Judaism is a religion in which one of the principal values is to honor one’s mother and father, as I’ve tried to explain to my own kids countless times. Yet, the first Jew, Abraham, started his career by rebelling against his own father, Terach, a dealer in idols. According to the Midrash, Terach had to go out and left Abraham in charge of the store. While his dad was gone, Abraham mocked the few prospective buyers who came in, destroyed all the idols but one, and left a hammer sitting in the lap of the largest statue, claiming when his father returned that it had smashed all the others.
Abraham’s sneering contempt for the patrons reminds me of the grouchy Jewish merchants in the New York of my childhood, who seemed to believe that possession of a business license also gave them legal authority to abuse the customers. The movie “Miracle on 34th Street” is pure fantasy, not because it regards Santa Claus as real, but due to the fact it portrays New York stores of the 1940s, inspired by the goodwill Kris Kringle engenders, changing their service standards and finally treating customers with respect. A sleigh with flying reindeer was easier to believe in by comparison.
I consider myself to be someone who upholds traditional Jewish values, yet I also rebelled against my parents as a youth. I did not start college until three years after finishing high school, spending most of that time traveling and pursuing hedonistic thrills, some of which are best left unmentioned. Let’s just say I’m glad Facebook wasn’t around back then.
I had many arguments with my father about the foolishness of my ways, but the pleasures of the flesh have a persuasive ability of their own that is hard to ignore. And since the result of my extended time away from the study/work treadmill of adult life including meeting the future Mrs. Harris while serving as a volunteer on a kibbutz, I don’t have any regrets over my choice.
Respecting the wishes of one’s parents is one of those values that is easy to support in the abstract, but harder to put into practice — like taking a film history course and then trying to sit through an entire silent Charlie Chaplin movie and trying to convince yourself it’s funny because the professor said it was a classic. Jewish history is replete with celebrated figures that challenged authority, such as the Biblical prophets, or, more recently, the Baal Shem Tov, who founded Hassidism after rejecting the standard religious practices of his day. Like making love to advance the cause of virginity, sometimes we need to do what appears to be forbidden in order to achieve a larger goal.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that parental authority, in addition to being a core value of Judaism, is also rather convenient. One of the first things you learn when you have kids is that getting them to listen to you is harder than you thought it would be. So is getting enough sleep, having enough money, or being able to find both the privacy and energy to engage in the act that led to having children in the first place. Persuading the kinderlach to clean up their rooms or help clear the dinner table is a lot easier when you can claim God is on your side.
Molding respectful children implies some level of reciprocity, as well. Our nation’s founding fathers noted that effective government requires the consent of the governed. I have spent most of my career in finance, a “numbers guy.” Yet my own kids have taught me, among other things, to value art, music and dance, cats, vegetarianism, and gay rights. Despite exhausting our family finances, they have enriched me along the way.
Anyway, it’s about time to give my children another lecture about studying hard and making responsible choices. Just like the rebel Abraham, who taught his kids to listen to their father and ignore the example he set. Maybe I can even convince them to load the dishwasher this time.