Friday, February 15, 2008

Kramer vs Kramer

Kramer vs Kramer was the 1979 Academy Award winner for Best Picture. It was about a divorce and a child custody battle between the divorcing parents. Divorce and child custody have come up in a New York Times article in a way which has significance to Orthodox Judaism. In fact I believe this is increasingly becoming a problem as more and more secular Jews embrace observant Judaism while at the same time divorces are becoming increasingly more common.

The article tells us of a custody battle between two parents. The issue is religion. The mother has become a ‘Baalas Teshuva’ embracing a very right wing branch of her religion. The father argues that the strict religious upbringing their daughter now receives at her mother’s home, which involved modest dress, teaching her about sin etc. and insisting on limited exposure to popular culture, was damaging her.

The mother’s reaction was “We were easy targets because we were made to look like cultists.”

I can hear these arguments being made in exactly the same way if the parents were Jewish.

The court case in question does not one involve Jews. But it does raise interesting and legitimate questions. Who should get custody in these kinds of situations? Should religion be a factor? Should it be the only factor? If a couple enters a marriage with the same set of values be they secular of religious and one of them changes drastically, is it fair to expect the other to just go along and change?

In divorces should the Baal Teshuva always be in the right? Even if he or she is the one who departed radically from what was a secular beginning? What about the reverse? If a parent becomes unobservant, should he or she ever be given custody? Or should the observant parent always get custody? Should the child have any say in the matter? How old must the child be before we pay attention to their preferences? And how much weight do we give the child about determining their own welfare?

Despite what might be conventional wisdom for religious Jews, I do not necessarily think that the religious parent should always triumph.

Obviously the goal for any Jew should be for the welfare of his fellow Jew. Kol Yisroel Areivm Zeh LaZeh. This means every Jew is ultimately responsible for each other’s welfare - physical as well as spiritual. One cannot only look at which parent is religious and which parent is not. One needs to consider the ultimate consequences of any decision.

In order for a human being to function as a religious Jew he or she must first have a healthy mental state. People who are raised in dysfunctional families fare poorly in that regard. If a child has been raised in a secular home and is suddenly required to adhere to some very strict codes of conduct unlike anything he or she has ever known, it is a prescription for dysfunction and rebellion.

By rebellion I don’t only mean rebelling against religion but rebelling against society. Including adopting the self abusive lifestyle of the drug culture, all manner of illicit and even dangerous sexual activity, and God knows what else. By forcing an unwilling older child to live with a parent who suddenly and radically changes from being completely secular to being very religious it produces a an untenable situation for a child.

Suddenly demanding the modest dress of Orthodoxy, focusing on the very restrictive behavior demanded by Orthodox standards, limiting exposure to popular culture, all of which is perfectly acceptable to the other parent… and there is hardly any chance that a child will succeed in becoming truly observant. This kind of sudden change will certainly be damaging to them. In the end it will be counter-productive.

Children in these circumstances may at first be compliant. But not without a huge amount of resentment. And they will end up hating religion and fighting it at every turn.

In my view, from about age 7 or 8 if a child was raised in a secular home until then and suddenly one parent becomes a Baal Teshuva, unless the child is a willing participant in the new code of behavior, it is probably wiser to leave him or her with the secular parent… as long as there is no general animosity to religious observance by that secular parent.

The counter argument might be that we have to always try and place the child with the religious parent as that is the soul saving activity. The argument might also be that putting that child in an irreligious secular environment will guarantee non-obervance. Whereas in the environment of the religious parent at least there is a chance that he or she will stop rebelling and ‘see the light’.

But I would argue that the opposite is more likely. Forced observance begets rebellion. Compliance by a child under those conditions comes at a price. Any observance will be grudgingly done and probably resented for the rest of their lives. But if a child is granted custody to a loving secular parent… as long as observant Judaism is seen at least as neutral, there is a good chance that that child will retain a good relationship with the religious parent too.

Then at some point in the future there may be an opportunity by the child to see observant Judaism as a realistic option. Children raised in a stable and loving secular environment have a far better chance of becoming observant than children suddenly forced into what they see as a straight jacket lifestyle. Just some thoughts.