Contra Avot uBanim (Ideas #59)

In Germany, they used to say that when rabbis also had to be doctors (i.e. have a Ph.D.) it was a sign that Judaism was getting sick. In other words, since a title is a credential of credibility, the community expectation that a rabbi also have a doctorate is another way of saying that rabbinic credentials fall short. Thus, in order to show that a rabbi is also a scholar, he will need to have a doctorate as well. To put this in historical context, no one needed such a secular approbation for the Rambam. In the Rambam's time and through most of history - being a rabbi was synonymous with being a scholar.

Sometimes things that appear as advances in fact indicate a decline. I believe that the formation of community or synagogue chesed committees is one example of such a development. If we are not members of the bikur cholim committee, does that mean that we are exempted from this commandment? Similarly, are the only ones to invite strangers to their homes to be the members of the hachnassat orachim committees? I would be curious to know what the Talmudic sages would say about such committees. It would appear that the main reason such committees are started is the realization that these matters are not being handled sufficiently without them. Thus, more than a positive development, it is a response to a newly found weakness.

I would suggest that the highly successful and popular movement to get parents more involved in their children's learning is another good example of such a phenomenon. The two most famous organizations behind this movement are Avot uBanim and Mebereishit. No doubt, these organizations are doing wonderful things, by motivating parents and children to learn Torah together on a regular basis. The hours of Torah study and intergenerational understanding that are being created by these groups is not to be underestimated. This notwithstanding, I am not sure how happy we should be about the existence of these organizations.

What is to be lamented is not the movement, but the need for it. Last time I checked my Shulchan Aruch, I found that, at the very least, the Torah commands a man to teach his son Torah, putting this mitzvah on a par with observing Shabbat and keeping kosher. If a dispensation exists that allows the father to provide a teacher instead of teaching that son himself, such a dispensation is certainly not meant to absolve the father from any educational involvement with his child.

In the Orthodox community, having a movement for parents to learn Torah with their children is like having a movement for the observance of Shabbat. Could we imagine organizations that would provide incentives and creative avenues to encourage observing Shabbat among the Orthodox? The existence of such incentives would symbolize nothing less than a lack of intrinsic motivation to keep that particular mitzvah. If such a scenario seems completely unthinkable, we need to ask ourselves why the need for the promotion of intergenerational study is not equally ludicrous.

Apparently, somewhere along the way to the 21st century, we have become too busy to engage in certain mitzvot. There is no question that our lives are truly busier than those of our grandparents and great-grandparents. The result is that we do not have the time to do everything that they did. For this reason, today's popular cookbooks are generally simpler than those of yesteryear, reflecting the shorter time available for food preparation in modern homes.

For most of us, trying to adopt a less busy, pre-modern lifestyle is not a real option. What is an option, however, is to think about our priorities, to think about what we choose to put into our schedules and that which we leave out. What have we chosen to do with our time that prevents us from educating our children?


There seems to be two major priorities that outweigh all other uses of time: career and social/recreational obligations. As for career, most of us have blindly accepted the tradeoffs of our attempts to climb to the top of our professions. This usually means long hours often accompanied by frequent travel. I know it is an unusual thought, but perhaps we should consider sacrificing some financial and career opportunities for the sake of our families as well as our spiritual and moral growth.

Lest we think that the kollel lifestyle is a way out, I would question whether today's serious kollel fellow spends any less time on his work than the serious businessman. To succeed in his profession, he also devotes extra hours to his studies in the evenings and on weekends. The paucity of large numbers of kollel fellows sitting with their sons in the beit midrash, outside of the Avot uBanim program, would likely confirm this contention.

The second large claim on our time is what we view as our obligations to friends, acquaintances and ourselves. We seem to feel obligated to spend a tremendous amount of our free time outside of the home. After all, when was the last time we declined an invitation to a simcha because we wanted to spend more time with our family? Most people would never even consider this possibility.

Perhaps it is time that we ask ourselves some important questions. When we decide which box to check off on the rsvp card, maybe we should ask ourselves, "Does this event represent time I can really afford to take away from being with my children?" and then, "How critical is my participation in this particular event?"

When it is not our time that is constrained, it is often that of our children. We somehow feel that unless they are learning a musical instrument, playing on a sports team, part of a youth group and who knows what else, they will be at some sort of disadvantage. As a result, we post a schedule of all our children's activities so as to remember which child needs to be where at what time. Not only does this tie up our children's limited after-school hours, it also ties up our own time in transporting our children in addition to needing to provide the necessary organizational and financial support for these opportunities. Here, too, we might ask ourselves whether all of these activities are more important for our families than spending time together at home.

Perhaps the best thing that the Avot uBanim movement can do is to bring us back to our senses, by making us think twice about what such an organization says about our culture. Though it may not be soon, I look forward to the time when these organizations will not serve a need, when we will all realize that learning Torah with our children should be one of our main priorities. I look forward to the time when we will not need a PR campaign to ensure we can fit this into our schedules.