Friday, August 20, 2021

Empathy for Parents with an OTD Child

Gedalia Guttentag (Mishpacha)
One of the most difficult things for a parent to experience is a rebellious child. For a religious Jewish parent that is increasingly coming in the form of a child going OTD.  Thankfully the vast majority of Orthodox Jewish families do not experience that. Although there might be rebellion at some level (especially during the teenage years) it is often mild and short lived – rarely amounting to serious violations of Halacha or dangerous behavior. 

Nevertheless, a child going OTD seems to be happening with increasing frequency these days. When that happens the pain and anguish a parent faces is often unbearable.

Unfortunately in far to many cases, that change is permanent. There is little anyone can do about it. The best advice to  parents facing such a situation is to assure the child that he or she is still loved and accepted by the family. And not God forbid thrown out into the street. That used to be a more typical way of handling it. But we now know that is the worst thing a parent can do to a child. That may end up with that child going down the rabbit hole of despair to the point of serious clinical depression, substance abuse, and even suicide!

If on the other hand a parent goes down the path of love and acceptance - that child will be far less likely to go down that rabbit hole. And may even return to observance. I believe that this is currently accepted approach to kids that go OTD. 

None of this is news. But I bring it up in light of a disturbing article in Mishpacha Magazine by Gedalia Guttentag – published a couple of weeks ago. 

I dont know him personally, but I believe that Gedalia is probably a good man who is involved in outreach and outreach training  I’m sure his intent was not malicious. But his article was nevertheless hurtful to parents that are going through this. That was indicated by a letter to the editor in a subsequent edition of the magazine. 

What was hurtful was his assertion that although some children go OTD because of trauma (such as sexual or physical abuse) - often (or even mostly) they go OTD because they simply do not want to be observant anymore and freely choose a lifestyle of Halachicly forbidden behavior.

I don’t know where Gedalia gets his information from. But the desire to imbibe in ‘forbidden’ culture is not what experts in the field who work with these kids point to as a reason a child goes OTD. I believe that in the vast majority of cases it is because of some form of trauma that they have experienced. which is exacerbated by the negative communal response to their trauma. And thereby disillusioned with the observant Judaism that characterizes that community. 

Another thing that is  increasingly becoming a factor in going OTD is the literal explosion of information available on demand to anyone. When a bright child is exposed to intellectual challenges about their belief system - it perplex them. When they do not find satisfying answers to those challenges -  they find answers that they see as more satisfying but are considered heretical. Thus going OTD. Irretrievably so in most cases Although I still believe that trauma is the primary cause of going OTD, intellectual choice is increasingly becoming a factor too.

Point being that going OTD simply because of not wanting to be religious anymore is rare. I believe that if a child lives in a loving family environment, has no learning disabilities, does well in school, has good friends (that do not have any underlying troubling issues themselves) and therefore leads a more or less happy life, they are not really interested in going OTD and becoming a pariah in their community. 

That being said, Gedalia is of course right.  We all have free choice. Bechira Chofshis is an integral part of our belief system. If we didn’t then sin would not be a matter of free choice and we would be exempt of any guilt for sinful activity. It’s true that going OTD is a choice too. But one cannot ignore the circumstances that brought it about. Which in my view mitigates their guilt in the eyes of God. How could it not?!

Same thing - intellectual choice. There may not have been any trauma  But it was a choice not motivated by a desire to no longer be religious. It was instead by sincerely seeking truth and believing they found it in heretical answers. 

There is famous story about R’ Chaim Soloveichik. He was once asked what the response should be to someone that became an Apikores (heretic) for intellectual reasons... and not because of a desire to simply no longer be observant. The thought behind that question was that since that Apikores was simply seeking truth and mistakenly believed he found it  that perhaps we should have a different attitide about him. R’ Chaim said, ‘Nebech!’ ‘It‘s true that his intent was not to simply rebel.’ ‘Nonetheless Nebech an Apikores is still an Apikores’. 

A lot of people like to interpret that as rejectionist. But they forget the ‘Nebech’ part of his answer. Which to me shows a tremendous amount of empathy. R’ Chaim’s point it that… Yes! He is an Apikores in every sense of the word. But we must nevertheless have empathy for him too. This is what seems to be missing from Gedalia’s article.

The idea of telling a parent that their child had a choice and simply chose the wrong path because he just didn’t want to be Frum anymore is probably one of the most hurtful and counterproductive things one can say to a parent whose child went OTD. As was demonstrated by the pained response to Gedalia by a parent who has an OTD child. It was a mistake for Gedalia to say that.