May 18, 2009
Like many other religions rooted in nationhood, Judaism is not simply a treasure trove of ritual holidays and life cycle events. Judaism is a way of life. Our sacred texts inform our way of being in the world, not only our gestalt (world view) but also our daily conduct. The relationship between parent and child is no exception.
The Talmud, our largest compendium of case law, instructs (Kiddushin 29a):
What are a parent’s obligations regarding a child?
They must bring them into the faith community, teach them values and appropriate conduct, lead them to learn a trade and start families of their own. And there are those who say parents are also required to teach their children to swim in the river.
It is not all that difficult for us to accept this set of parenting guidelines. It is indeed the role of parents in our society to prepare our kids to be self-reliant and accountable for their choices in life. The challenges arise when our children present their own developmentally appropriate obstacles to our parenting…
Some Torah (first five books of the Hebrew Bible) commentators suggest that the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden illustrates human development from childhood into adulthood. At first we are happy that the garden (our home of origin) provides what we seem to need when we need it. When we’re hungry, there’s something in the pantry. When we’re tired, there’s a bed or a cushion to ease our rest. Despite having what we need, moments arise in which we want more or we want something different. And so, Eve tastes from the forbidden fruit of the tree in the centre of the Garden of Eden. Challenging authority is part of our process of development into fully functioning capable adults. Breaking free from the spoon that feeds is essential, albeit often disruptive and even painful.
The Talmud tells a story about one particular sage’s challenging teen son (Kiddushin 32a):
Rav Hunah considered tearing up his son’s favourite silk shirt in that son’s presence saying: “He does not honour his father and mother, therefore I will go and see if he flies into a temper or not.” The other sages counsel him: “But perhaps you will cause him to fly into a temper. If he does, you will have violated the precept – You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind.”
While we are responsible for our children’s welfare and self-sufficiency in adulthood, we are also warned by Jewish literary tradition not to exploit developmental blindspots. Using force because we can justify it in our role as the ones in charge is simply not acceptable. Provoking our children in a way that teaches abuse of power is akin to placing a stumbling block before the blind.
Part of growing up is learning how to manage anger and rage. Anger and rage help us differentiate from our caregivers and make strides out on our own. At the same time, when we are children we don’t know how to cope with the power of that anger and rage. Parents have the responsibility of “teaching their children how to swim in the river.” Swimming in the river of life requires skill, self-control, and instinctual knowing of when to fight and when to redirect our activities. Everything we do matters because our kids are watching, listening, and learning.
As our children transition into adolescence and adulthood we celebrate a ceremony in which grandparents and parents pass a Torah scroll down through the generations to the child who is ready to accept it. It is important for us to remember each time we engage in that “passing down” that our children learn from our conduct moreso than our words that are not reflected in the manner we behave. The real Torah, or legacy, we hand our children is the example of how we are with them in the daily to and fro of life.
Johanna Hershenson is the Rabbi at the Wellington Progressive Jewish Congregation – Temple Sinai.