Lessons From “The Rabbi’s Daughter”

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A bunch of people sent this video my way. They all suggested I watch the video and they all felt the video was very powerful. I needed to find 30 minutes to watch it. This morning I had an opportunity to watch it and I must say that I wholeheartedly agree with them.

The video is a student project (read: not very professionally produced) but sometimes simplicity is the most pure form of art. It is a documentary that tells the story of three daughters, maybe three and a half daughters, of prominent religious Zionist rabbis in Israel. I am not familiar with too many religious Zionist rabbis but I have heard of all three of these rabbis.

Each of the daughters is no longer as observant as her family. The film explores that tension in a very real way.

In my opinion, the film is not about rabbis and daughter. Only one of the daughters seems to have been particularly affected by the fact that her father was a prominent rabbi. The other two could have just as easily been daughters of any orthodox family.

I trust you’ll watch the video when you have the time and I am sure you will have your own reactions.

Here are some of my thoughts on the video.

The fathers come off really well. I am sure it was not always so pleasant growing up as a rebellious daughter of a prominent rabbi. Yet they are portrayed at loving, down to earth, and genuinely concerned about their daughters. Especially Rav Aviner.

The daughters all seem really artistic, artsy even. I think this is a very important point. Of all the personality types that might not be compatible with orthodox Judaism, I think the artsy type could be the most difficult. Artsy types, and I know this is a generalization, value and crave independence. Freedom of expression and thought is a large part of what makes people artistic. Conforming to orthodox Judaism is hard for artsy types if they are born into it. A lot of Baalei Teshuva are artsy for the opposite reason. They left their homes and expressed themselves via orthodox Judaism. But I think it is still fair to say that the artistic Baalei Teshuva are non-conformist orthodox Jews. I think that is great. But we need to find more opportunities for artsy types who are born into orthodox Judaism, especially for young women.

Thinking about this from a rabbinic perspective was interesting. First of all, I am the son of a rabbi. My experience actually somewhat mirrored the one daughter (Bigman) whose experience was rabbi-centric. She was “more orthodox” than her peers as a child. I had a similar experience. My father was the principal of a modern orthodox school and we had higher religious standards than almost all of my friends. It was not easy for me either. Going to high school at Ner Israel almost turned that upside down as many of my peers had more religious homes than mine. Perhaps they balanced each other out. But I was able to relate to her struggle very much.

I am also the father of two sons of a rabbi. I know that it can sometimes be challenging for them to be the son of a rabbi. But in this respect, I don’t see their experience mirroring that of the daughters all that much at this point. I am not a super famous rabbi who is called away from his family too often. I feel more like a regular dad who happens to be a rabbi. But the video certainly illustrated the fears that I have in the back of my mind.

I am sure that some people will watch this video and attribute the issues these daughters have to their more open religious Zionist lifestyle. They will blame this philosophy for these rabbis’ daughters leaving orthodox Judaism. This is burying one’s head deep into the sand. Amongst every kind of orthodox Judaism there are people who leave. There are daughters of every single kind of rabbi out there who have left orthodox Judaism. It is not a new phenomena either. It is a part of our heritage and history. I really hope that people don’t come away from this video and see it is a justification for living any other form of Judaism as a protection against this.

The most important thing about this video to me, is that it raises the issue of how to deal with children who are not following our personal choices. It can be extremely challenging for a parent when a child reject their way of life. Sometimes rejection is absolute. The parents are orthodox and the child is secular. Sometimes it is far less absolute. The parents are chasidic or very yeshivish and the child is modern. Or the parents are modern and the children are ultra-orthodox. These can sometimes be very challenging situations as well.

I think that it is very important that the parent / child relationship not depend on religious observance. It is hurtful to parents when children diverge from their parents’ way of life. But that pain cannot be more prominent than the love of a parent for a child and a child for a parent.

Every child needs to feel accepted by their parents. Every child needs to know that they are loved for who they are even if they are doing things which parents do not approve.

In so many of our prayers and remarks around the High Holidays we note that despite our failings God loves us unconditionally. We need to be able to follow the lead of God on this one. If God can do it, we need to at least try.

Not everyone works the same way and not everyone can be exactly the same. We need to find a place in our communities and even in our families for different forms of expression. Sometimes those forms of expression may be in accordance with halacha, and sometimes they might be at odds with halacha. While the orthodox community cannot condone the breaking of halacha, we must understand that it simply does not work for everyone. If we want to have relationships with our friends and family who are not as comfortable in the box, we need to let them know that they can still be loved and accepted despite our religious differences.

Everyone yearns for acceptance. Clearly, in our homes we should not make acceptance dependent on religious practice. But even in our communities we should not make acceptance dependent on religious practice. The Jewish people are a family. We have all types and that’s just fine with us.

  • tesyaa

    I need to find 30 minutes to watch this!

    • MarkSoFla

      Yes you do! It’s worth 30 minutes. Heck, it would be worth a few hours.

  • In my mind the bigger issue is a child’s access to their father. When the father is a prominent Rav the father is preoccupied with communal needs and has less time to devote to the children. Ruth Katz tells her husband when discussing God in the sushi restaurant “I wanted to hear that from him, not from you”, she saying she didn’t have time (or perhaps feel comfortable) to discuss these issues with her father. All three expressed a similar sentiment. When the father is a Rav and the daughter becomes non-observant the separation between them is stark, but this is a problem all fathers in a modern hectic world have. Children will rebel against their parents if they grow up unhappy, and every child will be unhappy if they feel they don’t get the attention they need.

    Thanks for passing along, a very poignant and personal film.

  • Menachem Lipkin

    “I think that it is very important that the parent / child relationship not depend on religious observance.”

    Well said.

  • When you hear of Rabbis Daughter or Preachers Kid labels they always carry the same connotation… this is not specific to Judaism in the least…

    • True. But I don’t think it is even Rabbinic. It applies to all orthodox Jews.

  • RJM

    I enjoyed your take and you inspired me to watch the video! Please let me know what you think of my post on this: http://vesomsechel.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-rabbis-elephant.html

  • vladimir

    Mesmerizing film. It has aesthetic value no lesser, than religious. So much of simple beauty. All Rabbis/fathers love their doughters, and that is a backbone of the mutual respect, regardless wether the daughters exit the faith or not. Confronting fathers, daughters tasting themselves for a hidden power to question absoluts of the ortodox Judaism. But isn’t Tora teaching us to think differently? One of the daughters says: “Nobody ever told me whether God exists over and above society’s need for him”. When children(particulary daughters) at their face question their fathers – they seek to exibit their own uniqness. At the end one of the daughters wonders:”I like to imagine that. after we die and become only our souls. that I’ll meet my Dad and we’ll have only “Daddyness between us” without strain, without embarassement, and with just the most essential feelings between us. I’rather have my father accepted me as I am instead of trying to keep me in a framework, that i don’t waqnt to be in”. Needless to say that this fim is made by a women – Racheli Wasserman. Sons have different way to confront theirb fathers life, faith and power.
    Very beautiful and wise work. Thanks Rabbi Fink for teasing us so masterfully.

  • Azi Grae

    In my travels I’ve met or learned of Rabbi’s children or grandchildren who have decided that Orthodoxy is not the life they want. (there is nothing I hate more than the expression “off the derech” it is so condescending and strips the individual of his or her right to live a life chosen, based on any myriad of reasons.) Most prominently perhaps was a descendant of r Aron kotler, although when I knew him he wasnt completely there yet. The rabbi of my youthhood shul’s daughter was not Orthodox (and the granddaughter of a famouse Orthodox leader) and I recall her husband being in shul and getting an Aliya one shabbos and he could barely get the hebrew words out. Needless to say the Rabbi was terribly embarrassed but I think it is commendable that he didnt disown them but they were apparently still apart of the family.

    • Azi Grae

      Also, famously, Israel Salanter’s son was not Orthodox, he moved to San Francisco and became a trolley conductor. Eliyahu, our alma matter’s namesake had a son who was an artist is the Village. I can email you details if interested at all. Another great american leader had twin granddaughters who arent orthodox.

      its all very fascinating.

    • get2djnow

      Yes, yes, of course grouping people together by the traits they share is dehumanizing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQqq3e03EBQ

  • the film is well done.and I think your comments are on target.On a series note the joke about “i am one of 8- not a bad statistic” made me very sad because no matter how many children you have ( we have 9) each is a precious gem .
    .. on a sillier but real note, when I was in High School and not yet observant, I recall that I didn’t want to date the Conservative Rabbi’s daughter only because I thought it would be weird and disrespectful to kiss the daughter of a Rabbi ( i am not sure if this turned out to be my loss orher loss… ha ha) but Yes.. being the child of a Rabbi or public figure can be daunting.

  • Eliana

    I think it is extremely condescending and inaccurate to say that most people who break from the (Orthodox) Jewish faith are “artsy,” creative types. It’s only one step up from saying that all people who break from Judaism are “unruly, rebellious types.”

    There are plenty of other “kinds” of Jews who could easily make the same decisions as a non-observant “artsy” Jew. A Jew who falls in love with science and suddenly questions the ability of the Torah to explain the basic phenomena of the universe. A Jew who discovers philosophy and finds the existence of God highly unlikely. A Jew who wants to marry a non-jew and questions why the Torah forbids her not to for the (eerie) purpose of “preserving the race.”

    The kids who leave Judaism are the same as the kids that leave Catholicism, Hinduism, Islam, etc. They’re all people who have risen about religious dogma and found an alternative truth. The only difference between non-practicing Jews and other people who abandon their religion is that Judaism encourages curiosity and questioning. It almost seems that HaShem gave his chosen people the very means with which to abandon his commandments by embedding these traits in their collective identity.

    A Non-Practicing “Artsy” Jewish Girl

    • Eliana

      By the way, my brother goes to Ner Yisrael Yeshiva in Baltimore, and I fully “condone” his decision to live his life in accordance with halacha just as he fully “condones” my decision not to.

      • First of all, welcome and thanks for commenting.

        I don’t think I said what you think I said.

        What I said (and what I meant) was that of all the personality types, the most difficult personality to conform to orthodox Judaism (especially for women) is the artsy type. And I stand by that.

        Yes, many other types leave as well. All I meant is that other types will likely have an easier time finding a sense of fulfillment in orthodox Judaism.

        As far as condoning goes. (See: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/condone) I think individuals, families, and friends should be as supportive as possible to those who are no longer observant. However, I don’t think or expect that institutionally orthodox Judaism can fully approve of a non-observant lifestyle.

        Thanks for stopping by. Come around again…

        • Thanks for responding, but I find the above offensive. Basically, it’s the kind of sexism that I’ve seen all over the orthodox community. And of course orthodox Judaism will never fully accept a non-observant lifestyle. That life does not exist within Tanach or the Mishna because all Judaic texts operate under the assumption that Judaism is undoubtedly, unquestionably correct. Therefore, a life outside of the bounds of halacha is automatically disapproved of.

          However, I find it mildly hilarious the way that all modern Judeo-Christian people have been talking their way out of Leviticus, talking their way out of anything that requires a stoning or burning at the stake, and yet cannot accept a life that doesn’t abide by the rules of the Torah. Orthodox Jews don’t even abide by the rules of the Torah! I guess to me, it feels like a black hat calling the kettle black.

          My dad reads your blog and struggles with his observance of Orthodox Judaism. He linked me to this article because he found it interesting. Here’s a man who has sacrificed his life to supporting his chronically ill ex-wife and her two children, splitting his salary with her and for many years serving as her caretaker, and he thinks he bad seats in Olam Habah. How dare the Jewish community think that because they don’t use electricity once a week they are automatically equal or greater than him.

          • Honestly, I think you are reading too much into what I am saying to find things to offended at. Seriously, where is the sexism here? What? And who said anyone feels better, equal, or great than anyone? I’m sorry, but no one is saying these things!