“Dad, isn’t it true that I can’t read from the Torah there?”
My daughter Ilana, a first-year law student, was subjecting me to a cross-examination early one Saturday morning. It was the Shabbat after Thanksgiving, and she and her twin Hannah were staying with us, along with their friends.
Now that my wife and I are empty nesters, family gatherings are even more precious. But they also come with a certain amount of drama and tension, perhaps inevitably. On this Shabbos morning, when I said I was going to Chabad for services, Ilana decided to try out the skills she has been honing at school.
Sensing that she had me on my back foot, and playing to a sympathetic audience, Ilana fired more questions, not even pausing for answers. “And we,” she gestured to Hannah, “don’t count for the minyan, right? And we can’t sit with men, only with the women? Isn’t that so, Dad?”
Those of a certain age will remember the TV drama Perry Mason, where Mason, a lawyer who never loses a case, would exonerate his client by exposing the real culprit on the witness stand, in the closing minutes of the show. I felt like one of Mason’s villains, trying to stay composed in the face of increasing pressure.
Only I wasn’t guilty, and neither is Chabad. To the contrary, I felt that this was the moment for me to explain why I find spending Shabbat at Chabad is valuable and rewarding, even though I am not an Orthodox Jew. Otherwise, my daughters might see my allegiance to this Chasidic movement as evidence of their aging father’s eccentricity. Worse, they might be tempted to “cancel” Chabad, consigning it to that void to which their generation exiles things that don’t fit the fad of the hour.
But what to say? My daughters’ generation is firmly committed to equality between the sexes. I knew that any argument based on tradition would be summarily dismissed.
The Parsha that week was Toledot, in which Rebecca plays the central role in making sure that Jacob, rather than his brother Esau, receives the blessing of his father Isaac. I pointed this out, reminding my daughters that Rebecca’s wisdom and boldness drives the story forward. Sensing I had their attention, I added that Abraham’s wife Sarah had to do something similar to make sure Isaac would be recognized as his father’s rightful heir. The Matriarchs, I said, are in no sense second class citizens.
Ilana loved Torah stories as a child, and it might have been that reviving memories of hearing them at bedtime led her to call off the interrogation. I’d like to believe that, but the “realist” within whispered that she recognized I knew the parsha better than she did and decided it was best not to continue the debate.
Whatever the case, harmony was restored, I went to shul and shared the episode at Kiddush. There, Rabbi Kantor complimented me for succeeding in getting my daughter to desist.
Then he suggested that if the topic came up again, I should “…ask them to come here with you. Let them experience Shabbos at our shul and decide what they think of it.”
Once he had said it the idea seemed so obvious I could have slapped my forehead. His suggestion brought back memories of my first Shabbat at Chabad. I went reluctantly, following the advice of an old friend because I had run out of excuses. But once there, I was quickly put at ease, and then drawn in, by the familiar melodies. They were the ones I knew from childhood. Hearing them made me think of sitting next to my father at our conservative synagogue in northern New Jersey.
On my first visit, I also liked the pithy observations the rabbi made about the parsha between the aliyot. And I loved the closeness shared by the people sitting together at Kiddush. Those qualities immediately touched me and attracted me.
My twins would also love that warmth and closeness, and they would certainly find good friends on their side of the mechitza. From the time they were little, Ilana and Hannah loved stories. There are no greater stories than those chanted from the bimah on Shabbat. My daughters would be intrigued and astonished to see the depths our rabbis have drawn from the stories they encountered as children and may still think of as “children’s tales.”
Of course, these are my guesses about what my daughters might like about Chabad. As Rabbi Kantor pointed out, they need to experience Chabad for themselves. His answer strikes me as Talmudic. Time and again in the midst of a debate the Talmud turns to the reader and says, “Come and hear,” and with those words extends an invitation to make up one’s own mind.
So if at the next family gathering Ilana again channels her inner Perry Mason, I will channel Rabbi Kantor and the Talmud. I will say, “Come and hear for yourself, sweetie. And Hannah, you come too.”
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