Sins of the Fathers.

Via on Jan 16, 2012
Haredim confront secular Jews in Beit Shemesh

 “…the wrong that rouses our angry passions finds only a medium in us; it passes through us like a vibration, and we inflict what we have suffered.” –George Eliot

I try, I really do. I always make an effort to be civil online. I’ve even been accused in these very pages of setting myself up as the Right Speech Police for refusing to indulge in snark and rancor in comments. Of course I fall short occasionally, but I always try.

Then I read this in my Facebook feed:

In Best Buy and there’s a HORRIBLE child! Mother keeps saying “Shush! No you can’t have it.” All the while he’s screaming, crying and carrying on “I want this!”. He has to be about 6. If it was my kid, a good spanking on the butt with a “There! Now you have a reason to cry!”

I was appalled at the number of people whose comments expressed regret that a good old-fashioned spanking is now considered abuse by a politically correct world. I knew how the prophet felt when he wrote, “there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” (Jeremiah 20:9) I simply had to weigh in on this.

http://xkcd.com/386/

Now, I started off slowly, by responding (relatively) positively to the few dissenting comments that were posted.

Well said, Dxxxx. Everyone–teachers, other parents, (etc.)–tell me how well-behaved my children are, and we have *never* hit them, nor would we ever. Hitting a child is barbaric.

Amen to that, Fxxxx. I remember many a beating from childhood, but not a single “lesson” I supposedly “learned” from them. Hitting a child is for people with no self-control who have run out of ideas.

It was at about this time that the originator of the thread admonished me to “be respectful of others.”

Fuck that.

I call them like I see them, including calling bullshit when i hear it. Hitting children is barbaric, period. If that makes me “disrespectful,” so be it.

Which is pretty harsh, for me.

I have now walked around for several days with a ball of fury roiling in my stomach as I obsess over this thread. And what it tells me is that, as much as I have avoided it–as many times as I have talked myself out of it–I simply must write what follows.  

You may have heard of the Haredim–the ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jewish sect that has been clashing with police over what they see as the forced secularization of their close-knit religious neighborhoods. The town of Beit Shemesh in particular has been in the news lately. On January 4, a 19-year-old woman soldier was harassed–called a “slut” and a “shiksa”–for refusing to move to the back of the bus with the other women. (Though not legally binding, many people observe this mehadrin custom on bus lines that pass through Haredi neighborhoods.)

The tensions came to a head over a religious school built on the unofficial borderline of Beit Shemesh’s Haredi enclave. A group of the black-hatted ultra-Orthodox men lined the sidewalk outside the school to spit on, shove and scream at the children, whom they called “whores” and “Nazis” because they found their dress–conservative by most standards–“immodest.”  Eight-year-old Naama Margolese became a cause célébre when her story, in which she described the “tummy ache” she endured each day out of fear of the protesters–appeared in news outlets around the world.

Looking at the rage in the faces of these men at the presence of bare-armed second-graders, it would be easy to dismiss them as one-dimensional, bigoted zealots. And I certainly deplore their tactics, which include spitting and screaming at children, destroying “objectionable” merchandise in stores, and pepper-spraying girls who walk down the street in the company of boys. Though I am sympathetic to their ultimate aim of living a godly life, I find their apparent vision of that life repellant.

Of course, to these Haredim, not only the rightness of their beliefs, but the appropriateness of their responses is axiomatic:

“I think sometimes they’re not sensitive to the impact of what they’re saying because to them, the fact that a woman and a man should not sit together on the bus, it’s so obvious.”

(This, I believe, is why so many social conservatives resent exposure to the news media. The whole “liberal media” canard aside, I think they believe at some level that outsiders–who cannot even see how obvious it is that women and men should not sit together in public, for example–simply cannot possibly understand, and are therefore unfit to judge, their actions.)

Tactics aside, even the content of their belief system is strange to me; what possible harm could there really be in a t-shirted second-grader?  The belief that these children are corrupting the morals of the community is as odd to me as the belief that gay marriage will somehow undermine straight marriage.

But here’s my confession: though I do not agree with what they believe, and do not condone what they do, I understand how they feel.

Let me explain.

My children, like all children, have a repertoire of behaviors that really push my buttons.  (Note: teachers, neighbors, Sunday School leaders, other kids’ parents, relatives, even total strangers–everybody tells us that our kids are exemplary. This is my problem, not theirs.) My eight-year-old in particular has been making exploratory forays into disrespectful teenage behavior that I find it incredibly difficult to deal with because if I had acted like that, I’d have gotten hit. And while I have, thank God, broken the family cycle of physical violence, when my daughter treats me in a way that would have gotten me belted or slapped, I have no tools to use, no inner flowchart to consult, because events in my own childhood simply never flowed past that point.

My parents instilled in me what I, borrowing from Kant, call a Categorical Imperative: children must never defy, or otherwise show disrespect to, parents. Period. And while I have rejected my parents’ ways of enforcing this rule, I evidently internalized the rule at a deep level.

A violation of a Categorical Imperative is something that cannot be, something absolutely intolerable–like anti-matter which, if left alone, will blow up the universe. It simply must be done away with at any cost.  And while both the specific beliefs and the enforcement strategies differ wildly between the Haredim spitting on other peoples’ children and me shouting at my own, I am sure that the emotional content is drawn from the same well. When the irresistible force meets the immoveable object, there is going to be hell to pay.

I’ve been told–and I’m prepared to believe it–that these aggressive Haredim are an atypical minority within their community. And while I haven’t any idea whether the extremists routinely beat their children, I don’t believe the Haredim are merely being stubborn or willfully stupid when they defend their actions—they simply haven’t the mental categories to accommodate any other interpretation of the world or support any other behavioral strategies.  The Categorical Imperative builds a wall imagination cannot penetrate nor thought see beyond.

Most often, we pass along to our children the very same Categorical Imperatives that marred our own childhoods: think of Celie in the Color Purple, advising Harpo to beat his wife Sophia as her own husband beat her, because she had internalized the message that wives must obey their husbands.

Think of parents who bully or reject their children because no son or daughter of theirs is going to be a faggot.

Afshan Azad

Think of Afshan Azad, who played Padma Patil in the Harry Potter movies. Her brother beat her and incited her father to attempt to kill her because she was dating a Hindu. To them, it simply could not be that their sister and daughter would “dishonor” them in that way. And yes, this belief that a man’s honor is dependent upon the behavior of his female relations, and that women who sully it must be dealt with through brutal punishments up to and including “honor killings,” strikes me as nothing more than playground preening writ large and deadly, the cant of backward savages.

But reject as I may the content of their beliefs and their methods for enforcing them, I cannot deny that, in some fundamental way, I know how they feel. I, too, have had it literally beaten into to me that some things simply cannot happen and must not be allowed to exist. I am lucky in that my social milieu does not support corporal punishment; if it did, I may well have visited the sins of my fathers upon my children as much as anyone else. I’d like to think I wouldn’t, but I couldn’t swear to it.

I know I sometimes exasperate people by my unwillingness to sit in judgment even on people whose behavior I find repellant. And yes, I do have my own lines in the sand–obviously, child-beating is one. But who knows what, had I been born into other circumstances, I might myself be capable of? And how can I even begin to understand people as radically different from me as the Haredim–or even people who practice or condone corporal punishment–unless my gaze is “lit up” by love, and a willingness to enter into others’ feelings and the causes of them?

 …surely, surely the only true knowledge of our fellow-man is that which enables us to feel with him—which gives us a fine ear for the heart-pulses that are beating under the mere clothes of circumstance and opinion. Our subtlest analysis of schools and sects must miss the essential truth, unless it be lit up by the love that sees in all forms of human thought and work, the life and death struggles of separate human beings.[i]

 

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[i] George Eliot, Scenes of Clerical Life

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson taught college music at a Christian university for ten years before leaving to pursue creative work and fatherhood.  He has written for Sojourners Magazine, PRISM, Cross Currents, Minnesota Parent, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.  He currently composes, records and performs original kirtan with his band Mandala mandalaband.net. Scott is a professed member of the Third Order of St. Francis,  and lives in Philadelphia with his wife, two children, and two incessantly shedding dogs. 

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16 Responses to “Sins of the Fathers.”

  1. Heather says:

    You're a good person, Scott.

  2. Lorin Arnold Lorin says:

    This is definitely an issue I can relate to. It's hard to figure out how to create a relationship with children that doesn't rely on the models you experienced in childhood.

    Posted to Elephant Family on Facebook

    Lorin Arnold
    Blogger at The VeganAsana
    Associate Editor for Elephant Food
    Co-Editor for Elephant Family

  3. Peggie says:

    This is one of the qualities that I most cherish in you my friend – your willingness to make the effort to see past the actions and try to understand the precipitating factors that lead people to behave the way they do. It's a deeply compassionate trait, one that I wish more people shared.

  4. Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

    This is important Scott. I'll write more later when I have time – just wanted to say well done and thank you for taking a bold stance on something that is fundamental to the future of the planet!

  5. Suresh Nair says:

    Hi Scott, thank you for writing so clearly and eloquently on an issue that has troubled me to the point where I believe it has actually impeded several of my relationships from going beyond a certain point. I can totally relate to you, right down to exasperating those around me "by my unwillingness to sit in judgment even on people whose behavior I find repellant" :-)
    Bringing issues like these out into the open does rob them of a lot of their malign influence, I find.
    Something else that definitely helps – having a wonderful example of a successful family with healthy, enabling relationships where the children have grown up emotionally strong and true friends to their parents. I'm fortunate enough to have experienced this second-hand for a few years thanks to an ex. Her mom still calls me to see how I'm doing!

  6. Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

    Scott, I said that I think this is important, and I can't write why into this small comment box because there's just too much to say. I'll just briefly say this – hitting a child is physical abuse, and it leaves them with abuse trauma (as I know you can attest to). Abuse is cyclical and the pattern spans many generations. So generation after generation, children are abused in various ways, and grow up into adults who react unconsciously – as you do by shouting at your kids (and I'm not judging you – I'm a Dad too, and I've reacted in ways that horrify me).
    What's important is what we do about it: you don't hit your kids, and already that is breaking the cycle, and you see the effects in your kids – they obviously respect and love you for it.
    But I feel that we can only truly break entirely free from the ancestral pattern by healing the trauma of abuse in ourselves. I'd like to give you an example:
    When I was a kid, about 5 years old I think, I accidentally hit my Father in the balls. He went really crazy, and walloped me back around the head. I saw stars.
    30 years later, my son poked me in the eye (it really, really hurt). My initial reaction was to go crazy – I felt the old program kicking in – I felt exactly the same reaction that my Father had had, 30 years ago, welling up in me. Thankfully, I resisted it. And I applied my healing work to this very situation, and now I no longer react like that in those kinds of situations: the old instinct (fight, hit back), has been healed.
    Anyway, I don't know if what I'm writing really makes sense without a lot more explanation and detail. I'm writing some posts at the moment about abuse, self-esteem, and trauma, and I'll let you know Scott when they're done.
    In the meantime, keep up the good work on all fronts :)

  7. Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

    And more on topic: a friend of mine is a truly gentle and beautiful soul. He is a teacher and a circle dancer.
    His daughter was born by Caesarian, and it was about as traumatic a birth can be imagined – I'll spare you the details. The little girl cried practically non-stop for 4 months, and my friend and his wife barely slept at all in that time. They were losing their minds…
    He 'confessed' to me one day that during that time he had bitten her ear in fury and frustration (there are no marks on her ear, and I guess he didn't really 'bite down' – thank God. But I know how he felt, and I know that many parents have also been driven to that point of helplessness and rage. But the point is really what he said to me after his confession, because it matches almost exactly what you write in this post. He said something like:
    "I realized that if I was capable of doing that, then I am also capable of doing anything (given the right circumstances), and I'll never judge another human being again. We are all capable of everything"

  8. Krishnabrodhi says:

    I identify quite a bit with your goal to be "civil" and non-judgemental. But I am not at all surprised that you got the reaction that you did to your posts on facebook. I think your replies "fell short" of your goals.

    First you give a brief setup/description of your goal.
    "I try, I really do. I always make an effort to be civil online. I’ve even been accused in these very pages of setting myself up as the Right Speech Police for refusing to indulge in snark and rancor in comments. Of course I fall short occasionally, but I always try."

    Then later you share your replies….
    "Well said, Dxxxx. Everyone–teachers, other parents, (etc.)–tell me how well-behaved my children are, and we have *never* hit them, nor would we ever. Hitting a child is barbaric."

    "Amen to that, Fxxxx. I remember many a beating from childhood, but not a single “lesson” I supposedly “learned” from them. Hitting a child is for people with no self-control who have run out of ideas."

    "I call them like I see them, including calling bullshit when i hear it. Hitting children is barbaric, period. If that makes me “disrespectful,” so be it."

    This is where I think you may have fell short of you goal. By call saying "Hitting children is barbaric" you are judging that behavior and from my experience of people they will not just see you as judging the behavior but also as judging them by what you said. To them it could easily come off as you being judgemental, hostile and with no desire to try to understand their point of view.

    It seems like you understand you need to come from a place of love, compassion and understanding by what you wrote here….
    "I know I sometimes exasperate people by my unwillingness to sit in judgment even on people whose behavior I find repellant. And yes, I do have my own lines in the sand–obviously, child-beating is one. But who knows what, had I been born into other circumstances, I might myself be capable of? And how can I even begin to understand people as radically different from me as the Haredim–or even people who practice or condone corporal punishment–unless my gaze is “lit up” by love, and a willingness to enter into others’ feelings and the causes of them?"

    But I didn't experience that from your facebook comments at all.

    (continued in next post)

  9. This is so important, Scott. Thanks for saying it. As someone who was (occasionally) spanked, I definitely have to give myself a "time out" if I feel myself getting frustrated with my kids. Hitting is hitting. Call it whatever you want– a swat, a spank, paddling–doesn't change the fact that it's violence and it has no place in family life.

  10. Scott Robinson YesuDas says:

    Thanks, Krishnabrodhi. I like the conversation café idea. And yes, this particular thread that I wrote about in this story was the one that made my well-polished Right Speech Police badge fall right off into the mud.

  11. Scott Robinson YesuDas says:

    I agree, Douglas–there are no universals–except one. as far as I'm concerned: beatings are never OK. And the fact that other things can be made to be nearly as destructive as beatings has no bearing on that.

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