by R. Daniel Mann
Question: I was raised a secular Jew. One branch of my family is Charedi, and I enjoy spending time and learning with them. I do my best to observe mitzvoth when I am with them, but at home I act the way my family does. One of my cousins voiced a concern that if I continue studying, I will lose my “protected” status as tinok shenishba and become a “rasha.” Another cousin said that studying Talmud cannot make you a rasha. I am not sure that the answer to the question will affect my behavior, but it means a lot to people I care about, and so I would appreciate your insight.
Answer: Your question is very thoughtful, and the open communication with your cousins is fascinating.
We must distinguish between issues. The use of tinok shenishba stems from the Rambam, who distinguishes between people who left traditional Judaism and their children who were brought up with their parents’ viewpoints even if they are aware of the traditional system. The context is sanctions against those who undermine the accepted religious system, and he says they do not apply to the second generation. In addition to not being penalized, the Rambam says the sons should be peacefully engaged to enable possible return to traditional Judaism. Although he does not assume that successful outreach is ensured, the Rambam does not raise qualms that the outreach process, which must include elements of learning, suspends the tinok shenishba status. This is the standard approach in our times as well.
The more important question, which your cousins probably have in mind, is how Hashem views the individual who was largely not to blame for religious shortcomings due to lack of knowledge, and then begins to learn. However, employing tinok shenishba to this question is wrong on at least two counts.
On the one hand, it is largely too late. You know there is what to learn and what to observe. Just because you do not know all the details does not make you incapable of responsibility. Regarding the law of the land, for example, ignorance of the law is not an excuse (I spare you the Latin phrase), as one has the ability to find out. To decide not to learn the specifics and use it as an excuse to Hashem is like telling a policeman: “I didn’t know the speed limit because when I approached signs, I looked away.”
On the other hand, we must not minimize the extent to which Hashem factors in the difficulty of one from what you call a secular background from accepting observance. Sometimes, he is not philosophically convinced about the need to observe the way Orthodox Jews do. Secondly, it is difficult to be significantly more observant than one’s family and surroundings, and it rarely happens overnight. These difficulties exist even if he learns Torah. Realize that the idea of more education raising divine expectations is not just for a “tinok shenishba,” but for all Jews, who always have room to improve. If it paid to reduce Torah knowledge and inspiration to minimize culpability, Orthodox Jews should not provide their kids with a top education! Rather, we are expected to be realistically optimistic and give everyone the best chance at improving, no matter their starting point.
If one knows that an individual is sinning unknowingly and will not listen if corrected, it is better not to tell him. However, this is only in regard to limited details of observance and when the knowledge can be assumed not to help him. Not to give a person the opportunity to increase his connection with Hashem through Torah is unfair deprivation of one who lacked a fair chance. (Only one who is disrespectful or uses his studies to mock or fight against Torah should be excluded.)
One should use logic in choosing the “Torah curriculum”, putting more emphasis on ideas that do not conflict with practice at home or can be implemented at least partially in the short term. We wish you many opportunities to study Hashem’s Torah and maximize its wide variety of benefits. May your cousins be wise teachers and you enjoy being an active participant.