By Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, M.D.
A recent article in a psychiatric journal stated that the most common psychiatric diagnosis in adolescents today is “Oppositional Defiance Disorder.” This term refers to youngsters who refuse to defer to authority, and particularly to parental authority. It has become quite obvious that this is a widespread problem from which there is no immunity. The problem has also penetrated Torah-observant families, where obedience to parents has been taken for granted.
We generally assume that the era of the 1960s was a watershed. Along with the “God is dead” attitude came the assertion that anyone over 35 was obsolete if not senile, and that only young people knew what was good or bad, right or wrong. I am told that most of the sitcoms today still portray parents as being inept bunglers, and that youth is the repository of wisdom.
The tragic fact that defiance of authority often leads to serious damage to oneself does not seem to have much impact, any more than the awareness of the very toxic effect of drugs discourages young people from using them. We also know that lecturing to young people has very limited value. The most effective way to teach young people is to model proper behavior for them, thereby setting a living example of that which is expected of them.
Therefore, let us look at ways in which we can teach deference to authority as well as acceptance of authority when it is not to our liking. The Talmud states, “One should not say, ‘I do not like pork,’ but rather, ‘I do like pork, but I do not eat it because my Heavenly Father has forbidden it.’” This is an expression of yielding to a higher authority and abstaining from something enjoyable.
The above Talmudic statement can rarely be made by individuals in our community. For Torah-observant Jews, pork is an abomination, and the thought of eating it is enough to suppress one’s appetite if not to cause nausea. Similarly, for a Torah-observant person, the thought of getting into a car and driving to work on Shabbos is shocking. In neither case do we say, “I would like to do it, but it is not permissible,” because we have come to emotionally reject most things that the Torah forbids.
In Ethics of the Fathers, the mishnah (2:4) states, “Make His will your will, so that He should make your will like His. Negate your will before His, so that He should negate others’ will before yours.” This seems to be redundant. Once we have accepted the will of God, in what way do we have to negate our own?
From what we have seen above, we have been so successful in accepting God’s will and emotionally rejecting that which He has forbidden, we are not left with many things to negate. But if this is the case, we are bereft of things we would really like to do and abstain from only because of our deference to a higher authority. Ironically, by internalizing Torah, we may have actually deprived ourselves of ways to demonstrate negation of our own will. We must search for things we would really like to do, but refrain from pursuing only because we defer to authority.
The one area in which we could really achieve this is lashon hara [gossip]. This has not yet become an abomination, and we should have no difficulty in admitting that we might enjoy telling or listening to a juicy piece of gossip. This may then provide us with the opportunity to model deference to authority and the negation of our own will. There are certainly likely to be times when a discussion within the family, particularly among the adults, will touch upon an item which fits into the category of lashon hara. At such times, the father or mother should remark that this particular discussion cannot continue because it would be in violation of the prohibition of lashon hara. This may be one of the few instances in which we can demonstrate to our children, by living example, the negation of our will for that of a higher Authority. It may well be one of the few lessons they’ll never forget.
The founder and medical director of Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, Dr. Twerski is one of the country’s leading experts on alcohol and drug rehabilitation. He is the author of numerous books and his column is regularly featured in Jewish Action.