CHAPTER VIII CONFLICTING STANDARDS-Woodmam
The conflict of today is oftenest one between parental orthodoxy and filial liberalism or heresy. My own experience has led to the conviction that the clashing does not ordinarily arise between two varying faiths but rather between faith on the one hand and unfaith or unconcern with faith on the other. As for the Jewish home, the problem is complicated by reason of the truth, somehow ignored by Jew and non-Jew, that the religious conversion of a Jew usually leads to racial desertion as far as such a thing can be save in intent. In the Jewish home, racial loyalty and religious assent are so inextricably interwoven,—with ethical integrity in many cases in the balance,—that it is not to be wondered at that conflict oft obtains when the loyalty of the elders is met by the dissidence of the younger and such dissidence is usually the first step on the way that leads to a break with the Jewish past.
And the battle, generally speaking, is not waged by parents on behalf of the child's soul nor yet in the interest of imperilled Israel, but in the dread of the hurt that is sure to be visited upon the guilt of disloyalty to a heritage cherished and safeguarded through centuries of glorious scorn of consequences. I should be grieved if a child were to say to me: "I cannot repeat the ancient Shema Yisrael, the watchword of the Jew: I find it necessary to reject the foundations of the Jewish faith." My heart, I say, would be sad, but I would not dream of attempting to coerce the mind of a child. I would look with horror and with heartbreak upon the act of a child, who under one pretext or another took itself out of the Jewish bond and away from Jewish life. If, I repeat, a child of mine were to say "I can have nothing to do with Israel," I would sorrow over that child as lost because I should know that its repudiation of the household of Israel was rooted in selfishness colored by self-protective baseness. But, let me again make clear, if a child should say "I cannot truly affirm God or His unity," I could not decently object, however harassed and unhappy I might feel. I could not tolerate the vileness of racial cowardice and desertion in a child, but I would have no right to break with it because of religious dissent.
One of the conflicts irrepressible arises when there comes to be a deep gulf fixed between the standards of parents and children, so deep as to make harmonious living impossible. Though it seem by way of excuse for children, it must be admitted that parental guidance is ofttimes woefully lacking, when suddenly falls some edict or interdict arbitrarily and unexpectedly imposed for which there has been no preparation whatsoever. It may be torturing for parents to face the facts, but they have no right to refuse to reap what they have sown, to accept the wholly unavoidable consequences of the training of their children. Parents who ask nothing of children for the first twenty years may not suddenly turn about and ask everything. You cannot until your child is twenty give all and after twenty forgive nothing. Parents may not be idiotically doting for twenty years and then suddenly become austerely exacting. I have seen parents, who accept a young son's indolence, luxuriousness and dissipation of mind and body as quite the correct thing for youth, later yield to regret over the mental enervation and moral flabbiness of these sons.
A mother came to me not very long ago in tears over her son who had married a poor wanton creature. What I could no more than vaguely hint to the mother was that she had in some part prepared her son for the moral catastrophe by attiring herself after the manner of a woman of the streets. The household that exposes a son to the necessity of living daily by the side of poor imitations of the street-woman will find his ideals of womanhood sadly undermined in the end. The mother who does not offer a son a glimpse of something of dignity and fineness in her own life, alike in matter and manner, may expect little of her son. Standards at best must be cultivated and illustrated through the years of permeable childhood and cannot be improvised and insisted upon whenever in parental judgment it may become necessary.
There is little to choose between the tragedy of parental rejection of children's standards and filial abhorrence of the standards of parents. And both types of tragedy occur from time to time. Sometimes conflict is well, not conflict in the sense of ceaseless clashing but as frank and undisguised acceptance of the fact of irreconcilably discrepant standards. Better some wars than some peace! There are times when parents and children should conflict with one another, when approval is invited or tolerance expected of the intolerable and abhorrent, whether in the case of an unworthy daughter or a viciously dissolute son. I make the proviso that such conflict, decisive and final, can be as far as parents are concerned without the abandonment of love for the erring daughter or wayward son.
Severer, if anything, the conflict becomes when it is children who are bidden to endure and embrace what they conceive to be the lower standards of parents. The clashing may not be less serious because inward and voiceless rather than outward and vocal. If parents feel free to reprove children, it behooves them to have in mind that children are and of right ought to be free to disapprove of parents, though the conventions seem to forbid children to utter such disapproval. Outward assent may cover up the most violent disapproval, and parenthood should hardly be offered up in mitigation or extenuation any more than the status of orphanhood should shield the parricide or matricide. And it cannot be made too clear, children have the right to reject for themselves the lower standards of parents.
Before me has come from time to time the question whether it is the business of a daughter to yield obedience to a mother who would inflict low and degrading standards upon her child. Or the question is put thus: what would you say to a son, who refuses to enter into and have part in the business of his father which he believes to be unethical, though the father and the rest of the world view it as wholly normal and legitimate? I may not find it in me to urge a child not to obey a parent, neither would I bid a son or daughter waive the scruples of conscience in order to please a parent. Times and occasions there are, I believe, when a child is justified in saying to parents in the terms of finest gentleness and courtesy—the filial fortiter in re must above all else be suaviter in modo—it is not you whom I disobey, because I must obey a law higher than that which parents can impose upon me. I must obey the highest moral law of my own being.
But this decision is always a grave one and must be arrived at in the spirit of earnestness and humility, never in the mood of defiance. Whether or not this entail the necessity of physical separation is less important than that it be clearly understood that there is a higher law even than parental mandate or filial whim, that parents and child alike do well to understand. Parents dare not fail to act upon the truth that, if intellectual coercion be bad, the unuttered and unexercised compulsions toward a lower moral standard are infinitely worse. A child may not forget that, when parental dictate is repudiated in favor of a higher law, it must in truth be a higher law which exacts obedience. And even peace must be sacrificed when the higher law summons.