Question & Answer With Rabbi Tanchum Burton - Our Parents & Other Parents
A Simple Jew asks:
At early stages in their journeys, Baalei Teshuva and Gerim may wish that they were born to frum parents, yet with time and perspective they often realize why Hashem did not allow this to occur. As someone who was born into a non-observant family, at what point in your life did you finally gain the appreciation for your parents and were glad you were not born to any other people?
Rabbi Tanchum Burton answers:
I was once reading a book written by a well-respected rabbi, wherein the author was extolling the virtues of mesorah, received tradition, which he regarded as a protective blanket against the erosion of religious Jewish culture. He spoke of the elaborate family rituals and practices that he, a scion of a multi-generational Chassidic dynasty, observed, and of the heirloom silverware which virtually told the story of his ancestors. I found myself yearning for such a connection to the past, one which would link me to my lost ancestors and imbue me with a refreshed Jewish identity, replete with my own time-honored rituals and practices. By the end of this stream of consciousness, I was ready for Prozac. It took me some time until I recognized how ridiculous it was for me to get depressed over a bunch of monogrammed spoons.
If you think about it, there are roughly 13 million Jews in the world. A small minority of them are genuinely Torah observant and bearers of an authentic, mimetic Jewish culture. The vast majority of us have been separated from our respective minhagim by several generations, and in many cases, it would be difficult if not impossible to recover the contours and textures that minhag gives to Jewish life. I truly regard this as a sad reality. I think it is much better to have heard a Zaidy make kiddush and seen his kiddush cup, than to have to listen to nusach tapes and consult books telling you how many fluid ounces have to be in the cup. Tradition is, no matter how much of a reframer or deconstructionist you want to be, an empirically important element in the handing-down of Judaism. There is no Judaism without Torah she'ba'al peh.
People respond to this vacuum of tradition in interesting ways. On the one hand, there are those who completely reject the aesthetic of their ancestral heritage, such as Ashkenazi Jews who either feel that the various Ashkenazi accents are outdated since the advent of the Jewish State, or that they are, simply, revolting. On the other hand, you have people who layer borrowed minhagim upon themselves in a desperate attempt to become reinvented and authentic -- a total contradiction. Consider a Sephardic Jew, for example, who is likely the recipient of a glorious and ancient heritage, who feels the need to wear a shtreimel, something that has nothing to do with the authenticity of his Jewishness.
I think that, underlying all of this is the basic tendency to believe that I am deficient, unacceptable and flawed as I am. We all have self-esteem problems to some degree. The irony is that Judaism is supposed to be the great equalizer, giving us all a share in a redeemed life, and yet it too can be used as a tool for making ourselves feel bad -- if we focus on the wrong things. The fact is that, although being Jewish is not simply a checklist of behaviors as Reb Dovid Sears points out, the Shulchan Aruch--which is for all intents and purposes a checklist of behaviors -- is a set of standing orders that, if we observe them, we will succeed in being Jewish according to the opinions of Chazal and the Rishonim, which is good enough for all of us, even without the spoons.
After I had been through my umpteenth existential crisis of Jewish identity, I realized that I may always have the perspective of an outsider. You can't become "frum from birth", and annihilating all elements of who I am that stem from throughout my life is a prescription for depression and self-hatred. Hardly a "best-odds" for handing down Judaism to MY children! And, incidentally, my parents and grandparents, despite their place on the Jewish continuum, taught me about honesty, fairness, kindness, and respect -- which are not easy to come by in this world. We have principle called derech eretz kadma le'Torah. Rav Chaim Vital, in Shaarei Kedushah, states that mitzvos observed with out derech eretz as a context are as if performed by monkeys--and monkeys get no credit for doing mitzvos. You have to be a person. A mentch. That was my family's contribution to me. I can't say that I always manifest these holy qualities to the best of my ability, but they give me a higher-quality context for my mitzvos.
By the way, I actually am in possession of monogrammed silverware. It's just that I had to kasher it.