On Saturday morning, as I sit on my bed with the fan and air conditioner both blowing on me, fighting to beat back the sweat I built up running on the treadmill, there’s timid knocking at the door. “Come in,” I say. My little philosopher enters. Her head is down, she might have been crying. She sits down on the bed next to me and starts crying, perhaps for the second time. I put my arm around her neck and hold her head close and let the sobs come.
“What is it?” I ask her.
“Why do you have to go on the treadmill and watch the TV on Shabbos? You could go the other six days,” she says between tears.
We have these conversations frequently. I don’t keep Orthodox customs, but my wife and kids do, and the kids also go to an Orthodox day school where they’re taught that following Orthodox practice is the only meaningful lifestyle and the only way into Gan Eden (the biblical Garden of Eden). This arrangement causes interesting tensions.
On the whole, Rikki and I navigate these winding country roads quite well; we’re very open and honest with the kids, they know that tatty isn’t frum (devout) and everything is fine, but every time the topic comes up we have to decide whether to have a serious conversation or to just minimize the issue.
Although my wife and I accept each other’s ways of life and respect each other’s choices, she sometimes finds herself fearing or loathing my secular world while sometimes I feel the same way toward hers. On the whole I am very comfortable with the middle ground we’ve found and the school we send the kids to. The school is a community day school where any kind of Jew is welcome, there are secular families, Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox and Reform kids at our school.
But sometimes I have visions of the ultra-Orthodox world we escaped from, and I worry that my kids will end up there. Just last week, reading Agudath Israel’s statement in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling on same sex marriage, I had one such flashback. And while both Rikki and I have written here about our lifestyle, in an attempt to be open and honest, we were attacked each time. One ultra-Orthodox commenter–a complete stranger–even advised Rikki to get divorced! Such myopia, such frightening desires to control others! I’m determined to expose my children to unfamiliar ideas, to contrarian views, so that they have a healthier outlook on life.
But my little philosopher is still crying.
How do I respond to her? Do I explain to her that between four full days of work this past week and one day spent at her graduation ceremony and the rest of that day spent with her and her siblings at a park, I’ve only been able to exercise once? Do I have to justify myself to her? Do I have to justify myself to anyone?
I remember some advice I once got from a wise man: “do not give temporary excuses for long-term situations because you will have to keep coming up with excuses, put the thing to rest once and for all.”
Can I take this opportunity to make a larger point? Should I? Is she ready for it? She’s only 8 years old!
And yet she’s a philosophical 8-year-old. Just the other day, in middle of a conversation with Rikki about prayer, she asked, “how can Hashem listen to millions of people at the same time?”
Today I will not evade, today I will take one of the lessons her Orthodox teachers taught her and use it to make a different point.
I ask her, “Why don’t you want me to go on the treadmill on Shabbos? Do you want your tatty to be the same as everyone else’s?” My little philosopher will complain that she’s the only one with blond hair; being different makes her uncomfortable.
She says “No, that’s not why.”
“So why not?” I ask.
“Because I want our whole family to keep Shabbos”, she says.
I ask her, “Do you know what it means to be Jewish? Do you remember the story of Avraham Avinu figuring out that God is in heaven and not in the idols that everyone else worships? Do you remember how old he was when he figured that out?”
“Yes, he was 3-years-old and he didn’t care if everyone else thought differently than him.
“Tatty doesn’t keep Shabbos because that’s what he believes, but you and mommy do because that’s what you believe and I allow you to because I believe that when you’re confident in what you’re doing you don’t need everyone around you to agree with you and act the same way you do. Just the same, you allow me to go on the treadmill and you can still hold your head up and be proud of your beliefs like Avraham Avinu when he was 3-years-old. The different ways people act shouldn’t scare you. Now I’m going to take a shower then run to the post office and then we’re going to have the Shabbos meal.”
I give her a kiss on her tear-stained cheek and run to the shower.
Did she understand what I was saying? I don’t know, but I hope she will one day. Was I right for getting philosophical with her? I think so.
I do feel guilty for corrupting the Abraham story, though, and invoking it as a justification for not keeping Shabbos according to her understanding. And yet, this too is in keeping with Jewish tradition; my distortion of it fits in with a long-held tradition of Jews looking to make sense of the world they live in, of trying to improve the world in their own little ways while looking to our ancient tradition to justify our current behaviors and beliefs.
Later, as we all sat around the dining room table and I recited the Kiddush, I smiled at my little philosopher, and she smiled back, and I felt that there was no family more Jewish than mine.