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April 16, 2014 / 16 Nisan, 5774
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My Life, Your Decisions?


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A friend of mine recently came back from visiting her son and his family in Israel. As a bunch of her friends joined her for coffee and an update – several of them also have children who made aliyah – she shared with us her frustration at not being able to communicate with her school-age grandchildren. Since both her son and daughter-in-law grew up in English speaking countries, our puzzled expressions must have been obvious. “The children only speak and understand Ivrit,” she stated, shaking her head sadly, “and even though I can read and daven lashon kodesh, I’m not fluent in actual Hebrew.”

“Don’t their parents speak English at home?” someone asked.

No, our friend answered, explaining that her son had asked his rav after the birth of their first child whether they should speak English to her. The rav told him that only Hebrew should be spoken until their kids are older and in school. Something about English could be a “foreign” influence and might negatively impact the children’s love for Eretz Yisrael. Once the kids were entrenched in limudei kodesh, it would be OK to introduce English.

But now, with the passing of years, none of the grandchildren were interested in hearing and learning English, she lamented.

We all expressed our sympathy for her frustrating situation and went on to speak about other matters, but I was deeply disturbed by what I had heard. This idealistic couple who had made aliyah had deprived their children of a golden opportunity to effortlessly pick up a second language, simply by speaking to them. And even worse, the language was English, whose mastery is desperately sought by millions of people globally, despite its innate difficulty.

The day would perhaps come when as young adults, they would want to visit relatives or go touring, or attend school or look for work in Canada or the USA (since they are citizens through their parents) and knowledge of English would have been a priceless asset. The window of opportunity was closed since toddlers are especially adept at acquiring language, but not older children.

But what I found especially disturbing was that the decision to refrain from speaking English to their children was not the parents’ decision – but their rav’s. Rather than discuss the pros and cons of teaching their kids English between themselves, or with input from their parents and others who are in a similar situation they asked their rav, and of course, his opinion became the psak.

And this is what I find so disconcerting – what I rightly or wrongly perceive as a growing trend amongst too many people to cede decision-making on personal, not halachic or hashkafic, matters to the Rav.

In the not too distant past, heimishe people would call their rav when there were halachic issues that needed resolving, like what to do about a meat skillet that a cheese omelet was cooked in. At times, the rav also was approached to be a mediator, or an impartial participant in a dispute; or to give an eitzah to help someone make an informed decision on some important issue.

But nowadays, it seems that people are asking the rav to make the decision for them – on matters both big, small and in between.

One could almost conclude that there is a new form of co-dependence, with seemingly intelligent, capable men and women asking to have their lives micro-managed by a rav, and the rav unhesitatingly obliging them.

Getting advice or some clarity about an issue from a learned spiritual leader has been a time honored tradition in our community, but what is happening is that many individuals are abdicating their responsibility to make choices for themselves and their families.

My friends tell me of their 20- and 30-something year old single children, who when a shidduch is redd will run to their rav to ask if they should go out with that particular individual – often leaving the parents out of the loop.

I am not saying that a rav shouldn’t be asked for some input, but what is happening is that he will decide for the person. Why can’t young people, who for most part are mature, educated and bright – and highly decisive at work – formulate their own conclusion?

Whatever happened to taking responsibility for your own life? Why are more and more Yidden afraid to make the hard and even the easy decisions that can impact their day to day lives, and/or their future, preferring instead to “passing the buck” and defer to someone who though very learned, can never quite “walk in their shoes?” And why would a rav want to take on the tremendous responsibility of micro managing someone’s life? Why willingly put yourself in a position that has the potential to undermine someone’s emotional and physical well being, or a family’s shalom bayis or one’s kibbud av v’aim?

In some instances there has been emotional and financial carnage in the wake of some of the decisions made by well meaning, but misguided individuals who do not have the necessary insight to properly evaluate life-styles and social/cultural nuances removed from their experiences. Like a baalat teshuva’s divorced daughter who went out with young man she liked and asked her elderly rav if she should continue going out with him. He told her that she could “do better” and she stopped dating him. Years later, she is still mired in her search to “do better.”

Then there is the young kollel couple who are struggling to make ends meet. The wife was just a few credits from obtaining a professional degree when a rav whose shiurim she had started to attend stated that frum girls did not belong in a secular university and she should try to continue her education in a frum environment. This girl missed her exams and did not complete her degree. Shortly after, she married. Now she is working long hours at a dead-end, low paying job, while strangers raise her children – and her retired parents dip into their savings to help pay the bills.

Over the years, I have dealt with experts in various fields – medical, legal, financial – and while many had the professional degrees and awards covering the walls of their office that shout out that he/she “knows their stuff” – mistakes were still made.

And I/my mother/my father/ my children etc. paid the price for their “I know what’s best for you” decisions.

Rabbanim, like the above named experts, are human beings, and thus vulnerable to flawed thought processes, no matter how sincere and erlich they are. As hard as they may try, they cannot totally avoid injecting personal bias into the decisions they make for those who for reasons of infatuation, insecurity, low-self esteem, fear or because they believe that is the true Torah way, gladly hand over the yoke of personal decision making onto them.

The rav who insisted the Anglo couple not speak English to their kids may have been a seventh generation Israeli who has never set foot out of the county nor sees any reason to in the future. What he may not have taken into consideration is that the couple who approached him have a different reality than he does, one that would make knowledge of English an asset, even a necessity, for their children.

From his perspective, what he told the couple is correct – let nothing foreign disturb the purity of the roots they are putting down in Eretz Yisrael. But the fact is- there is a foreign element in this couple’s make-up that should have been considered and factored into the decision. In terms of halacha, it is very laudable to ask a rav for guidance. And when it comes to personal decisions, one should ask around and get opinions from the people they respect or look up to, but at the end of the day, it’s your life, and only you know everything about yourself, and you should be in the driver’s seat, making decisions. That is what being a grown up is all about. If you don’t trust yourself, then you should make it your priority to do what it takes to find out why.

Your life depends on it.

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One Response to “My Life, Your Decisions?”

  1. Elitzur says:

    Cheryl, it’s called a cult

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They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and that is precisely what almost always happens in situations where a reference knew someone had serious but hidden emotional issues, but did not reveal the information to the person making inquiries.

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Outside is a winter-white wonderland replete with dazzling trees, wires, and sidewalks seemingly wrapped in glittery silver foil. It’s quite lovely to look at, which is about all I can do since I’m stuck indoors. Icicle-laden tree branches are bent and hunch-backed by the frozen heaviness of their popsicle-like burden, and the voices squawking from the battery-operated transistor radio I am listening to are warning people not to go out since walkways and roads are extremely slippery, and there is real danger from falling trees.

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