The issue of nature versus nurture in religious development was driven home to me when I reread a famous Rashi one day about Rivka’s pregnancy. The Torah simply tells us that she was troubled by some unusual kind of agitation within her that was caused by the fetuses. Citing a midrash, Rashi provides an explanation: whenever Rivka passed a place of idol worship, Esav would start kicking violently in the womb; whenever she passed a bet midrash where there was Torah learning going on, then Yaakov would start kicking like crazy. As a young skeptical child I recall thinking how foolish this scenario was, since fetuses cannot see through the womb. But I later learned that midrash in general is there, among other reasons, to convey ideas in story form. Sometimes the story can be true; sometimes it can be fanciful; the real question is, what is the idea that the midrash wanted to convey?
I wonder if perhaps the answer in this case is that religious sensitivities are something we are born with, and some of us are born with more of it than others. Esav and Yaakov both had it, says the midrash — we all do. After all, we are all born in the image of God. But the midrash seems to say something even more powerful; namely, that our religiosity can manifest itself in different ways. Some of us can be “little rabbis” from the very outset, but others can be like “idolaters.” Some of us have a more intellectual bent to our spirituality while others are more driven by the passions of the heart. Some are spiritual virtuosos while others have only one road to the palace. Some of us are inspired by singing while others can’t wait to get away from it. Shul goes too fast or way too slow. The rabbi’s derashah is a fabulous prelude to Mussaf or a total turnoff to even showing up to shul. Saying a blessing over food is an empty mumbling ritual or one that transforms a single physical act into a spiritually uplifting experience. It all depends on who you are. Some of that can be inborn.
This is not to say, however, that some behaviors, sensitivities and inclinations cannot be learned. But it does mean that one size does not fit all. As parents, some of us (like me) learned more slowly than others that our second child was very different than our first child and therefore required a different style of parenting. Some teachers (like me) learned more slowly than others that different children need different kinds of experiences, classes, shabbatonim and the like to touch their souls. Trite as it may sound, teachers and parents need to remember that every child is different – not only intellectually and socially and in terms of personality, but in terms of religious sensitivities as well.
It sounds easier than it really is sometimes, especially when you want your child to do something specific and you are hit by a brick wall of resistance. Like other aspects of parenting, it has as much to do with art as it has to do with science. The goal is to recognize what Rav Shimshon (ben) Rapahel Hirsch called “the slumbering tendencies” within each child and to bring them to the fore. In a very controversial piece of Biblical commentary, Rav Hirsch maintained that Rivkah and Yitzchak had actually failed in certain ways as parents because they did not recognize the individual differences in their children:
“To try to bring up a Yaakov and an Esav in the same school, make them have the same habits and hobbies, want to teach and educate them in the same way for some studious, sedate, meditative life is the surest way to court disaster.” In other words, they tried to parent Esav like he was a Yaakov. Instead, continues Rav Hirsch, “Had Yitzchak and Rivkah studied Esav’s nature and character early enough, and asked themselves how can even an Esav, how can all the strength and energy, agility and courage that lies slumbering in this child…be trained to become, not a brave heroic hunter but a hero before God, then Yaakov and Esav could have remained twin brothers in spirit and life; quite early in life, Esav’s “sword” and Yaakov’s “spirit” could have worked hand in hand, and who can say what a different aspect the whole history of the ages might have presented.”
It may also mean that there are limits to what one can hope to accomplish. Just because we are a singing family, doesn’t mean that little Chaim is going to enjoy zemirot at the Shabbat table – ever. We may be able to get him to stay at the table, to listen respectfully or tap unobtrusively, but don’t ever expect him to get up on his chair and lead the way. And that says nothing about his religious fervor or potential. Of course, how do you know that Chaim just doesn’t get moved by music versus Chaim is just being lazy or contrary or, well, just being Chaim? You don’t, until you finally get a handle on Chaim’s religious inclinations, and that can take time. Unfortunately, some parents don’t wake up to it until very late and in the meantime they make non-singing (or staying in shul the whole time, or going to mishmar, or…) into a battleground where everyone loses. Like other aspects of parenting, it requires being watchful from the earliest ages, being willing to experiment, to push forward carefully and step back judiciously, to judge each child individually instead of relative to her siblings or one’s own expectations of how one wants one’s child to turn out. And even then, we will make mistakes.
Perhaps, then, one of the first questions of religious or soulful parenting is to ask oneself (and one’s spouse and one’s child’s teacher) not what kind of student is my child, or what kind of athlete is my child, or what kind of mensch is my child, but rather, what kind of soul is my child?
How would you describe your child’s soul? How is it different than the soul of his or her sibling? What moves him? What speaks to her inner core? This is a language that we are generally not comfortable speaking. I would venture to say that most teachers are uncomfortable with it as well, including many Jewish educators for whom one would otherwise think this is their bread and butter. It’s just something that we’re never really trained to speak about. But were we to do so more often, were we to forgive one another the discomfort that comes from asking the question and the initial embarrassment that comes with stumbling for an answer, we could bring the question out more into the open and address it as individuals and as a community. For the answers that we come up with can have lasting impact for our children and, as Rav Hirsch said, for human history as well.
Please share comments, personal anecdotes, or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz has been a day school educator and administrator for more than 35 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.