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Unconditional Love – Setting the Bar too Low

A couple of weeks ago, there was a controversial article in Mishpacha Magazine* (dated May 22, 2013) by Rabbi Shneur Aisenstark, Principal of Beis Yaakov of Montreal. The subject dealt with the OTD (Off the Derech) phenomenon – specifically in where to draw the line of unconditional love. His point was that a “A rebellious child does not belong in our home.” “A child cannot live in two worlds. One where his family is pulling in one direction and his private life is pulling in another direction”.
He places much of the blame for the OTD phenomenon on the fact that we live in an unprecedented time where technology has enabled our children to explore the exciting outside world of forbidden pleasure heretofore unavailable and mostly unknown to us. That – coupled with an attitude of Chutzpah today’s children have towards their parents and other authority figures (…he quotes Rav Chaim Kanievsky to make this very point)  - is a formula for the Going OTD.
Many educators – including Charedi ones – have cautioned parents whose children go OTD, to not reject them… to indeed give them unconditional love if they are to have any hope of getting them back on track. But Rabbi Aisenstark says that unless a rebellious child at least tries to conform and change his actions, he does not belong in the home.  That seems to be a red line for him.
I’m not sure what he expects a parent to do if a child decides he does not want to change at all and has accepted a secular lifestyle. Does he mean to say that even if he does not disrupt the family harmony in the home by overtly non Halachic behavior, that such a child nonetheless still deserves to be thrown out of the house?
Rabbi Yakov Horowitz questioned him along these lines and asked him for a clarification. Rabbi Aisenstark  responded that he was not really talking about children that are OTD but respectful of their parents. They too should be given unconditional love. He was motivated to write his article by parents who had OTD children that were terrorizing the house; parents that were quite literally living in an abusive situation.
That would be understandable. No parent is required to grant unconditional love to the point of physical or even mental abuse. A child like this cannot remain in a house  under those circumstances. That is a ‘no brainer’ as far as I am concerned.  But even there the door should always be left open. Even in the extremely sad circumstances when one must literally kick a child out of a home for fear of abuse he should always know that the door remains open if he or she at least stops the abuse.
But Rabbi Aisenstark didn’t stop there. From Cross Currents (where his response to Rabbi Yakov Horowitz is published):
…children who are spinning out of control, and who refuse any form of intervention, must understand that there are gedorim, red flags and lines which cannot be crossed while still using the home as a base once they have gone off the derech. There is no unconditional love in these circumstances. When a child does not want any help from therapists, psychologists, social workers, family members, rabbonim, he/she cannot expect that his/her parents will love him as before. Such a child must know and feel that the door is always open as long as he/she opens a pesach shel machat.

This is not the same as living in an abusive situation. This is in fact conditional love. It tells a child that unless he at some minimal level wants to try and go back ‘On the Derech’ the parent will not love them. At least not as much as before.
This is a terrible mistake. Rabbi Horowitz speaks directly to this:
Having dealt firsthand with similar situations for over sixteen years, it is our very strong recommendation to parents that their message to their OTD child and his/her siblings be one of unconditional love with no exceptions. Love does not mean acceptance. It means that the place our children hold in our hearts is not diminished regardless of how much they disappoint or even hurt us.

Rabbi Aisenstark’s attitude can be seen through his quote of a story related to him by Rav Myer Schwab about his illustrious father, Rav Shimon Schwab. When R’ Shimon Shcwab’s children were once acting up at a Pesach Seder, he banged his fist on the table and said that he loved his children very much – but that he loved God even more. Rabbi Aisenstark apparently interprets that as meaning when a child goes OTD and refuses to change, it’s over. You might as well sit Shiva on him. An OTD child must have at least a slight crack in the door of Teshuva… otherwise forget him.
I do not see it this way at all. Just because a child refuses to do Teshuva now doesn’t mean he never will. He may someday… well into the future. Or he may not. But if you tell a child to ‘Get lost!’ if he refuses to to even consider it at that particular point in time… then you’ve lost him forever. I do not see that as the Torah way. You never know when or if a child will come back. There is nothing to be gained by throwing him out of your house.
I know parents that have OTD children.  In one case the parents are about as exemplary as one could imagine.  They are among the best of Charedi Jews who do not condescend at all towards Jews of other Hashkafos – or even irreligious Jews. They have a child that is OTD who seems to have permanently rejected observance. But the love between parent and child is so obvious that it should serve as a model for all of us. These parents know that there is hope. They are certainly hurt that one of their children – so bright and so talented – is so OTD. But that has not stopped them from giving him a loving home for as long as he wishes to live there.
This is the way to be a Jewish parent. This is where one’s mettle is tested. This child may or may not come back. But he will always be respectful of his parents… and even respectful of religious Jews like his parents. And you never know what life will bring. His warm feelings about his parents and the life they lead may someday make a difference.
For the child who has been rejected because of Rabbi Aisenstark’s ‘minimum open door to teshuva’ requirement– the chances of ‘coming back’ are very unlikely.
The question remains – what makes children today go OTD? That has been discussed here many times before – and will most likely be discussed well into the future ad infinitum.  Rabbi Aisenstark is right about modern technology being an unprecedented obstacle. Any child with an I-phone can access anything they want without a parent ever being the wiser. The draw away from Yiddishkeit is more prevalent than ever. Whether the draw is towards a more permissive lifestyle or to a source that challenges our belief system via difficult questions about science etc… they are all there for an innocent child to be influenced by.
New technology is not the only problem. Family dysfunction, divorce, sexual identity issues, bullying by one’s peers, undetected or untreated learning disabilities… competitive educational environments that cater only to the smartest students… all play a part.
I have been very fortunate. God has smiled upon my family. My children turned out to be unbelievably great adults. Although they are all somewhat different from each other Hashkafically, the influence my wife and I had on them is still there. How did we do it? Good question. All I can say is that we had the magic combination of discipline and permissiveness.
If there is any one thing that I could point to for myself it would be the time I spent with them.  But it was also exposure to as many Orthodox Hashkafos as I could. Modern Orthodoxy Religious Zionism, Agudah, Lubavitch, Chasidus, and sending them to a school that was open to all those Hashkafos.
Of course this is quite an over-simplification. Nor is there a guarantee that your child will not go OTD. But, assuming your family situation is not dysfunctional – I do think it helps if you spend a lot of time with your children. And if you have an open mind about Hashkafos, your chances are pretty good that they will remain on track and do pretty well in life.

About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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