Rabbi’s Son Syndrome: Religious Struggle in a World of Religious Ideals

By Dovid Bashevkin

In a cramped office overflowing with rabbinic tomes and papers in need of filing sits a daughter with her father. The daughter, Tamar, is showing her father an artistic portrayal of their relationship. She points on her laptop to a crude animated rendering of a girl walking in her father’s shadow. No matter where the girl walks in relation to her father, his shadow casts over her.

Tamar’s father does indeed cast a long shadow. Tamar is the daughter of Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a rosh yeshivah of a prominent yeshivah and community in Israel and one of the acknowledged visionaries of the Religious Zionist movement. This scene, part of the moving 2011 Israeli documentary The Rabbi’s Daughter powerfully depicts some of the struggles of those who grow up as a child of a rabbi. The documentary, which presents three different stories of daughters of prominent Israeli rabbis, highlights the somewhat counterintuitive relationship that those who grow up in rabbinic homes often have with religion.

Whether one is the son or daughter of a rabbi or any other clergy member, growing up in a devout religious home can often result in a deleterious relationship with religion. A rabbinic home, one would assume, would be the best environment in which to be raised in order to ensure lifelong religious commitment. And, to be sure, some of the most prominent rabbinic leaders in history have been a part of rabbinic dynasties. The Sofer, Soloveitchik and the Kotler families are but a tiny minority in the rich history of rabbinic dynasty. Nonetheless, children of rabbis, and clergy in general, often have a particular struggle with religion. Understanding this phenomenon—the religious struggle of children of clergy—can help provide a framework to consider why religion itself leads some away from religion.1

In a 1988 Tradition article entitled “Children of Rabbis,” Dr. Irving Levitz, a psychologist and professor, investigated the “impact of the rabbinate on the developing self-identity of rabbinic children.”2 The study, which was conducted through a series of in-depth interviews with forty children of rabbis across the denominational spectrum, uncovered some important themes in the religious struggle of children of Jewish clergy. While the subjects in the study were from American families, some of their testimony could have just as easily been featured in the Israeli documentary. One woman in Dr. Levitz’s study expressed the following:

I always struggled to maintain an identity of my own. I was always introduced by name, then followed by “the rabbi’s daughter.” It was as if I couldn’t be whole without having the attachment to my father’s profession noted . . . My bothers had it worse . . . I used to cringe at overhearing congregants comment on the “Little Rabbis.” Even though I really believe that many of these remarks were well intended, the reality was that my brothers and I felt as if we were stripped of the dignity of being who we were first and foremost.”3

For many children growing up in rabbinic homes, the otherwise difficult struggle to develop a personal identity is compounded by the cumbersome expectations foisted upon them. Citing an earlier study from 1980, Dr. Levitz emphasizes the connection between religious struggle and religious expectations:

. . . the higher standards and greater expectations placed upon children of clergy create for them inordinate difficulties in growing up. Consequently, children of clergy experience feelings of isolation and inner conflict emanating from the strong desire to maintain the family image while being accepted by peers as individuals with an identity apart from their ancillary role.4

Religious life, by definition, demands high religious standards. Growing up in a rabbinic home, however, puts children squarely in the center headquarters where those standards are shaped and regulated by the community.

The loneliness and isolation created by the religious expectations within the rabbinic home are, of course, nothing new. David Assaf, in his incisive work Untold Tales of the Hasidim, examines some of the more infamous tales of children of rabbis who eventually left religion all together.5 Most of his analysis centers on the varying versions surrounding the religious departure of Moshe, son of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Chabad rabbi. Before delving into the precise details surrounding Moshe’s alleged apostasy, Assaf cites a moving memoir of Yehuda Leib Levin, whose grandfather was Rabbi Moshe of Kobrin, a harbinger of the Slonim Chassidic dynasty. Yehuda recounts how his parents’ anguish exacerbated the difficulty of his departure from religious life:

My parents’ anguish and their sighs depressed me. Alas, would that my parents had been cruel, would that they had excoriated and humiliated me, or had lifted a hand to punish my rebelliousness, for then I would have already departed and found my path in life. But my merciful, kind parents, who loved me more than themselves melted and tortured me with their tears and their distress, and though my heart was torn by pity I was unable to still or to calm them.6

The cultural openness ushered in by the Enlightenment made such parental pain all too common. As the walls around the Jewish ghetto crumbled, families and communities were left unsure how to stem the tides of assimilation. For children of rabbis, the pain of departure includes an added element whereby the very efficacy of their parents’ rabbinic powers could be called into question. If the communal rabbi cannot inspire his own children, how can he expect to inspire the community? Such questions, however, disregard the prevalence of rabbinic children who choose another path. Far from being an indictment on the parents, the history of children of rabbis who struggle with religion, as we will soon see, may be as old as the rabbinate itself.

Tips by Bayla Sheva Brenner, based upon interviews with children of rabbis

Why Rabbinic Dynasty May Be Challenging
One of the most successful rabbinic dynasties in history is undoubtedly the Sofer family, begun by Rabbi Moshe Sofer (1762-1839), also referred to as the Chatam Sofer. His descendants continue to serve in rabbinic leadership positions in the Jewish community. All of Rabbi Moshe Sofer’s sons became rabbis. Following Rabbi Sofer’s death, his eldest son Avraham Shmuel (the Ktav Sofer), assumed his father’s position as head of the Pressburg yeshivah. Curiously, this famed father-son rabbinic duo both ascribe (in separate essays) the first incident of struggling rabbinic children to the first rabbinic leader of the Jewish people: Moshe.7

The details of Moshe’s life encompass most of the Torah. His birth, his leadership and his death are all recounted. There is however, one glaring omission—his children. “These are the offspring of Aaron and Moshe on the day God spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai” (Bamidbar 3:1). Oddly, the Torah proceeds to recount only the children of Aaron. Rashi, noticing the discrepancy, explains that Aaron’s sons are also considered the offspring of Moshe, an illustration of the concept that the students of a Torah teacher are considered to be the teacher’s offspring. Still, why leave out Moshe’s children all together? In an astonishing indictment of Moshe, both the Chatam Sofer8 and his son9 contend that Moshe’s communal obligations obstructed his parental obligations. Moshe’s sons are absent from the recitation of his offspring because they did not appreciate or adequately benefit from Moshe as a parent. In fact, adds the Chatam Sofer, the verse specifically recalls God’s revelation to Moshe at Mount Sinai to reinforce that it was the experience of revelation—and the subsequent communal responsibility it demanded—that interrupted Moshe’s focus on his biological children.

The Sofer family was certainly no stranger to the demands of communal responsibility and the potential strain it places on the family. Likely, their successful negotiation of these demands presented a newfound appreciation for the ease with which some parents manage to find the proper balance between communal and familial responsibility. For those who find the proper balance elusive, there is consolation in knowing that Moshe, our first rabbinic leader, dealt with the same struggle.

A Talmudic Take on Rabbinic Children
The Talmud was not oblivious to the phenomena of rabbinic children struggling with their religious affiliation and expression. In fact, the Talmud (Nedarim 81a) asks outright: “Why do the children of rabbis so rarely become rabbis themselves?” In response to this question, the Talmud presents five approaches:

Rav Yosef says it is so that people do not say Torah is an inheritance. Rav Sheishet, the son of Rav Eidi, says so that they do not become arrogant among the community. Mar Zutra says so that they do not become too dictatorial against the community. Rav Ashi says it is because they [speak negatively about common folk]. Ravina explained because they do not make the requisite Blessing on the Torah.

Of all of the explanations, Ravina’s seems to be the most puzzling. What does the Blessing on the Torah have to do with the religious outcome of one’s children? And are we really to assume that great rabbinic scholars all skipped the Biblically mandated Blessing on the Torah made each morning?

Rabbi Yehuda Loew (1520-1609), known as the Maharal, explains why the Blessing on the Torah is so critical for the success of the children of rabbis.10 Love of Torah, explains the Maharal, can be divisive. Torah learning is inherently a pursuit for the religious ideals of life. The love for the ideals contained in Torah can easily distract one from loving God or even from loving other people. Many families have been party to the potential discord buried within the quest for religious advancement. Take, for example, the teenager who adopts stricter kosher standards but does so in a manner that is disrespectful of his parents. Love of Torah does not always translate into love of people—or even love of God. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk caustically noted that increased religious observance is not always for the purpose of worshipping God, but rather sometimes it is for the sake of “worshipping the Shulchan Aruch.” Individual religious achievement is sometimes built upon the dissatisfaction or disapprobation of others’ religious laxity.

Torah study… should be an endeavor that is sweet for us and for our children.

In order for personal religious achievement to translate into interpersonal success we need to recite the Blessing on the Torah. The Blessing on the Torah is not a typical blessing that one makes, for instance, on food or even other commandments; it is a prayer that our love for scholarship should not obscure our love for people.

The text of the Blessing of the Torah contains a reminder that our personal pursuits of religious perfection should not come at the expense of our appreciation of others. The Blessing reads:

Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has made us holy through His commandments and has commanded us to engage in the study of the words of Torah. Please, Lord, our God, make the words of Your Torah sweet in our mouths and in the mouths of Your people, the House of Israel, so that we, our descendants (and their descendants), and the descendants of Your people, the House of Israel, may all know Your name and study Your Torah for its own sake. Blessed are You, Lord, who teaches Torah to His people Israel.

We do not simply recite a blessing on the commandment to study Torah, but we pray that it is received by those who study, and those we teach, with sweetness. It is not just a blessing on our scholarship, but it is a prayer for scholars and students. Our Torah, we plead, should not divide—it should unite, for this generation and the next.

The Blessed Reminder of the Priestly Blessing
This theme emerges not just in the Blessing on the Torah, but can also be seen in the Torah text on which we recite the blessing. Standardized in each siddur, following the Blessing on the Torah is the text of the Priestly Blessing (Bamidbar 6). Why was this text chosen as the standard-bearer for the first Torah text we study each day? This question is further underscored when we consider that the other texts chosen to be studied immediately after the Blessing on the Torah each relate to the importance of Torah. What message does the Priestly Blessing contain concerning our daily affirmation of our obligation to study Torah?11

For many Jews, Birkat Kohanim evokes memories of listening quietly to the Kohanic chants while under a tallit or with their faces buried inside of their prayer book. But the Priestly Blessing is not just an obligation for the Kohen to bless—it is also an obligation for the people to feel blessed.12 Before the Kohanim recite their blessing, they say a blessing of their own, “to bless the people of Israel with love.” No other blessing ends with this particular formulation. We do not recite the blessing on the lulav to “take it with love” or a blessing on matzah “to eat it with love.” Only Birkat Kohanim ends specifically with an acknowledgement of love, because inherent in the obligation of the blessing is that the recipient, the people of Israel, feels beloved. In fact, a Kohen who is not in good standing within the community or is involved in communal disputes is not allowed to bless the people. Rabbi Leible Eiger (1817-1888), himself a scion of a famed rabbinic family, summarized the essence of Birkat Kohanim as “a reminder to root within our hearts the love of the Jewish people, that each person should seek the good in his fellow man.”13 Specifically, he writes, “If there is, God forbid, some burden pressing on a particular individual, we should anticipate and long for expansiveness to be bestowed on such a person.” Birkat Kohanim is an acknowledgement that the Jewish people are blessed and beloved.14

Love of Torah does not always translate into love of people—or even love of God.

This, in turn, may be why the Priestly Blessing follows the Blessing on the Torah. As we begin each day recognizing the centrality of our obligation to pursue our attainment of Torah, we pause to acknowledge the possible dangers inherent within a singular focus on Torah study. The ideals of Torah study cannot be achieved at the expense of the appreciation of the people. Our study of Torah, like Birkat Kohanim, should leave those in our lives feeling more beloved and more blessed. The Priestly Blessing and the Blessing on the Torah preceding it dually ensure that our Torah study is not just the fulfillment of a commandment, but an endeavor that is sweet for all those around us. Sweet for us and for our children.

“For the rabbi’s child,” concludes Dr. Levitz, “self-esteem is enhanced with the experience of feeling valued as an integral part of the family group in its designated work with the congregation.” It is a sad fact of religious life that our personal growth can often come at the expense of others’ self-worth and self-esteem. The Torah and Talmud were both acutely aware of this danger. The ideals and expectations of religious life can be divisive wedges within families and communities. Each morning, when saying the Blessing on the Torah followed by the Priestly Blessing, we pause and tacitly acknowledge that concern. But if our blessings are successful, we can rest assured that our religious commitments remain “sweet in our mouths and in the mouths of Your people.”

Notes
1. This phenomenon, of course, is not limited to the children of Jewish clergy. There is an extensive body of literature that discusses the corollary of this phenomenon in the Christian world, where it is often referred to as “preacher’s kid syndrome.” See, for example, Rebel With a Cause (Nashville, 1995), the memoir of Franklin Graham, son of the famed evangelist Billy Graham. See also: Carole Anderson, “The Experience of Growing Up in a Minister’s Home and the Religious Commitment of the Adult Child of a Minister,” Pastoral Psychology 46, no. 6 (July 1998): 393-411.
2. Irving N. Levitz, “Children of Rabbis,” Tradition 23, no. 2 (winter 1988): 76-87.
3. Ibid., 79.
4. Ibid., 77.
5. David Assaf, Untold Tales of the Hasidim: Crisis & Discontent in the History of Hasidism (Waltham, Massachusetts, 2010).
6. Ibid., 30.
7. In a recent article on the site Lehrhaus, Elli Fischer couches the phenomenon of rabbis’ children in an earlier Biblical figure—Yitzchak, the son of Avraham. See his “The Patron Saint of Rabbi’s Kids,” available online here: http://www.thelehrhaus.com/commentary-short-articles/patron-saint-of-rabbis-sons.
8. See Torat Moshe, Bamidbar 1:3.
9. See Ktav Sofer, vol. 8, where he explains that Aaron’s children were reluctant to get married in order to avoid having children and repeating the parental mistakes they witnessed Moshe make.
10. See his introduction to Tiferet Yisrael.
11. See Rabbi Shlomo Rabinowicz of Radomsk’s (1801-1866) Tiferet Shlomo, Moadim, p. 6 and Rabbi Aryeh Zvi Fromer of Kushigluv (1884-1943) in his responsa Eretz Tzvi, no. 20, both of whom pose this question, though they offer different approaches than what proceeds here.
12. See Sefer Chareidim 12:18, Responsa Devar Avraham, vol. 1, no. 31 and the presentation of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in Shiurei HaRav, Tefillah u’Kriat Shema, no. 22.
13. See his Imrei Emet, Naso, 5624.
14. For more on this approach to the Priestly blessings, see my B’rogez Rachem Tizkor, no. 1, 21-30. The Talmudic custom to pray for one’s dreams during the Birkat Kohanim is also explained.

Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin is director of education for NCSY and is a doctoral candidate in public policy and management at The New School in New York. 

This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2017.