Thursday, June 9, 2011

How We Relate to Non-Religious Jews: A Powerful Message about Raising Our Children

Of late, I've been quite interested in the issue of chilonim (secular Jews) in Jewish law. There's a large amount of literature on the topic, and I've been recently focused on the question of whether today's secular Jews fall into the category of sinners and apostates (who Jewish law frowns upon quite strongly), or "captured children" who are not responsible for their own spiritually erroneous ways. What's the difference? To quote Rambam, it's the difference between life and death.
Regarding those who "throw off the yoke of Torah and mitzvot" Rambam writes,
Minim… and apikorsim… there is a mitzva to kill them; if a person has the power to slay them publicly by the sword, he should do so, and if not, he should plot against them in such a way as to bring about their death. How so? If he saw that one of them had fallen into a well containing a ladder, he should go ahead and remove the ladder, and say to him: I will lower my son from the roof and then return it to you, or the like. (Rambam, Hilkhot Rotze'ach 4:10) (I got this translation from an online shiur on the topic by Rabbi Haim Navon on the Har Etzion website. For a full treatment of the issue, read the shiur here.)
In another section, Rambam expands on this idea, noting the obligation to "get rid" of Jews who overtly reject the Oral Torah and its obligations. But then, Rambam severely limits this law, applying it only to a very specific group:

This applies only to one who repudiates the Oral Law as a result of his reasoned opinion and conclusion, who walks lightmindedly in the stubbornness of his heart, denying first the Oral Law, as did Tzadok and Boethus and all who went astray. But their children and grandchildren, who, misguided by their parents, were raised among the Karaites and trained in their views, are like a child taken captive by them and raised in their religion, whose status is that of an anus, who, although he later learns that he is a Jew, meets Jews, observes them practice their religion, is nevertheless to be regarded as an anus, since he was reared in the erroneous ways of his fathers. Thus it is with those who adhere to the practices of their Karaite parents. Therefore efforts should be made to bring them back in repentance, to draw them near by friendly relations, so that they may return to the strength-giving source, i.e., the Torah, and one should not be hasty to kill them. (Rambam, Hilkhot Mamrim 3:3)
In essence, Rambam categorizes someone who abandons his faith as an apostate only if he came to his conclusions on his own. But, if he was raised not to follow the precepts of Jewish law by his parents, then he bears no responsibility for his lack of faith.
Leaving aside the issue of whether modern-day secular Jews fall into this category (and there's a growing debate on the matter which I'll share in another post), teaching this piece on Shavuot evening brought to me a chilling revelation about child-rearing which we probably know but often fail to consider fully: a child's spiritual fate (and categorization) rests not in her own hands, but instead in the hands of her parents. Even when she reaches adulthood, if she lacked the proper spiritual education as a child she can never be expected to come to faith on her own. She will always, according to Rambam, be an "anus" - coerced by the forces of her times - to abandon Torah-true faith.
It's a chilling thought. Our kids are not only completely dependent upon us for their physical well-being. They rely on us for their spirituality as well. It's not just about intellectual Judaism, because to me, that could and does come far later on in life. Rather, childhood is about allegiance, emotion, connection and attachment. During these formative years, we form the personality that will define us for the rest of our lives. Without that firm basis to rest upon, perhaps as an adult a child will grow to love the spirituality that Judaism has to offer. Perhaps she will appreciate the binding nature of Torah, and wish to live within the framework of Jewish law. But perhaps not. And she will never have the innate sense of allegiance that comes with being raised with the values of Torah and an inherent connection, through her parents, to the generations that came before her. 
And for religious parents, that's a very heavy burden indeed.