Editor’s Note: We are grateful for the wonderful writer sharing this very personal two-part series and are sure that, especially as children prepare to return to Hebrew school, many of our readers will relate to and appreciate her experience. Read Part One here.
One day last year, my son was at religious school, and he was asked by a teacher to stand for prayers. He said no. His teacher said, “It is a sign of respect, please stand.” And my son said, “I know my first amendment rights. I know I have freedom of religion. I don’t believe in G-d, and I’m not going to stand.”
All the teachers, religious school directors, and rabbis at the religious school know my child. They all know that going head to head with him is not going to work, and I didn’t hear any more about it. He does not always represent himself in a productive manner, but in this case, he used his words and his knowledge to stand up for himself without anger and without trampling on anyone else’s beliefs, and truthfully, there’s a big part of me that admires that quality in him.
Well, the same event repeated itself this summer at his Jewish day camp. Unfortunately, the incident occurred on my son’s very last day at camp, and it took one of his counselors by surprise, because up until that point, he’d either been standing, or not standing and no one had noticed. Maybe he was cranky after his overnight, but this was the day he chose to make his stand about not standing, and the counselor pushed him on it. She did so out of a feeling that he should show respect to the community. He didn’t back down, and neither did she, and this time it led to a scene.
After I heard about the incident, I reached out to the camp director, and we have had good, open communication about it. Important questions were raised for both of us about balancing the needs of the community and the needs of the individual. The parsha of Pinchas holds for me some insights into those questions.
The parsha begins with Pinchas slaying an Israeli prince and a Midianite woman because they openly flaunt their romantic relationship, in violation of G-d’s ban of Israelis fraternizing with Midianites. Because of this fraternization, many Israelites have begun worshiping idols. Pinchas zealously carries out this execution, and G-d rewards him by making him and his descendants priests. Would we be the Jewish people if we tolerated idol worship? Of course not. Why did it have to end this violently? On that, I’m confounded, but clearly the torah wants us to know that as a community, there are some norms we must not violate.
The parsha later discusses land allotments to those who did not participate in the idol worship and who will be settling in Israel. In this section, the daughters of Zelophehad speak up. Their father, who remained among the loyal, died without any sons, and his daughters are all unmarried. They say, “let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son. Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” It was unprecedented that women should speak up for themselves in such a manner, and Moses consults with G-d. Not only are the daughters granted land, but the law is amended so that this will become precedent for the future. The sisters break with convention. They see a circumstance that they believe is unjust, and they speak up for themselves.
I studied this parsha and reflected upon the standing for prayer incident I describe above. Is standing for certain prayers so much a part of our identity as conservative Jews that we must insist upon it? Isn’t it righteous to teach our children that they must respect our customs? If they must respect our customs, must they respect every single one of them? If not all of them, which ones? If you have a headstrong child and fight many battles every day, and many in particular have to do with Judaism, can we budge when it comes to standing for prayers?
Or, is my child like the daughters of Zelophehad, speaking up for something he believes in, and are we like Moses, asking G-d whether this should be our new norm?
My husband and I, as parents, are trying really hard to raise mensches. Sometimes it’s not easy to know if we should push a traditional agenda, or be open to our kids’ arguments’ about special exemptions. As the open-minded camp director said to me, “Maybe when we say, ‘stand if you are able,’ we need to think not just about physical infirmity, but things like kids’ special emotional needs or their spiritual viewpoint.”
I lean on the side of flexibility. I need to because my son’s demands are so intense. And despite the fact that I am striving for a deeper level of learning for my kids than what I received, I do love the flexibility and willingness to modernize that I grew up with.
The name Israel means ‘he wrestled.’ We are all wrestling with something, and we can never really know what each family is dealing with. I never feel judged in my synagogue community. Folks just seem happy to see our curly headed boys in shul, despite whatever shtick we show up with. And for that, I am truly grateful, and I wish the same for you and your family, whatever your struggles.