22 Nov A BT and His Father
Before leading bentching, the grace after meals, the leader typically requests permission from others
more worthy to lead. The standard formula is: “With permission of our masters, our teachers and my
teachers.“ Many add specifics depending on with whom they are eating. If kohanim (priests) are
present, they may ask permission of “the priests.” If they ate with their local rabbi, they might ask
permission of “our teacher, the rabbi.” And if their father is there, they ask permission of “my father and
teacher.” This raises a dilemma for a ba’al teshuvah, someone raised non-religious who becomes
observant. Should he refrain from calling his father his teacher and risk offending him?
Rav Mordechai Tzion (formerly Friedfertig) frequently circulates interesting questions to a variety of
halakhically decisors. Sometimes he includes their answers in the books of Rav Shlomo Aviner that he
edits. Recently, he published two books of these questions and answers. One of the books, titled Shu”t
Eretz Yisrael, addresses questions in the land of Israel. The other, Shu”t Ha-Sho’el, covers 100 assorted
topics. Question #32 is whether a ba’al teshuvah should request permission from his “father and
teacher” or just his “father,” since the father did not teach the son Torah. The answers span a wide
range. I like to think that these answers a very deep; they are all correct in different ways.
Rav Chaim Kanievsky, famous for his brevity, answered, “Not allowed.” Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl
responded that he should say it but pointed out that the word we are translating as “teacher” really
means “master.” Therefore, it is irrelevant whether the father taught the son Torah. Rav Yitzchak
Zilberstein questioned the premise of the inquiry. Most fathers teach their children not to murder or
steal, so even a non-religious father teaches his son some Torah. Similarly, Rav Shlomo Aviner
responded that the non-religious father raised him and taught him. Rav Yosef Lieberman focused on
whether technically the son is obligated to honor a non-religious father (yes). He adds that there is an
element of Kiddush Hashem when a religious son respects his non-religious father. Rav Gedaliah
Rabinowitz said that when the son refers to his father as a teacher, he should intend it as a teacher of
non-spiritual matters. This is just a summary of the nearly six pages of responses to this question.
I’m not sure the question offers enough information to receive an answer because the circumstances
can vary greatly about the ba’al teshuvah son, non-religious father and their relationship. The rabbis, in
their generosity, made assumptions in order to respond to the inquiry. Ba’alei teshuvah come in
different shapes and sizes. Some were raised traditionally and learned much Torah from their parents.
However, the son grew more observant than his parents. Others come from families with little Jewish
knowledge or experience, or even anti-religious homes. The story is told of one young man, whose
parents refused to allow kosher food in the house, who went on to become a great Torah scholar.
Parents of ba’alei teshuvah appear across the spectrum of Jewish experience.
Which means that some ba’alei teshuvah reject outright their parents’ religious beliefs and lifestyle.
Others continue their parents’ teachings, albeit in a slightly different direction. Additionally, becoming a
ba’al teshuvah is a process. No one wakes up one morning fully knowledgeable and confident as a newly
religious person. It takes years of learning and growth. A recent ba’al teshuvah might feel stronger
about rejecting his parents’ teachings. After making a huge commitment to dramatically change his
lifestyle, he will focus on the differences from his past, particularly where he is most insecure. After
years (or decades) as a religious Jew, he may see more of his parents in himself than he had previously
realized. He may recognize the many life lessons he imbibed that, earlier in the process, had remained in
his peripheral vision. At first the parents are the reference point from which he rebels. Later they are a
piece of the past that made him who he is.
The process is not only for ba’alei teshuvah but also their parents. Some non-religious parents take great
pride in their children’s religiosity. I have a ba’al teshuvah friend whose grandmother made a negative
comment about his black hat, to which his non-religious father angrily replied, “Maybe if you hadn’t
raised me like a goy, I would wear a black hat also.” Other parents feel rejected and angry. Sometimes a
father feels unrecognized for all he taught his son. Other times, a father understands that despite their
religious differences, the father and son are close. From what I have seen, these complex emotions tend
to get resolved over time as people grow accustomed to a new normal.
In our question, both the son and the father may be at a variety of stages. While the father could be
insulted by the omission of the term “teacher,” the son could be hurt by its inclusion — after all that he
recently gave up and the obstacles he just overcame to become religious, he has to call his father his
“teacher”? Or maybe neither cares. There are bigger challenges in life than a simple word in bentching.
Another approach is to avoid the problem entirely. Before beginning bentching, ask your father
personally if it’s OK if you lead and then say the standard formula as printed in the text, asking
permission of “our masters, our teachers and my teachers.”