Families and Jewish Differences

Bringing us together, tearing us apart.

Print this page Print this page

Jewish Guilt

People may experience feelings of guilt when confronted by family members with higher levels of ritual observance. Having internalized a concept of ideal, (usually) Orthodox observance, some Jews perceive themselves as "less Jewish" than they should be. This guilt--either conscious or subconscious--can produce contradictory behaviors. Some people might respond by deferring to more observant relatives; other people might angrily misconstrue every ritual observance as inherently and implicitly critical of their own choices, even if no criticism is intended. 

Guilt can also be felt by observant family members who "miss out" on family activities because of their religious commitments. They may avoid a beach outing where men and women will be swimming together, and yet feel guilty about missing the family occasion for which the outing was planned.

Ba'alei Teshuvah: Newly Observant

When a loved one becomes religiously observant, families often struggle with the consequences. The process of becoming "ba'al teshuvah" (Hebrew for one who has "returned" to Jewish observance, often used to describe those who become Orthodox) often occurs far from family and may appear to parents, siblings, and friends to be the result of a sudden, irrational decision--even when the change has been gradual and well-reasoned. 

A person usually becomes ba'al teshuvah (or ba'alat teshuvah, as a newly observant woman is called) during late teen or, more often, early adult years, when young people are away from home in college or on a visit to Israel. Older adults may make a similar transition after a life-changing experience (an illness or death of a loved one) or as a result of a search for greater meaning in life.

Whatever the reason, the enthusiasm of ba'alei teshuvah for their new lifestyle may be unsettling to other family members. A desire for family members to have a similarly meaningful experience may or may not lead to open attempts to "convert" relatives to observant practices. Ba'alei teshuvah also are likely to refer to the teachings of a rabbi from whom they accept both moral and ritual guidance. In the earlier periods of a ba'al teshuvah's transition, these references may give family members the impression that he or she is blindly following a spiritual leader.

For some people, discomfort and fear arise from not knowing what changes will occur next to their relative's lifestyle. A ba'al teshuvah should communicate clearly about his or her new practices, without expecting others to adopt them. Family members should feel free to ask the newly religious about these changes.

Honor and Fear Your Mother and Father

An Orthodox child of less-observant parents should review the halakhot of honoring one's parents with a teacher who understands the requirements of observance as well as the desire to maintain warm family relationships. It is forbidden to judge or contradict one's parents; on the other hand, parents are also bound by Judaism and God's laws. There is no one correct approach to balancing these two principles. One should always remember what the Talmud tells us about the holiness of parents: as partners with God in a child's creation, parents require deference similar to that merited by God.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Rachel Miller Solomin is an educator living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was ordained from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) in 2001.