Soul of Parenting: Born or Taught to be Religious?

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parenting life 0713

I’ve received a number of responses from readers who claimed that kids who text on Shabbos or who stray off the path religiously do so primarily because of a home environment that was somehow lacking. I answered them, as I will repeat many times, that it is certainly true that the home is the most important influence on the religious development of children and adolescents. Nevertheless, we all know “good” families who seem to have done all of the “right” things and yet they do not have children who follow in their religious footsteps. We need therefore to look at some of those other variables, and this week I’ll begin by exploring not the influences from without but those from within.

Are some children born more religious than others? Is religiosity a product of nature or nurture? When I was a novice teacher, my inclination was always to say that it’s something we learn, not something we are born with. After all, isn’t that the purpose of religious education at home and at school? But then I saw hundreds of kids come and go, and I became a parent myself and I began to wonder if that was really true. Some kids just seemed more spiritual than others regardless of their parents and their teachers. On the other hand, if it’s something we are born with, then what does that mean for our role as parents and teachers? What is left for us to teach?

This debate is a very old one in Jewish life that started long before anyone knew anything about DNA. The most common battleground revolves around a verse in Mishlei (Proverbs), written by the paradigm of wisdom, King Solomon – 22:6 – חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר עַל פִּי דַרְכּוֹ גַּם כִּי יַזְקִין לֹא יָסוּר מִמֶּנָּה – “train the child in the way he should go; and even when he is old, he will not depart from it.”  At face value, the verse is about the importance of chinukh (חֲנֹךְ) or training or education. That is the interpretation of the thirteenth-century commentator Rav Jonah Gerondi:

When a seedling is still small, a person can train it so that it will grow into an upright tree, and it will not be crooked. But once it has grown up crooked, it is very difficult to straighten. And so too with children, when they are still small, it is easy to set them on the good path and turn them away from evil. But if they grow up in a bad way, it will be hard to set them straight, as it is written, “train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

In this vision, the child sounds like she is a tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which the parent can shape all values, religious and otherwise.

A totally different view is provided by the Gaon of Vilna (1720-1797):

“It is not possible to shatter a person’s basic nature,” he says. “We are all born with certain characteristics and proclivities and these cannot be changed. Indeed, you might be able to force your child to act a particular way, and he will obey you because at a young age he still fears you, but “when he is old, he will depart from it,” he will depart from the yoke you have put on him and he will leave the world of teaching and values that you forced upon him, “because it is not possible to shatter a person’s basic nature.”

Of course, there is a third option: namely, that the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes. Such a position can be found, I believe, in the following citation from the Talmud (Shabbat 156a). “R. Nachman ben Yitzchak observed that whoever is born under the planetary influence of Mars will ultimately be a murderer.”  In other words, according to him, we are born a particular way with a certain predisposition and there is no escape from our fate or our genes.  But the gemara continues: “R. Ashi said: [such a person will ultimately become] either a surgeon, a thief, a ritual slaughterer, or a circumciser.” In other words, one may be born with certain tendencies, even potentially negative ones, but, presumably or especially in one’s youth, even those tendencies may be channeled in positive directions. A potential murderer can be turned into a shochet, a mohel or a surgeon. (No offense intended to any readers who were born under the planetary influence of Mars and are in these occupations.)

The same may be said for religious tendencies. Who our children are, what are their strengths and weaknesses, is something to be considered not only in the classroom or on the sports field but in the synagogue and at the Shabbat table as well and in Chumash class as well. R. Yisrael Salanter (1810-1833), the founder of the Mussar (Moralist) Movement is reported to have said that given individual differences among children there should ideally be a different yeshiva for every child. Since the community clearly cannot afford this, and since schools cannot by definition split themselves up into so many pieces, it is up to parents to nurture the uniqueness of every child, spiritually as well as other ways. How to do so will be the subject of articles yet to come.

Before thinking about our own children, however, it behooves us to think about ourselves. What were our religious tendencies when we were younger? What was our religious nature? Who was responsible for our religious and spiritual nurturing? How did we get to be the way we are today religiously and spiritually? Was there something unique going on inside of us that was complemented or sabotaged by our environment? I would welcome hearing your stories, for the more we can learn about ourselves and our own development the more we can help to nurture our children’s souls and guide them better on the path to their own fulfillment. For before we can be the best religious parents we can be, we need to get in touch with our own internal life. For that, after all, is much of what the soul of parenting is all about.

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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.