Wednesday, April 13, 2022

From the Wicked son to the Clueless Father

This is a stream-of-consciousness line-by-line response to a “letter” that appeared here and has been floating around the frum/ex-frum internet for the last day or two.

The letter is in italics.

Credit for the post title goes to someone on facebook (whose name I’m not including because it was in the private OTD group.)


An Open Letter to the Wicked Son

Dear Son,


Your mother and I are so glad that you’ll be with us for Seder again. I know that you don’t believe the same as we do and I know you don’t typically observe the way that we do, but every year you come home for Seder. I want you to know that Mommy and I notice that, and so do your brothers, and we’re all very grateful. We know that it takes a lot for you to be here, and that this whole service isn’t really your thing, but here you are every year and we appreciate it so much.


I don’t know if I ever told you this, son, but your voice is really a critical one at the Seder. Without you, our Pesach night would be incomplete! I can’t even imagine if your voice were missing from our conversation. I know that your questions sometimes come off a little sharp, but If I’m going to be honest, sometimes my responses are a little sharp too. But you manage to see the love I have for you, even within my critical retorts. And you deserve no less. I know that beneath your biting comments is love. (And if it’s not yet a love for Hashem or Torah or Jewish practice, it is at least love for your family.)


1.       Yet? Because of course eventually we’ll see the that frumkeit is the truth after all? This is in the same vein (and probably lifted from) the kiruv shtick of calling the 90% of Jews who aren’t Orthodox “not yet frum.” As though that’s inevitable. Or as if that’s the value of people who aren’t frum: that they might become frum. Worst of all, it’s a way of humanizing non-Orthodox people. They’re not like “us” – yet. They’re not frei, that’s not their identity, they’re “not yet frum.” With just a little work, they can be just like “us.” The corollary is that if someone is not like “us,” and isn’t potentially going to become like us, then they’re not really a person. (Sorry for the tangent.)

2.       “At least?!" Because love for your family isn’t really important compared to love for Hashem? I’m going to give the author the benefit of the doubt, and assume that this is an artifact of awkward wording. That he meant to say something like, “It would make me happy if you loved Hashem and the Torah and, and it makes me happy that [at least] you love our family.” But I can’t be sure that’s what he meant, and the article says what it says.


In the past you have come to Seder always ready to jump on the same question, “What is this work for you?” You know, in different years your questions have echoed different accusations. Sometimes I assumed that you meant that you found no meaning in our most cherished and holy traditions because you called it all just “work.”

This is wonderfully pedantic.

I don’t think even the frummest person would argue that Pesach isn’t work. They might enjoy the work, they might find profound meaning in it, but cleaning and cooking are still work.

Sometimes, I figured that you meant that you didn’t feel yourself part of our faith community at all because you said, “for you,” and that means you were excluding yourself from your heritage.

There is something to this. In the mishnah, the rasha says “you” and the chacham says “we,” though their questions are otherwise similar. The implication is that the rasha is a rasha because he’s othering the rest of the Jewish people, and removing himself from the group. The response, though excessively violent, is to tell him, essentially, “You don’t want to be part of us? Fine. Had you been there during yetzias Mitzrayim, and separated yourself from our ancestors, from the group that left Mitzrayim, you wouldn’t have been part of the group that left Mitzrayim.” This is a tautology.

In the Hagadah, though, the chacham and rasha both say “you,” so focusing on it here in the context of the arbeh banim of the Hagadah is less meaningful.


I’ve spent a lot of years and a lot of discussions with my rabbinic colleagues trying to understand what your problem is.


Why assume there’s a problem? Because everyone who  leaves frumkeit is broken? That’s the frum narrative, but it’s not true. Lots of people leave because it’s not for them: they don’t find it meaningful, or it doesn’t work for them, or they conclude that the costs are not worth the benefits, or that the underlying structure of frumkeit isn’t true. I suppose one could read “problem” here as “reason you left,” as in, “my problem with frumkeit is that its tenets are not true.” But I don’t think that’s what it means here. The implication, and the wider context of frum beliefs about those who go OTD, makes it more likely it means “trying to understand what’s wrong with you that caused you to leave what is obviously the most true and best way to live.”


But it’s possible I never took a chance to ask you directly. What do you mean? What’s bothering you?


Why is treating his child like a person an epiphany? Talking to his son about what’s “bothering” him should have been the first step, not the last.  


The reason that I ask is because I realize now that none of my responses seem to have hit the mark.


 Or, you know, you could have been a good parent to begin with and had a conversation with your son about his feelings and beliefs instead of lecturing the kid with responses meant to “hit the mark” and convince him.


I admit that in the first years, I was really worried what impression your question would leave on your brothers. (Especially little Tom.) I was worried that your skepticism would infect them too.


“Infect,” like it’s a disease.

In my first ever post, I wrote about how when I was in high school, the principal told me to stop asking questions in class because he was worried the other boys would be bothered by my questions, and why should they be bothered by questions they would never think of themselves? The implication is that questions are bad. Better to have emunah peshutah, to suppress any curiosity about the underpinnings of the frum system. Just shut up and do as you’re told.

I was in high school in the late ‘90s. Twenty-five years, and nothing’s changed.


That’s why I felt the need to take the teeth out of your argument. I realize that I never really addressed your issues.


Because the system is more important than the person – or more precisely, keeping other people from questioning the system is more important than any pain you might cause a curious teenager.


Rather, I sidestepped them because I wanted to make sure that everyone else realized that the Jewish People as a Faith Community or as a Family or as an Existential Reality were all taken out and saved from Egypt, but that doesn’t mean that each of Jacob’s descendants were. Redemption meant connection to our Peoplehood, and those disconnected weren’t saved. And son, to be honest, I worry about that now too. Perhaps only Jewish people who feel connected to the rest of Jewish people in brotherhood will be saved on that Great and Awesome Day. That’s not the whole reason, or even the main reason, I’m glad you’ve stayed connected all these years. But it is a reason!


Huh? “Saved?” “Great and Awesome Day?” What are we, Evangelicals waiting for the Rapture? I know the frum community has been identifying more and more with Evangelicals in the last couple of years, but describing what I assume is the yemai hamoshiach in such blatantly Christian terms is odd.


Son, what’s really bothering you? I want to know.


Have you never listened before? Or is the “really” meant to imply that his son’s questions aren’t real questions, they’re teirutzim – and he wants to know the underlying reason for the questions. In other words, does he want to discuss theology and sociology, or does he want to know which of the usual culprits is “really” at the bottom of the questions: abuse, mental illness, or unbridled taivos?


I’m not asking because I want you to believe what I believe or practice the way the way that I do. (I wouldn’t mind obviously, but that’s not the reason.) I just want to know you better and I want to know what’s on your mind. If you feel comfortable talking about it with everyone, we certainly can discuss it at the Seder.


Because it’s been so many years that you have been asking the same question, and because I have so long worried that your question demonstrated a lack of faith, I feel like I have something I need to tell you. I would never talk about this with your brothers.


Didn’t you just say we could talk about it at the seder? And didn’t you say earlier “I want you to know that Mommy and I notice that [you come to the Seder], and so do your brothers, and we’re all very grateful.” Maybe expecting internal coherence in an article like this is too much. I get that this is a print version of a vort. But it would be nice.


I feel like they wouldn’t understand (but maybe for opposite reasons.) I also struggle with faith from time to time. I don’t know if that comes as a surprise or not. I know that I’m The Dad and I’m supposed to be the one with all the answers, but that’s not the way life is. Not really. Sometimes I have questions too.


Great! Let’s talk about those questions – and not take for granted that your beliefs are correct no matter how many questions one might have.

Unfortunately, given the following lines, when he says “questions,” I think he means things more along the lines of “Why would Hashem allow bad things to happen to good people like our friends,” and not, “how can we believe in a tri-omni God when such a Being is logically impossible given the evil we see in the world,” and certainly not, “how should we understand the story of yetzias Mitzrayim given all the evidence that it didn’t happen?”


Look, you’re our son. You grew up in this house and you’re not an idiot, so you knew when things were rough, when money was super tight. You knew when terrible tragedy struck our friends. You were always the most sensitive soul in our care, and maybe you were affected the most by those hard times.


Ah, there’s the “real” “problem!” You poor sensitive thing, you were traumatized by bad things that happened during your childhood. You don’t really have questions, you’re just overly emotional!


When you’re in the middle of all of that it’s not easy to say, “it’s all for the good,” and even if you can say it, it’s hard to feel it, really. In those moments, I didn’t understand what the Creator wanted from us.


See, I was right. These are safe, within-the-system questions: “How is this terrible thing I’m experiencing really be for the good?” and  “What does Hashem want of us?” Not about-the-system questions. I wonder if the writer gets that there’s a difference, and that his son has likely moved past questions that assume the system is true, and are just asking for clarification to questions about how the system itself is incoherent.


It felt like the sun would never shine on us again. Like we would never be able to take a full breath of air without the weight of stress and sadness making it hard to inhale. In those moments I felt really disconnected. I worry that maybe my actions at those times have impacted your thinking today. Maybe we’ll never really know that.


Again, blaming his son going OTD on trauma. Even including a mea culpa – maybe I inadvertently did or said something during a tough period that hurt you. Which is noble and all, but still missing the point. It really is possible for your son to really, truly and reasonably disagree with you. It’s possible that your wrong. It’s not true that people who go OTD are all broken. Which makes the mea culpa less noble. It’s less taking responsibility for a mistake than it is a defense against the possibility that his belief system is mistaken.


Son, it’s so clear from your question that you don’t find joy in our traditions. I agree with your essential observation – if something feels like a giant burden, why bother doing it? I agree! There are plenty of things at work that I “just have to do” and I hate them and push them off to the last minute. They bring me no joy and no job satisfaction. I just do them because I have a boss and I like being employed. If you were experiencing joy and satisfaction in mitzvot then you never would have asked that question.


That’s not necessarily true. I genuinely enjoy a lot of Jewish traditions. I enjoy the seder. And I love learning the real reasons why we do things – which are rarely “because God commanded it,” as the chacham’s question assumes. It’s usually more prosaic, pragmatic, and interesting than a belief that God ordered it ex nihilo from the sky.

A lot of the stuff we do is objectively weird (and not just the Jewish stuff). Asking why in the world we do it is a natural question, and the answer often involves an exploration of our history.


You’re an adult so this is really your responsibility now, but like any parent, I wonder if we could have or should have done something different. Was our Shabbos table fun enough? Did Shabbos feel like something we do or did it feel like a list of things we don’t do? Was school a good fit? Did it feel like a place you enjoyed being with people who understood you? We can’t go back, obviously, but I want you to know we tried our best. We always loved you. We still do. Our greatest nachas is having all four of our boys at the Seder.


Probably in a few years, son, you’ll be married and raising a family of your own. Your mom and I talk about this a lot. I don’t think this is the time or place to have the whole conversation, but let me just say, I hope that you and your special someone and your family will always feel welcome at our Seder. But realize you have a role in that too.


And that role is…?

I don’t know what the author intended, but too often, the answer is that the OTD person should “compromise” by behaving as the frum person thinks he should, while the frum person “compromises” by not kvetching too much when the OTD person does something the frum person thinks he shouldn’t.


Son, I want to end how I began. Mommy and I are so grateful that you will be at Seder. I just want to make sure you know that you are welcome home all the time. Come sit in our succah! Come for Shabbos dinner. (You always loved Mommy’s challah!) Come for a barbecue on Sunday. Whenever you want to come, we want to have you.


Love always,



Dear Reader,

I want to make it clear that this is not about any of MY sons. Yes, I have 4 sons. But none of them are the Wicked Son of the Haggadah. My Chief Advisor and Most Trusted Editor thought I should clarify that. Because, the internet.

Chag Kasher V’Sameach.



Ah. I understand. You wouldn’t want us to think that chas v’shalom one of your kids is an awful OTDer. Which kind of undermines the whole accepting tone you were going for.

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