The Soul of Parenting: Religious Development in the Middle Years – What’s the Hardest Mitzvah?

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 A community rabbi once mentioned to me that when he speaks to bar mitzvah boys before their big day, he asks them “What do you think is a difficult mitzvah?” Many of the boys answer “fasting,” and indeed many of us can recall the sheer terror at the thought that “this year, I’m not going to be able to cheat but am going to have to fast the whole Yom Kippur!” Scary stuff. But less understandable is that as many as two-thirds of the boys identify another “difficult” mitzvah, namely, kashrut! The answer is pretty surprising to me in light of the fact that these are kids from Teaneck, where there are close to 20 kosher restaurants, half a dozen kosher grocery and butcher stores, and hundreds if not thousands of kosher products in your local supermarkets and Costco. What exactly is so difficult about keeping kosher?! If my grandmother heard this, she’d be laughing hysterically… and crying.

One reason that kids might mention this particular mitzvah may not be so profound. Maybe they are just responding to the rabbi’s question as an intellectual challenge — students are often taught that one of the categories of commandments is those which are known as chukim, laws for which there are no rationale but that we do simply because we are commanded to do them. One of the prime examples is kashrut — hence, in their minds, it qualifies as being a difficult or challenging mitzvah.

On the other hand, maybe there is something else going on here for some kids. Maybe at this age, at this stage of religious development, some have begun to feel the tug of alternatives to the way that they were brought up. It has been suggested that one of the rationales for kashrut is that it keeps us separate from the rest of society, that eating is such a basic human function that it is one of the best vehicles to use as a way to make sure that we don’t assimilate into the culture around us. Maybe kashrut is perceived as being so difficult because as they reach this new stage of intellectual, emotional and religious development, they are drawn in by the thought of a cheeseburger or other delicacy that they see advertised on T.V. or in the local McDonalds. It’s not even the allure of the food itself, as much as it is the allure of the forbidden fruit. (Interestingly, recall that the sin of the Garden of Eden was all about food – such a Jewish story.) For the first time, you begin to question in ways that you could not before, something that you cannot have. Indeed, precisely because there is no rationale for the mitzvah, it makes a great target for someone thinking of pushing back.

I recall a parent who once contacted me concerned because her bar mitzvah aged son had just declared to her something to the effect of “Mom, I can hardly wait to move out of this house when I graduate high school so that I can finally eat a cheeseburger.” How should one respond?

The first answer is, don’t panic. If I’m right, then for many kids this is a normal stage of religious development. Note the ambivalence — why does the boy make himself wait for five years when he finally moves out of the house to eat the forbidden fruit? Why not, God forbid, eat it now? The answer is that he still feels very connected to home and even to the prohibition. He’s just testing the waters. Which is not to say that his challenge should not be dismissed as a “kid” thing. Just because it may be normal does not mean that it should be ignored. It’s a “fruitful” opportunity to have a discussion about kashrut, about your own commitment, about the beauty of a life of observance. This is where the art of parenting takes over, for how you answer will very much depend upon your child’s disposition and religious sensitivities…and your own. If you feel thrown by the question, let it sit for a while, formulate your thoughts and your approach, and then go back to your child and say “I’ve been thinking about what you said and…” At the very least the child will understand that you’ve taken his challenge seriously, as one should. If you think you need help, speak to your rabbi or your child’s teacher. Very often all kids at this stage want is some reassurance, some personal rationale for why it all makes sense to you and why it could make sense to him. Don’t expect immediate agreement when you are done. They too will need to let it sit and percolate.

In short, I suppose I am advocating to recognize not only the reality that kids develop religiously, but that we must help them through those developmental stages no less than we do in their intellectual and emotional development. Doing so is not always easy, but who said parenting was? A year or two after the rabbi in Teaneck interviewed those boys, I saw them when they were applying to high school. One of the questions I frequently asked was, “What do you think is a difficult mitzvah?” The answer that I think I got most often: kibbud av v’em- respecting your parents. The developmental process continues.

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Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz has been a day school educator and administrator for more than thirty five years who currently teaches full time at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School. He is Educational Director of the Legacy 613 Foundation, runs tefillah education workshops for teachers and has served as an adjunct at Azrieli Graduate School. He is author of the Koren Ani Tefilla Siddur series, winner of the 2014 National Jewish Book Award

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.