In a recent article, I wrote that getting one’s child into the habit doing acts of chesed is something that is caught, not taught–a line that resonated with a number of readers. But the power of “caught, not taught” in religious parenting can be even more subtle and deep than just modeling behavior that we expect our kids to notice. This takes the form of something called that some researchers call “spiritual capital” that has enormous yet unseen power. I have written this before, but think it is such a powerful agent in raising religious children that it bears repeating.
“Spiritual capital” can best be explained by drawing upon a concept from sociology called “social capital.” (Coleman, J. (1988). Social capital in the creation of human capital. The American Journal of Sociology. S95-S120.) Everyone knows that in the diamond business, huge deals can be sealed just with a handshake. A handshake reflects the social capital within that community, the unwritten understandings and ties that bind dealers together and allow for informal business dealings to have the force of law.
Another example: a woman who moves from suburban Detroit to Jerusalem allows her eight-year-old to take her six-year-old to school on a city bus unaccompanied by an adult–something she would never have permitted in Detroit. That sense of ease, the understanding that adults look out for other people’s children, is part of the social capital of Jerusalem society. Where did that understanding come from if not from the way that people have acted toward one another in the past? Certain experiences and interactions, based upon a series of shared values, became so ingrained in that society that they ultimately became the accepted but often unstated norm.
One could find social capital in a family as well, for what is a family if not a microcosm of society? Social capital in the family is a product of the relations between children and parents. Indeed, any knowledge or information a parent offers a child will only be accepted if there are strong relationships that have been nurtured and developed over a period of time. We could hear certain “mussar” or admonishment from our parents that no one else could have said to us because of the amount of social capital present in the family. This had everything to do with the love and respect that we had for one another and the rules that governed our interactions. One may not be able to see social capital, but one surely knows when it is missing.
In a similar vein, researchers involved in religious education have taken to speaking of spiritual capital. (King, Pamela E. Mueller, Ross. (2003) Parental influence on adolescent religiousness: Exploring the roles of spiritual modeling and spiritual capital. Marriage and Family: A Christian Journal 6(3), 401-413.) Spiritual capital is the outcome of the religious interactions between parent and child. It is not about role modeling (though that too is important), it is not about how religious the parents themselves are; rather, it is about the spiritual interactions between parent and child that take place over a period of time. In other words, spiritual capital speaks to the extent that parents and children share in a religious experience.
Spiritual capital consists of the unwritten and unstated ties that bind the religious home, that give it its character and power. This is the stuff that memories are made of – the overall religious atmosphere of our home and our childhood, the emotions, smells and songs with which we can be flooded when we recall life growing up. These ties are formed by joint experiences that create an atmosphere of expectation, belief and commitment that are givens within the home. It follows that the more that parents and children share spiritual experiences, the more open the child will be in the future to drawing upon those experiences to enhance his or her own spiritual growth. Sharing in Torah study, singing zemirot, going to shul, speaking about issues of faith or belief or anything Jewish for that matter thus become the essential building blocks for the child’s own spiritual life as an adult.
What is key, according to this model, has far less to do with the religious activity per se than the sharing in the activity itself. The very fact that observant families insist that everyone have a meal together on Shabbat and that no one is permitted to miss it except in the most unusual circumstances leaves a profound imprint on an individual’s spiritual memory and on the spiritual capital upon which he will draw later in life. A parent may object that he or she is ill-equipped to say a devar Torah at the table or to discuss a topic from a Torah point of view. What such a parent fails to realize is that what matters most is not the quality of the dvar Torah but rather that there consistently be divrei Torah at the meal at all. For this says to a child: Torah plays a central role in our family life.
Such capital is obviously not only created at home. It is important that we go to shul together with our children. Obviously, the more qualitative this experience the better, but there may well be gains to be had by simply going together. Those parents who believe that missing shul on Shabbat is no big deal or those who insist that children go to shul ahead of them or even those who prefer that their children go to a junior minyan may be losing a huge amount of spiritual capital. Similarly, it would make sense to try to find or create other religious activities in which parents and children can share. Doing bikkur cholim together, saying brakhot together, going to visit a sofer together, cleaning the car out together before Pesach, building a sukkah together are all activities which when done together as a religious activity, can leave more of an impact than any day school class on any of these commandments.
Jewish tradition has always recognized the significance and the value of spiritual capital. To cite but one example, recall that at the end of the Shmittah year, the Torah commands that everyone – man, woman and child – come to the Bet HaMikdash for the Hakhel ceremony which consists of a public recitation of parts of the Torah (Devarim 31:12). R. Elazar ben Azariah raises the question of why young children below the age of mitzvoth should be required to come, given that they are too young to understand the proceedings. To which he replies: “In order to bring reward to the parents who brought them” (Chagigah 3a). It is said that R. Yehoshua was joyously impressed when he heard this explanation. Yet, if the children are but infants, what reward could there possibly be to the parents for bringing them?! Why bring infants to an adult ceremony? To this we might suggest that even if the child understands nothing of the proceedings, the very fact that he shared in this experience with his parents leaves an impression which ultimately shapes his identity later in life. This was the reward which was promised to the adults; namely, that their children would grow up to be God-fearing Jews because of the spiritual capital that they had established in their families.
R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk in his commentary on the Torah, Meshekh Chokhmah, points out that it is instructive that R. Yehoshuah is the one who was so cheered by this interpretation. For it is none other than R. Yehoshuah about whom it is said that his mother used to take him in his crib to the beit knesset “so that his ears would grow accustomed to hearing the words of Torah” (Yerushalmi Yevamot 8b). In other words, he himself had been a product of spiritual capital invested by his mother.
As we make investments in our children’s education, let us not forget that the success of that education lies not only in the financial capital we set aside but in the spiritual capital that we create in our homes and in our children’s lives on a daily basis.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.