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More, Less, Different, Better? Balancing Judaism for kids

How do you balance your Judaism?  Not just for yourself, but for your kids?

How do you justify for your kids what you do, and what you don’t do, without making everyone else look like fools, maniacs or fanatics, and without making yourself look either perfect or lazy?

Amy over at Homeshuling (great blog!) posted her thoughts today on going to visit Orthodox friends (her word, not mine – I never call anyone, least of all myself, Orthodox).  Thought-provoking indeed.  Here’s my response, which is a little long, but hey, it’s not my fault I’m a fast typist.

My experience as a baalas teshuvah is that you NEVER get to the point where you are doing everything.  It's an illusion:  even if you're "completely" frum, there are always people with more chumras (stringencies) and minhagim (customs) and before you know it, you're picking and choosing all over again, because you CAN'T do it all.

We keep Shabbos, but use part of that time read novels and play cards.  My son spent Shabbos last week in the home of a friend who doesn't do those things - they spent a lot of time eating, learning Talmud, singing. 

We keep kosher, but when he goes to school, he has to bring cholov Yisrael dairy products with him because ours aren't kosher "enough."  (it was when he tried to call them "trayfe" that I got mad... not mad enough to slap him, but almost)

So how do I explain to my kids that we don't do as much as some people within this community?  That they're not holier than us, and that, in turn, we're no holier than the people who go to the three or four Reform and Conservative shuls near our home.

It's tough, that balance:  teaching respect for other Jews who even in my opinion don't always deserve it for their actions. 

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when they drive up and park in front of our house and open the door and you can hear the stereo, and see them on their cellphones, and watch them wibbling their Blackberries as they teeter off to shul on their high heels in miniskirts... well, it's hard to tell the kids not to make fun of them.  Not to use quote-fingers when talking about their "shul."  Because they're kind of a parody of themselves.

Ditto when my son's Rosh Yeshiva suggests that he should minimize the time he spends with non-Jews - knowing that 95% of his family, including on the "Jewish" side (my side), including six out of eight of his grandparents, are not Jewish.  These people love him, they are his identity... that, too, in my opinion, is a parody of Orthodox Judaism and it's hard to respect someone who would tell a kid, in essence, to hate himself or distance himself from his own identity.

This rant probably belongs on my own blog, and I may crosspost it there.  Just so you know - this is a tightrope I suspect most of us spend a LOT of time on, not just while raising our kids.  Thanks for sharing part of the wisdom you use with your kids in this situation.

How do you explain to your kids (or, if you don’t have kids, how do you explain to yourself, or how would you explain to others) what other people do Jewishly – without making the “other” seem utterly dumb or just plain wrong?

Postscript:  And, perhaps to address more closely Amy’s question (see comments), how do you explain why you “pick” certain halachos (or minhagim, or chumros) over others?  (Or why they picked you?)


  1. I always value your thoughtful comments over at homeshuling. For me, there is a big difference between making choices within halacha (ie, cholov yisrael, certain shabbat activities) and picking and choosing totally outside of normative halacha, as I admittedly am. I think what I am craving is an alternative set of rules, based on a philosophy/theology that I believe. I want a logic and a structure (and of course a belief system) to work within. I can respect Reform Jews who live consistently with what they believe and commit to - that doesn't really sound like the folks you are describing.

  2. Thanks for stopping by with your thoughts! (I'm honoured...)
    You're right, of course. And I definitely respect - and try to teach respect - for those who take the religion seriously, regardless of denomination. However, those who hold by cholov Yisrael, pas Yisrael etc., do so (at least sometimes, at least some I've met, at least this is the impression I get here) because they believe (to some extent - do you love all the qualifiers? because I don't want to over-generalize!) that it IS normative halacha. "Goyish" milk (cholov stam, or derogatorily, cholov aku"m) may be permissible if you rely on leniencies, but many here hold that cholov Yisrael is required by halacha. Those people might see us as choosing NOT to follow halacha.
    I guess my argument here comes down to the fact that many folks believe that once you're "Orthodox" you get the simplicity of a package deal: a system, a "set of rules," as you say, complete, all laid out. Not so... REALLY not so.

  3. Hi Jennifer, I'm here via homeschuling - glad to have found you! I'm also glad you made good on the promise and put up a post on this. You have no idea how much better your words made me feel. I tend to get exasperated with my own complicated story and feel like I'll never get to a place of peace and integrity. That's what I'd like to give my son, a sense of the integrity of what we do as a family - along with respect for the striving for integrity on the part of others, regardless of what it looks like (or not) externally. But how to get there...?

  4. "I can respect Reform Jews who live... with what they believe"

    Me too.

    "those who hold by cholov Yisrael... do so (at least sometimes, at least some I've met because they believe"

    Not that it makes a huge difference, but the folks I've spoken to DO machmir to stay within a community. I used to be surprised, now jaded, in the infinitesimally small # of O Jews who believe in the tenets of Judaism.

    For more on orthoprax, read blogs (and comments) by dovbear, modern orthoprax, etc, etc.

  5. Avrum: OTOH, at their best, that's what baalei teshuvah (and children!) are for, maybe; to re-instill those who are jaded and "merely orthoprax" (people say this like it's a bad thing) with renewed enthusiasm.

    It becomes a bit trivial to say they don't believe in "THE" tenets of Judaism when those tenets have traditionally had a lot of wiggle room and been hard to pin down.

    This ain't Christianity, where you can just recite a creed and done. Not to offend any Christians reading this (the odds are slim, but just in case), but most will agree that BELIEF is the essence of Christianity - hanging one's sins and fate on the ultimate sacrifice of JC on the cross - while observance has always been more significant in Judaism.

    Gotta stop here. The word "orthoprax" got me started typing more than would fit in the little teeny box here so look for a new post one of these hours... ;-)

    Meanwhile, I do stand by my original fragmented thought which was that some believe that CHOLOV YISRAEL is mandatory by halacha and that cholov stam/akum is more or less literally forbidden.


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