August 28, 2008
People always ask me how to be good Jewish parents, and my first response is that they should ask someone who has already figured it out.
But I am trying. And the truth is, since both we and our kids are always changing, there really is no final answer. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t guiding principles that can help us along the way. There are, and there are also wonderful role models who can inspire us.
What does successful Jewish parenting look like? Is it about turning out kids who are replicas of us, who look and act as we do? Is it about raising kids who agree with us religiously, politically, or about the professions and partners they choose? I think not. But too often, especially in Jewish life, that is what happens.
We reduce parenting to Xeroxing, even though we know that copies can never be as sharp and clear as the originals. And if a process continues in which we keep making copies of copies because there are no new texts, eventually those copies become so weak that they fade to nothing and we have neither copies of the original nor new originals.
Great parenting is not about Xeroxing as much as it is about life coaching, about preparing our kids to make their own images. Does that mean that we don’t value our traditions, be they personal, familial, or Jewish? Of course not. Those traditions are among the most powerful tools we can give our kids to help them make their own way in this world. But we give them, not as an end in and of themselves. We give them as the means to achieving a better life for our kids and as tools to help them make their own unique contribution to the world in which we live.
Great parents are like athletic coaches who teach drills and raise the skill level of their players but know that when it comes to playing the game, the players must take the field for themselves. The rabbis of the Talmud understood this and so did my own mother (though I must confess that my mother probably never heard of the Talmud before she was 50 years old and the last of her four children was pretty much out the door).
She understood what it meant to be a good Jewish mother. She appreciated the rabbinic wisdom that teaches that what parents must really give their kids are the spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and financial tools to create purposeful lives that will be animated by shared values — if not always identical practices — with previous generations.
When I was 12 years old, I decided that I wanted to become Orthodox and asked my mother to buy me two separate sets of dishes and silverware. When she asked me why, she wasn’t kidding. She knew little about kashrut. When I told her it was because I wanted to keep kosher, she told me that she would do no such thing. I was stunned; my parents were pretty serious about being Jewish, but they were not observant in that way.
Instead, she told me that if I would wait until the summer when I was off at camp and she had more free time, she would make the entire house kosher. Now I was really stunned. I asked her why, and she told me it was because in one’s own home, one doesn’t eat off of separate dishes from the rest of the family. She also told me that as she and the rest of my family were going to honor this new requirement of mine, I would need to figure out how to continue eating with them in the variety of nonkosher restaurants in which we regularly ate, which I did and still do to this day when I am fortunate enough to share a meal with my now aging parents.
My mother neither demanded that I eat as she did, nor allowed me to expect her to eat as I chose. Instead, she provided a living lesson in which my way of eating Jewishly could be honored and so could hers. She gave me a skill that celebrated our shared value of Jewishness without requiring identical expressions of this value. That’s great life coaching and that’s great Jewish parenting.
The rabbis describe many parental obligations, from teaching children to swim to teaching them Torah. They never expected that this teaching would result in children who never questioned, never adapted. Judaism wouldn’t be here today if they had. The rabbis presided over some of the most sweeping cultural, communal, intellectual, and spiritual changes that had shaped the Jewish people since Moses ascended Mount Sinai. And yet, with all those changes, they also presided over a people who felt connected to all that had come before. The rabbis set the example for all parents that they needed to pave the way for independence for the future and a sense, if not the appearance, of real connectedness.
This excellent parenting is what my mom passed on to me and what I try every day to give to my own three kids.
Rabbi Bradley Hirschfield is an Orthodox rabbi and commentator on religion, society, and pop culture. He is president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a leadership training institute, think tank, and resource center. This essay was adapted from the Philadelphia Jewish Voice.