by R. Gil Student
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 are 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.”