Ask Richard: Atheist Sons and Their Mothers, Part 2 of 3: The Jewish Apostate

In recognition of upcoming Mother’s Day, this is the second in a trio of letters I received from three young men who come from Muslim, Jewish and Hindu backgrounds respectively.

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Hi Richard,

Writing to you here as someone who grew up strictly orthodox. Not only that, but was born in New York, also went to yeshiva for a full year in Israel. I also went to Yeshiva University where I had a double curriculum and had to learn Judaism from 9-1 pm every day in addition to college.

I was so religious when younger, I memorized the entire Siddur (prayer book) and read the Torah every weekend. My teacher in Israel said I should go into chinuch (become a rabbi). I mastered certain topics like Jewish philosophy and even was fluent in dikduk (laws of Hebrew grammar) learning from one of the top dikduk experts in my community. Now, I just ate a cheeseburger the other day. I’m probably the biggest 180 you’ll find out of anyone you know. I am, by definition, as far “off the derech” as they come.

I don’t wear tefilin anymore, and my mother is so incredibly pained by it. My parents suggest going to a rabbi to “help me” figure out where I really want to be in my life, i.e. Get more religious so you can get married like they did at 22. Why are you ruining your chances on such great girls? They want someone more religious. Girls that are religious have more depth. You want more depth. You need a religious girl.

I don’t believe any of it anymore, have my own apartment in New York City which I pay for with my job working for a prominent private equity firm. When I’m on my own, I barely do anything Jewish anymore. I don’t keep shabbat or kashrut, and haven’t been to synagogue. Although I do want to go.

But when I’m home with my family, somehow I always need to please them. I’ll only use my phone on Saturday behind closed doors, and I have to try and go to synagogue. I’ll sit for a Friday night dinner. But where does this end? I’m 25 years old. At what point do I stop doing this stuff out of respect and really have control over my life? I fight with my mother all the time about this. I ask her to please allow me to go my own way. She counters by asking if I’ll say Kaddish for her when she dies. Please help me find religious freedom in my tumultuous life.

Dear Aaron,

I seldom “analyze” people, which means to guess what their inner feelings and motives are, because it’s just that, a guess, and errors are inevitable. But in some situations a person’s inner feelings and motives are the main thing they need to become clear on, more than sorting out which pragmatic solutions are the best to try. So please forgive me the errors that are inevitable in giving you my impressions of your feelings and motives. Whether I’m right or wrong, the point is to stimulate you to become clear about them, so you can take action and get unstuck.

You asked, “Where does this end? …help me find religious freedom in my tumultuous life.”

It ends exactly where you put your foot down, and not one step before. It ends exactly when you put an end to it, and not one minute before. You already have religious freedom in your tumultuous life; but it’s tumultuous because of two places where you are stuck: I think you are not yet free of your emotional attachment to some aspects of your religion, and you are allowing your mother to manipulate and control you.

You describe your educational and religious accomplishments in detail, and indeed they sound impressive. It shows that you are very intelligent, and it appears that you gain quite a lot of well-deserved self-esteem from those accomplishments. But you don’t believe any of it anymore. The field you studied seems to be no longer meaningful to you personally, or useful to you either for your work or the way you want to live your life. So you look on all that with a mixture of pride and chagrin, a sense of achievement and an equal sense of loss.

When you were still “on the derech,” you worked very hard and you were rewarded with praise and admiration. You were special. Now, you have taken your intelligence and diligence into the world of business and finance, and you have to start all over again to earn praise, admiration and specialness. This would be emotionally difficult for just about anyone, and might give them feelings of frustration, regret, or grief. Your feet are off the derech, but like Lot’s wife, you turn and look back wistfully. The last sentence of your fourth paragraph, “Although I do want to go,” illustrates this confused ambivalence. It’s an uncomfortable place that many people have been, but many have found their way out.

Focus on this idea: Nothing you have studied, learned, and achieved is entirely a waste, no matter how different your career and your lifestyle are now. All of your knowledge and experiences can and do enrich your present work, your relationships, and your intellectual and emotional life. Even the Hebrew you learned; every language is a unique window on the world offering special insights. You have skills, positive attitudes, good habits, and wisdom from your previous life that you are already applying in your present life, and many personal qualities that you developed and strengthened then are your mainstay virtues and assets now. The scene has changed, but they remain. Look for these positive threads running from your past life into your present life, and you’ll see them, and then you’ll start seeing even more. All, all of it enriches you now. Nothing is a waste if you can see its present value.

As you start to become less ambivalent and conflicted about your own life, you’ll begin to be more confident and imperturbable when responding to your mother:

If you’re still fighting with her over all these things, then you’re still accepting her invitations to the fight. You are cooperating and participating in this dance. You can calmly and lovingly decline the invitation:

“Mom, I love you, but I can’t show that by doing everything you want. I have to live my own life. We can keep loving each other just as much anyway, so let’s not fight.”

Keep calmly repeating something like this again and again, and if necessary, quietly and gently leave to stop any further attempts to draw you into a quarrel. If you start to fight, you have instantly lost. When you come back later, start over. Don’t ask her to “allow” you to go your own way; she doesn’t have that power to allow you or forbid you. That is in your hands. Tell her (gently) that the two of you can keep loving each other as you go your own way, and that is what you intend.

Somewhere in all that Judaism and Jewish philosophy you studied I’m sure there is something very wise about keeping your dignity and equanimity. Draw on it and use it.

Her Kaddish remark is an invitation to a guilt trip. Don’t buy the ticket. Either ignore it, or even better gently call her on it:

“Mom, whether you’re alive or dead, I still have to go my own way. When you die I will honor your memory and help the rest of the family to cope. If saying Kaddish is part of that, I will. But that will be for you and them, not for me. I love you. Let’s enjoy that now while we’re both alive.”

Again, repeat something like this as necessary. Paradoxically, the more peacefully you repeat it, the more powerful it will be.

Aaron, again please forgive my very imperfect mind reading. Take what fits, and use it to look at yourself with equal parts clarity and compassion. Discard what doesn’t fit. If some of your family simply cannot accept you as you are, that is a measure of their failing, and it is their loss. Keep your side of the door open, even if they close their side. I think you have all the wisdom and skill you need to find a way to live in peace with your family and still be your own person.


Related posts:
Ask Richard: Religious Blackmail Part 1 of 2: Emotional

Ask Richard: Former Orthodox Jewish Atheist Endures Bigotry and Rejection by His Parents

Ask Richard: Orthodox Jewish Parents Block Young Agnostic from Attending University of Edinburgh

Ask Richard: Atheist Sons and Their Mothers Part 1 of 3: The Muslim Apostate

Ask Richard: Atheist Sons and Their Mothers Part 3 of 3: The Hindu Apostate

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • cipher

    Richard, you handled that very well (and I’m impressed by the ease with which you picked up the lingo!).

    Just by way of explanation – the bit about saying kaddish for her wasn’t necessarily meant to be manipulative. She may actually be concerned about it. Among Orthodox (and even traditionally-leaning liberal) Jews, saying kaddish for a parent is one of the most sacred obligations. The belief is that it ensures the memory of the deceased will be perpetuated (at least for a generation or two). Many nonobservant Jews who’ve thrown away just about everything else will still say kaddish when a parent dies, and once a year thereafter.

    Also, due to the quasi-mystical influence of Hasidism, the ultra-Orthodox believe those prayers are necessary to help the soul’s “ascent” in the afterlife. Even many of the Modern Orthodox (the group from which Aaron most likely comes, given his attendance of Yeshiva University) have internalized this belief as a result of the influence ultra-Orthodoxy has had upon them over the past half-century.

    Which isn’t to say I disagree with your advice, but I just wanted to clarify, in case it comes up again. I’d actually advise someone in that position, who has or wants to have a good relationship with his/her parents, to agree to say kaddish, then to do so when the time comes. You’re supposed to say it for eleven months; he could do it for a few days or weeks instead, as he feels comfortable. I did it for nearly two months after my mother died (for complicated reasons with which I won’t bore you here), and I have a profound antipathy toward the tradition (although I didn’t grow up Orthodox, or even particularly observant).

  • cipher

    I meant also to say that you gave him excellent advice.

  • Richard Wade

    Thank you for the clarification, cipher. Aaron’s mother’s reference to her own death sounded out-of-the-blue to me, so I assumed it was the classic guilt trip like Redd Foxx clutching his heart and saying, “I’m comin’ Elizabeth! It’s the big one!” Her remark might have had an element of that, but now I know it might also have been a legitimate question to ask a son who no longer believes in her religion. The meaning of our utterances depends so much on the context, and letters like this often cannot provide enough details about the context.

  • cipher

    I assumed it was the classic guilt trip like Redd Foxx clutching his heart and saying, “I’m comin’ Elizabeth! It’s the big one!”

    Ha! Yeah.

    Well, as I say, you handled it very well, especially as you aren’t familiar with the tradition. I think you told him all the right things.

  • jenbo

    Can I start seeing you for my therapy sessions, Richard? Your advice is spot-on every single time.

  • chicago dyke

    Aaron: let me tell you i know of what you speak, languages wise. all the Semitic languages (esp those most concerned with religion) are tough. i spent ~10 years learning a mess of them. be proud! not everyone has the patience to do it. also: this means at someplace, somewhere, that needs you, you can get paid to teach it. if you get tired of living by the (perhaps not so honest, feel good-y, somewhat conflicted world of) finance people. but be proud. you’re smart! you’ve proven that.

    Richard isn’t wrong. you’ve got to grow out of the need to please your parents. somehow, with some explanation they will accept. here’s the hint: they won’t, ever. most likely, i should add: maybe your parents are better than mine and when you marry at 47 to a nice Jewish but modern girl who really wants to have children, they might relent.

    but chances are, they won’t, at least at first. every thing you do from here on that isn’t what *they* want will only be a more deeply described, more painful, more blameful incitement of YOU. not them of course, they are faithful and they ‘know’ how right they are. no, your growing independence will only ‘hurt’ them more, and shame them with their failure to ‘raise you right’ despite all that effort and money spend to make you a proper, faithful Orthodox person.

    just let it go. there’s a harsh truth to doing so: they will live, survive, and even prosper, no matter what or how you live your life. you’re young, emotionally even more so, coming from this sort of background. too many of your type (of any faith) struggle with this sort of thing. “but mom, there’s so much more to the world, and i’m good at that too. you even helped me train to be so! i thank you, and love you for that.” and she’ll curse you for saying so. it sucks.

    my bottom line recommendation is to look up “atheist/secular/social/non-beliving Jews.” you are sooooo lucky. unlike Christians, or Muslims, or even Hindus, your culture has a very long, very rich tradition of its greatest minds rejecting the nonsense in all your holiest books. for Jews, this goes back 0000s of years, if you’ve studied your tradition well you’ve heard of some of these folks. you can still be a Jew, and be an atheist, or a wiccan, a homosexual, or just a doubter unconcerned with the role of g-d in the world. and there are dozens of texts you can quote to your family, “in the original…” that will help them understand.

    you’re not betraying or denying anything or anyone. you’re doing what all strong, good Jewish people do at some point. you’re finding your own path. if you want to praise her, praise her for being part of a faith that INCLUDES people who free themselves from the narrowest interpretations of their faith, and who don’t shy from its diverse intellectual history.

    this is where i wish i could be more like you. if i’d been Jewish, and not just the daughter of a black homophobe, well. a lot would be different for me right now. there’s a rabbi or two who will help you, if you need mediation. i know, i’ve met them. she won’t spit in his face when he comes over for Holy Mealtime. she’ll shut up and show respect as he defends you. that counts, a lot. i’ve seen it done, even with Israeli trained Jewish scholars and their families. several times. (this is why Div school training can be helpful every once in a while)

    don’t be afraid. you’ve thrived in two of the toughest intellectual situations this country has to offer. you’ll do better later, and soon. be yourself. no one will strike you down or smite you.

  • MsC

    I think you were wise, Richard, to say that there were two issues in play here: Religion, and the controlling/manipulative behavior of Aaron’s mother. What she is doing is not just a Jewish thing. It can be found in its own way in other religious and non-religious households. Religion is her justification and one of her weapons in her efforts to have Aaron be the way she wants him to be (devout, conforming, married, giving her grandchildren like her friends have, etc.). She may be a travel agent for guilt trips, but Aaron has to find his own way to not go on them.