כִּי יִהְיֶה לְאִישׁ בֵּן סוֹרֵר וּמוֹרֶה, אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ בְּקוֹל אָבִיו וּבְקוֹל אִמּוֹ...
A grief-stricken father turned to Rav Kook for advice. Rabbi Dov Ber Milstein was a diligent scholar and a Hasidic Jew, the owner of a thriving lumber business in Warsaw. His two younger sons, however, were expelled from their yeshiva. Influenced by socialist and Polish-nationalist friends, they had abandoned religious life. They even took part in the failed 1905 coup attempt against the Russian Tsar.
What should the father do? How should he respond to this betrayal of his values and lifestyle? Should he cut off all ties from his sons and sit shiva over their lost souls? Should he argue with them and rebuke them?
In a series of letters, Rav Kook consoled the father and offered a number of practical suggestions.
The first and most important principle is not to break off contact. Rav Kook was adamant that a parent should not sever his connection with his children, despite their rejection of their religious upbringing.
“I understand well your heartache and grief,” he wrote. “But if you think, like most Torah scholars do, that in our times it is fitting to reject those children who have left the path of Torah and faith due to the turbulent currents of the era — then I say, unequivocally, this is not the path that God desires.”
We should never give up on a single Jewish soul. “A myrtle among the reeds is still a myrtle and is called a myrtle“ (Sanhedrin 44a).
Rav Kook’s second point was that we must accurately judge the next generation and appreciate their motives. In these turbulent times of social movements and uprisings, our sons and daughters who have abandoned Judaism should be viewed as acting under duress. “God forbid that we should judge them as having rebelled willfully.” They are motivated, not by selfish desires, but by aspirations to repair societal inequalities and fight political corruption. Their yearnings for fairness and compassion are rooted in “the inner soul of Israel’s holiness that lies hidden within their hearts.”
They have been led astray, not because of hedonist passions, but because they pursue justice and kindness. If we don’t push them away, but do our best to draw them back, they will be ready to return to Judaism.
Practically speaking, Rav Kook advised the father “to assist them, as much as you are able, toward their livelihood and pressing needs.” It is not easy to financially support children who have rejected your way of life. But this will maintain your connection with them, and “provide an opportunity to express words of mussar, chosen judiciously, in your letters. It is in the nature of words that come from the heart to have an impact, whether much or little.”
Rav Kook further advised the father to remind his children of their Jewish heritage. Counsel them not to abandon their people due to false dreams that they will gain a secure place of honor and respect among the nations of the world. “The [nations] befriend you when it serves them, but in times of trouble, they will rejoice in your downfall.”
If you are successful in awakening a love of the Jewish people in their hearts, this will lead to sparks of faith and holy aspirations. And it may eventually result in complete teshuvah.
Rav Kook’s final observation: our children left Judaism due to mistakes of the intellect, thinking that this way will enable them to perform greater good in the world. Their return to Judaism will not be spurred by impassioned speeches of fire and brimstone, but by an intellectual recalculation.
“We need not picture their return to Judaism as penitence accompanied by terrible anguish and the fear of utter collapse, like the common perception of ordinary teshuvah. Rather, it will be a simple reassessment, like a person who corrects a mistake in arithmetic after clarifying the numbers.”
The father’s rabbi in Poland, the Rebbe of Porisov, instructed Rabbi Milstein to sever all contact with his two younger sons who had abandoned religion. But the father followed Rav Kook’s guidance and reconciled with his sons. He continued to support them financially, even when they were far away in France and Brussels.
Was Rav Kook’s advice successful? What happened to the two sons?
Sadly, neither son returned to religious observance. The middle son, Shmulka, worked as an economist for the Polish bank, while the youngest son, Naftali, served as a Polish diplomat in Belgium and France.
The family, however, always stayed connected. Over time, the financial situation of the Milstein family reversed. The father’s profitable business began to fail. Instead of the wealthy father supporting his sons, his sons supported their father.
After Rabbi Milstein and his firstborn son immigrated to Jerusalem, Shmulka and Naftali continued to send money to support their father and elder brother. Naftali even visited his father in Jerusalem and bought him a large three-room apartment.
Naftali Milstein did not return to his religious upbringing, but never denied his Judaism. He wrote extensively about anti-Semitism, predicting that tens of thousands of Jews would be exterminated in Poland. Active in Jewish causes, he assisted Eastern European Jews to emigrate to South America, Canada, and Israel.
Only the eldest son, Rabbi Chaim-Ze'ev, remained fully committed to Jewish observance, moving to Israel and raising many descendants who continued in his father’s path.
(Adapted from Iggerot HaRe’iyah vol. I, letter 138 (19 Iyyar 5668/1908). Background information from ‘A journey in the footsteps of the mysterious figures in Rav Kook’s letters’ by Rabbi Ari Shevat, Makor Rishon (08/14/2018).
Illustration image: ‘Portrait of an Old Jew’ (Rembrandt, 1654)