, the child has gone over from a pure Torah-observant life to a crude existence without direction, one that is permeated with sex and violence as portrayed by Hollywood, TV, popular music, and other expressions of modern culture.
They also expect you to grieve because they anticipate that children who leave may no longer share with their families the joys of the holidays, Shabbat, and family-based rituals and life cycle events that are cherished and make life meaningful on many levels. Your friends exhibit a genuine concern for you and your child, and may also worry lest their own children will follow suit and opt to leave the one true path.
But a comprehensive talmudic review of the world must conclude that there are many varied, wonderful, creative, and constructive valid paths through Jewish life and life in general. There are many different organized paths within Judaism: charedi, chasidic, modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist. Some styles may seem more secular, but all are suffused with meaningful elements of faith and observances.
Beyond those official streams, alternative paths offer a Jewish life through affiliation and identification with the Jewish community in other ways — through charity work, JCCs, classes, travel, activism, and political support for various causes. These too are vibrant Jewish paths.
So if you wish, you can tell your friends something like this. Though your son has decided to leave their path, he has found another. It will be his own road, he is on that derech, and it is well-paved. He is not lost. You have prepared him well to contribute to the betterment of humankind, and you are confident that his road will take him in a fine and proper direction.
Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
I come from a classical Reform Jewish background. My sister has become a baal teshuva and now keeps strictly kosher. She won’t eat in my house anymore. How can I deal with this?
Boycotted in Bergenfield
First of all, you need to understand the nature of your sister’s choice.
The Orthodox idea of the baal teshuva is based on the belief that all Jews remain members of the tribe, no matter what lifestyle they live. At any moment a Jew leading a secular lifestyle can have an awakening and decide to repent — do teshuva — and return to the Torah-true way of life.
At one time, social scientists used the term reversion for such a decision. That label and the baal teshuva label both imply that a person has chosen to return to a previous state, practice, or belief.
These are of course metaphoric fictional ways of describing becoming Orthodox as a return. In most cases that’s not what’s going on. The person making the choice was Jewish previously, but never was Orthodox.
The choice to become frum is in fact a bold new choice of life direction, a break with a past path and a selection of a new one. That is the fact, and that is likely how you see it. And it makes you uncomfortable that your sister won’t eat with you now.
She sees it differently. She has awakened and returned. You unfortunately have not, at least not yet.
She has left what she might describe as the emptiness of a secular life, and now lives in the fullness and meaning of a busy Orthodox existence. Her life is now governed by a myriad of detailed practices that may baffle you, including all of the complex laws of a kosher kitchen.
Understand this. Your sister may once have spent her Saturdays in a perfectly proper manner of leisure. Perhaps she went shopping or maybe she had her nails done on Cedar Lane, then listened to NPR’s “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me,” then went in the summer to swim and sit out by the pool.
But now that she has chosen another path, her Saturday is Shabbos. She goes to shul, then to Kiddush, then to the Shabbos meal, and perhaps to a nap or to a class in Chumash study (Bible). And there is no shopping, no nails, no radio, no pool.
She has opted to leave behind her previous routines for a more rigorous and structured cycle of life, governed by religious norms and prohibitions. She found her earlier life lacking and her new life more meaningful and ultimately more consequential.
And with her new way, she has decided that she now may eat only food that is kosher, prepared in utensils that are kosher, and served on dishes that are kosher. If you want her to join you in your home for dinner, you must respect and accommodate her wishes. Ask her how you can do this for her on an ad hoc basis, so that she will feel comfortable eating in your home.
It might mean you have to buy her prepared kosher food and serve it on disposable plates. There are degrees of kashrut, and you need to know her level of expectation.
Perhaps ask her to invite you over to her home so that you can see firsthand what she does to create her kosher cuisine.
If you cannot reach a negotiated mode of having her join you for dinner in your home or hers, and you do want to dine with her, then try taking her out to a nice kosher restaurant. There are many fine convenient local options for kosher dining in Teaneck and the surrounding towns.
As your question and the previous one illustrate, our community is dynamic and diverse. We need to better understand and embrace the movements in and out, and respect all of the options that are out there for living satisfying Jewish lives.
Tzvee Zahavy earned his Ph.D. from Brown University and rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is the author many books, including these Kindle Edition e-books available at Amazon.com: “The Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “Rashi: The Greatest Exegete,” “God’s Favorite Prayers” and “Dear Rabbi” — which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays.