Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Yom Tov: When Family and Religion Clash

Yom Tov [the 'holiday' season] brings family reunions, and along with family reunions can come strife of all kinds, including religious strife. What shul rabbi or yeshiva rebbe hasn't heard these questions:

"My parents' succah isn't really kosher. How can I get them to change it?"

"Our son came home from college for Yom Tov, but he doesn't want to go to shul with us; he'd prefer to lie in bed all morning. What are we supposed to do with him?"

"My family doesn't understand that a Yom Tov meal should be all about Torah. How am I supposed to maintain my intensity around them?"

The problem is complex, of course; it combines personality, stress, insecurity and history with the personal and deep nature of religious conviction, and the resulting clashes can be disastrous.

The best overarching advice I've heard is really just common sense; I wouldn't post it at all, except that sometimes we benefit even from the obvious:

1. Ask: Are you obligated to say anything?
Does the issue affect your own observance, or only theirs?
Do you think the obligation of 'tochachah' [educating others] requires you to speak up? Have you clarified that with a halachic authority?

2. Do your homework
If you are about to ask someone to change his time-honored tradition ("You must stop using horseradish for marror!"), make sure you know what you're talking about.
Prepare the source material, so you can explain the issue well.
And give plenty of notice in advance of the situation.

3. Always tell the truth... although not necessarily all of it
Using mis-direction in explaining yourself ("I don't feel like eating" in a kashrus situation) is a poor strategy, and quite likely to lead to disaster in the long term. Better to speak truthfully.
On the other hand, one doesn't need to say everything that's on his mind ("You will burn in Gehennom for skipping Shalom Aleichem on Friday night after a Yom Tov"); a gentle explanation of the problem, worded in a positive way, can go far.

4. Remember: People are fundamentally good
For the most part, when parents welcome home a child whose religious observance has changed, angst is present on both sides. The less stringent one wants the more stringent one to be comfortable. The more stringent one is nervous about imposing on the less stringent one.
Everyone means well, and no one is trying to make someone else look bad or feel bad – and keeping that in mind, and using it as a basis for approaching situations, can soften disagreements.

Disagree? Or do you have other tips?


  1. I agree with what you are saying, but I'm not really sure it is a Yom Tov problem. Similar situations can arise on Shabbat and even on weekdays, especially if a child becomes more or less religious in his or her teens when living with his or her parents, as often happens.

    Regarding the fourth point, I think sometimes people feel very insecure around a relative who has become significantly more or less religious because it challenges their own religious identity. Also, parents can feel their children are rejecting them personally by changing their level of observance ("Oh, so my kitchen isn't kosher enough any more?!"). Occasionally someone can feel that a more religious relative has been brainwashed or a less religious relative is wicked and going to be punished by G-d. These types of feelings mean that sometimes (not all the time by any means) people don't mean well, or at least what they think of as meaning well is dramatically different to what the other person thinks ("I'm saving you from a cult/Gehennom!") and in extremis, they are indeed looking to make the other person feel bad, to shock them out of their behaviour.

  2. "The more stringent one is nervous about imposing on the less stringent one."

    Um, sometimes ... but many times, the more-stringent one is 100% sure that his way is 100% what G-d wants, and anyone else can go jump in a lake.

    (And if that isn't how the stringent son feels, often it's how his rebbe does.)

    One of the very few chumrahs that I like is the "mehadrin straps" around the lower 10 tefachim of a canvas sukkah. Instead of the yeshiva saying "bochrim, your parents' sukkah is pasul so throw it away", we were told, "bochrim, with five dollars' worth of twine and half an hour of work, you can upgrade the existing sukkah to mehadrin."

  3. Daniel-
    Definitely not limited to Yom Tov; that's just a time for family reunions which can give rise to clashes.

    Re: #4 - Even in the extreme (and common, I think) situation you describe, people begin with positive intentions. They go off when they get frustrated or become defensive. Fundamentally, healthy people want to be positive toward each other.

    But do they want to impose it on others?

  4. What you're describing in part is a subset of the "Flipping Out" phenomenon. Son goes to Yeshiva in Israel and comes back telling the family "they're doing it all wrong!"

    This happens sometimes because of the religious immaturity of the son (ie. Must be the only way because the Rebbe told me), and the Yeshiva not teaching that there are various other valid minhagim (need to teach difference between halacha, chumra and minhag).

    In this case the parents should explain the basis for their particular minhag (Doing your homework, as you say). (BTW I recommend reading the essay "Rupture and Reconstruction" by R. C. Soloveitchik http://www.lookstein.org/links/orthodoxy.htm which discusses the breaks from mimetic Yiddishkeit).

  5. two comments:

    1. People should play the percentages: 90%+ of the time when children speak out against their parents, yatza s'charam b'hefsedam. So people may be better off just having a policy of keeping their mouth shut across the board.

    2. If everyone would try to emulate Avraham Avinu, we'd all be much better off (your relatives are most probably better than Lot, and certainly than Anshei Sdom, and look how Avraham treated them).

    I say this after years of experience with in-laws whose behavior is very far from what I was taught, but I learned to keep my mouth shut no matter what.

  6. Michael-
    All valid points, although I am in the camp that believes Rupture and Reconstruction overplays its hand a bit.

    Anonymous 3:17 PM-
    Well-said on all counts.