Generational Tension

We need to stop holding children of intermarriage responsible for decisions their parents made.

Commentary on Parashat Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19

This Torah portion appears to be a list of endless and often seemingly irrelevant rules. Some we carefully follow. Others have been assigned to history. Perhaps it is because they are specifically related to a time and place that no longer speaks to us. Often, it is because we do not understand the depth of wisdom contained in the Torah’s directives for our daily lives. Even if the specific obligation may be obscure, the principle that underlies it may bring insight and meaning into our lives.

What is indeed woven through the portion is a sense of obligation and responsibility, especially among the generations. One rule in particular we can relate to, whether we are parents or children. Perhaps it is extreme but we understand its sentiment nonetheless: “Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents; a person shall be put to death only for his own crime (Deuteronomy 24:16).”

Those of us who work with families know that there is often tension between generations, sometimes as a result of decisions that adult children make. While the Torah writes in the extremes, as it often does, the basic principle is sound. We may feel responsible for the actions of our children–but we are not responsible.

People should be responsible for their own acts–whether they be negative or positive. And yet, we often hold the children of intermarriage responsible for the decision that their parents made. Instead we should be reaching out to them with open arms.

Consider this relevant lesson from the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 268:11): If parents convert to Judaism and they have children and raise those children as Jews and their conversion later becomes suspect, the parents may be considered as not Jewish but the status of the children should not be questioned.

Within this same portion is what seems to be a totally obscure notion: “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it (Deuteronomy 22:8).”

The medieval philosopher/theologian Moses Maimonides had a lot to say about this particular idea. Like the rest of the texts in this portion, it is about our responsibility to the other. We have a responsibility to make sure that the person standing on our roof (which I read as entering our home, household, and even community) does not fall because we have been careless. We have a responsibility to do whatever it takes — to build a protective parapet — and make sure that in our house, no one risks falling.

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