Family faults and feuds

Jewish tradition is rife with details of sibling rivalries, family feuds and enormous disappointments with children and descendants.

November 24, 2005 13:46
4 minute read.

Jewish tradition is rife with details of sibling rivalries, family feuds and enormous disappointments with children and descendants. The Bible itself provides us with sufficient examples of these sad but all too common characteristics of human life. Lot, Yishmael and Eisav are the prime examples of this problem in the lives of our forefathers. The story of Yosef and his conflict with his brothers is the continuing source of all major rifts in the Jewish world, according to the hassidic masters. Shlomo's wisdom was not inherited by his son Rechavam, who needlessly split the kingdom he inherited from his father and grandfather. The litany of the failures of the kings of Judah and Israel forms one of the more depressing narratives in the Bible. Righteous fathers somehow fathered evil children, kings who became idolaters and traitors to the Jewish mission. The children of Moshe, Eli and Shmuel all proved themselves to be disappointments to their great fathers. Perhaps the very greatness of their fathers was one of the causes for the children's failings. It is not easy to be a child of a great leader, of a holy person, of someone who demands perfection from one's self as well as from others. King David's family is redeemed only by Shlomo, and even he is no match for his father in terms of reputation, leadership qualities and the acclaim of Jewish tradition and destiny. Family disappointments are regular fare in the narratives of the Bible. In later generations, we find that this type of depressing pattern repeats itself all too often. The Karaite movement that began in the 8th century was caused by a bitter family feud between Anan, the founder of that movement, and his brother, as to the position of becoming the exilarch for Jewish Babylonia. We all know of "breakaway" groups who leave the established congregation to create their own synagogue and community. This is almost the norm in Jewish life, both yesterday and today. However, Anan took the "breakaway" idea one step further when he lost the contest to his brother, and then declared to the caliph that he and his faith of Karaism was a new and different religion than rabbinic Judaism. Families whose children fail to follow in the footsteps and beliefs of their ancestors are often very sad groups. We find this phenomenon present in our own Israeli society, where there are children from religious families who forsake observance and children from secular families who become observant Jews. It is obvious that the children may choose whatever path in life they wish. However, this in no way diminishes the angst of the parents and the family over these choices. All of the various movements and splits in Jewish life over the past few centuries have caused great pain to many Jewish families, but that is what life is about, and the story of Israel throughout its long history is testimony to this continuing situation. There are many stories - some may even be true - regarding family feuds within the hassidic world, the yeshiva world, the secular Zionist society and various other groupings within the Jewish world. The great Rebbe of Sanz, Rabbi Chaim Halberstam, engaged in a strong disagreement with his son, who later was known as the Shinover rebbe. Rabbi Chaim forbade his son from crossing the threshold of his house. The son nevertheless persisted in visiting his father, but in obedience to his father's wishes, never crossed the threshold of the house, but rather entered and exited through one of the windows of the house. In another example, the son of Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin of Salant became a noted mathematics professor at the University of St. Petersburg in the 19th century, and no longer followed a Jewishly observant way of life. In response to this appointment, some of the leading maskilim - so-called "enlightened" ones - placed a congratulatory advertisement in one of the Hebrew newspapers of the time. It blessed Rabbi Yisrael for the nahat that his son's appointment to the college faculty must have brought to him. Rabbi Yisrael then placed his own advertisement in the next issue of that paper, stating that he had no nahat whatsoever from his son because of the latter's forsaking Jewish life and practice. He further stated that he would be grateful in this world and in the next world to anyone who could help bring his son to return to a life of Jewish tradition and observance. As noted before, the greatest of people are not immune from the pains of having children who refuse, for whatever reason, to follow in their way of life and behavior. Families are a delicate and highly volatile grouping. Therefore, the rabbis of the Talmud declared that after all efforts and education, success in this matter is also a matter of mazal - good fortune. The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator (

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