Torah Sociology: Repentance and Career-Family Conflict

Repentance means creating a life by making very hard behavioral choices.

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen

Judaism Chaim C. Cohen
Chaim C. Cohen

We all want our High Holidays to be a meaningful spiritual experience. To help us we usually listen to our religious teachers. I think, however, that sociologists may also be able to help. This article will explain how reconsidering the balance that we give to our work-career and family roles can help us renew our relationship with G-d and his Torah.

We hear the shofar at the end of Yom Kippur and usually feel a sense of spiritual renewal. Yet we also often have a gnawing inner sense that, "I have been here before. Nothing is really going to dramatically change in the coming year. Last year I also committed myself at the end of ten days of repentance to being more involved in mitzvoth, and look what happened. I am still basically the same type of Jew that I was a year ago. I'm still in a religious rut. I'm still on a mitzvoth carousel."

Why do we frequently end up with this guilt accompanied ambivalence after Yom Kippur, spiritually high, but inwardly pessimistic about real behavioral change?

One reason is that our religious teachers feel that they have to provide guidance in general spiritual terms, without recommending specific behavioral change. They only infrequently explain in public how to concretely change one's mitzvah behavior because they fear that their public will react in a self-defensive manner.  Their public will 'inwardly turn them off', and then listen to neither their more abstract Torah guidance, nor their behavioral recommendations. On the other hand, if we don't translate our High Holiday spiritual upsurge into behavioral change, we will end up next Rosh Hashanah with that same sense of spiritual stalemate.

As a sociologist and blog writer I don't have the occupational hazards of our religious teachers described above. So I would now like to jump into this gap between sermonizing and counseling behavioral repentance and dare to give some very concrete advice. I would like to suggest that the key to making our religious life more real, ie. doing repentance, may be to  spend less time occupied with our career and balancing our bank account, and more time at home maximizing the quality and the depth of our family relationships. Specifically, if we will decrease our career/income investment by 15%, and increase our quality stay-at-home time by 15%, I sociologically promise you that next year at Yom Kippur you will be in a different, better place than you are this year.

Why? What is the connection between a healthy family life (that requires much, much hard work and presence) and Torah observance? In most simple terms, the quality of the fabric of our family life very much determines the quality of our religious life. For example, if our children feel that their parents have faith in them, and parents and spouses feel that the other family partner truly respects, understands and listens to them, then they will also feel the same concerning  our Father in Heaven, and concerning the goodness of life in general.   

And they will want to do his mitzvoth. A child will internalize his parent's relationship with G-d and the Torah, be the relationship one of happiness and enthusiasm, or apathy, or cold discord.   A child or spouse who feels conflicted and misunderstood by his family setting, will almost inevitably be also angry at G-d and his mitzvoth. G-d is an easy target on which to project one's feeling of family pain and conflict. For example, in my settlement, year after year, I see that the children who remain mitzvah observant are not necessarily those whose fathers are the most observant in mitzvoth, and the most knowledgeable in Torah, but rather those whose fathers were very present at home, and who learnt, prayed and played with their children in a happy, relaxed fashion.

I am keenly aware of the very difficulty of practicing what I preach. I know the anxiety of balancing a middle class family budget. My wife and I raised six children on the salaries of a social worker and a teacher. I experienced the turmoil of role conflict when trying at the same time to be both devoted to my family and finish a doctoral degree. More than any other social sector, the dati leumi mother and wife finds herself impossibly juggling her intense desires for satisfaction and success both at home, and at work.

But this is exactly what repentance is about, at least according to Ha Rav Solovietchik. In addition to lofty spirituality, repentance means creating a life by making very hard behavioral choices, and coping every day with challenging consequences. Painful choices are the behavioral precondition for getting off the mitzvah carousel.

The psychological and sociological understandings concerning which families grow with the Torah, and which families do not, is complicated and will be the topic of future articles. But I think that all of us (if we use the truthfulness that the High Holidays develop within us) will admit this simple truth: the dati leumi (religious Zionist) family that is home together, and happy together, will also avidly want to use the Torah to enrich their family life. More quality time at home, for all family members, is my sociological recipe for a repentance that creates a renewed life based on meaningful behavioral change.