Unconditional Love: An Exchange
by Rabbi Shneur Aisenstark
[Editor’s Note: Rabbi Shneur Aisenstark, an extremely well-regarded veteran educator in Montreal penned an article in last week’s Mishpacha Magazine that created some confusion among readers. “Unconditional Love Has Its Limits” seemed to be both a contradiction in terms (by making unconditional love very much conditional) as well as quite dangerous in the estimation of professionals who have dealt for many years with off-the-derech (OTD) children.
One day, people will begin writing not only about OTD children, but the related phenomenon of the great number of those children (at least anecdotally) who return to Torah observance. If there is one factor that is important in producing the BOTD (back on the derech) child, it is the unconditional love of his or her family. Professionals warn not to scrimp or be sparing on the love shown to the errant child. Love needs to be unconditional; it is not synonymous with acceptance, which may allow for setting expectations and limits.
Rabbi Yakov Horowitz is no stranger to these pages. Also a veteran mechanech, he heads up Agudah’s Project YES. His creativity in curricular areas is famous – but he is perhaps most famous for his boundless courage on behalf of victims of abuse, and his campaign against covers-up and punishing the victim. I was one of several people who spoke with him after reading the article, and he swung into action, clarifying Rabbi Aisenstark’s intent, and removing a michshol from the rabim.
What follows is a brief exchange between Rabbis Aisentark and Horowitz.
Dear Reb Yakov:
Thanks for calling to discuss my column and as always it was a pleasure discussing chinuch matters with you. Along the lines of our conversation, here is some background regarding why the column was written, and what message it was intended to send, and feel free to send it to your readers.
The article was written in response to several situations brought to my attention where parents were quite literally living in abusive circumstances, when a rebellious child made life miserable for the rest of the family. The parents expressed their acceptance of these conditions because they were told to love their children unconditionally. I strongly feel that in situations like these, red lines need to set by parents, so that their lives become manageable and their home can continue to function.
The crux of my article was not to discuss the matter of parents dealing with children who abandoned Yiddishkeit due to abuse/molestation, or those whose experience in our school system was painful due to learning disabilities or emotional challenges, because they cannot control their situation. Therefore they should be loved and supported unconditionally.
The article was also not addressing children who are slipping in their observance level or even not observant at all, who are respectful of their family’s values and not undermining the authority of their parents. They, too, should be afforded every consideration to have them live at home in the embrace of their parents and siblings provided that they show some level of openness to religion (for example being open to discussing religion with a frum person of their choosing as a sign of respect for the family — as opposed to categorically refusing to engage in any talks of this nature.)
What I wanted to convey is that children who are spinning out of control, and who refuse any form of intervention, must understand that there are gedorim, red flags and lines which cannot be crossed while still using the home as a base once they have gone off the derech. There is no unconditional love in these circumstances. When a child does not want any help from therapists, psychologists, social workers, family members, rabbonim, he/she cannot expect that his/her parents will love him as before. Such a child must know and feel that the door is always open as long as he/she opens a pesach shel machat. Even though he/she has lost unconditional love, love is still there for one who wants to try somewhat.
Thanks for reaching out to me for clarification and best wishes for hatzlacha in your avodas hakodesh
Having the greatest respect for Rabbi Aisenstark’s extraordinary accomplishments in chinuch over many decades, we feel compelled to share two points with our readers due to the importance of this matter:
1) Having dealt firsthand with similar situations for over sixteen years, it is our very strong recommendation to parents that their message to their OTD child and his/her siblings be one of unconditional love with no exceptions. Love does not mean acceptance. It means that the place our children hold in our hearts is not diminished regardless of how much they disappoint or even hurt us.
2) The story related of the rebbi who asked Reb Chaim Kanievsky, shlit”a about Yosef and his brothers, in the context of this discussion, conveys a dangerous message, that today’s kids are disrespectful, and implies that this is the primary cause for kids abandoning Yiddishkeit — when there are many diverse factors for this phenomenon (click here On The Derech for more on this.)
The reason that we do not pasken (determine) halacha (Jewish law) from aggadah (stories related in gemara) is because by their very nature, anecdotes are subject to wide interpretations.
And if in fact the implication of that story is correct, how does one explain the staggeringly high OTD rate on the Lower East Side a few generations ago or earlier during the times of the haskala (enlightenment)?
Most troubling is that some parents may derive a mistaken message from this anecdote, namely that little reflection and/or improvement in their parenting and quality of their home life is required because the blame is squarely placed on the shoulders of “today’s (disrespectful) kids.
We are deeply grateful to Rabbi Aisenstark for graciously opening this discussion, and we feel that this pilpul chaverim (discussions among friends) will help us all realize our deepest wishes that we have endless nachas from our children and grandchildren.
[To read Rabbi Horowitz’s article on demanding that a child leave his home, read here.