Unconditional Love: An Exchange

by Rabbi Shneur Aisenstark

[Editor’s Note: Rabbi Shneur Aisenstark, an extremely well-regarded veteran educator in Montreal penned an article in last week’s Mishpacha Magazine that created some confusion among readers. “Unconditional Love Has Its Limits” seemed to be both a contradiction in terms (by making unconditional love very much conditional) as well as quite dangerous in the estimation of professionals who have dealt for many years with off-the-derech (OTD) children.

One day, people will begin writing not only about OTD children, but the related phenomenon of the great number of those children (at least anecdotally) who return to Torah observance. If there is one factor that is important in producing the BOTD (back on the derech) child, it is the unconditional love of his or her family. Professionals warn not to scrimp or be sparing on the love shown to the errant child. Love needs to be unconditional; it is not synonymous with acceptance, which may allow for setting expectations and limits.

Rabbi Yakov Horowitz is no stranger to these pages. Also a veteran mechanech, he heads up Agudah’s Project YES. His creativity in curricular areas is famous – but he is perhaps most famous for his boundless courage on behalf of victims of abuse, and his campaign against covers-up and punishing the victim. I was one of several people who spoke with him after reading the article, and he swung into action, clarifying Rabbi Aisenstark’s intent, and removing a michshol from the rabim.

What follows is a brief exchange between Rabbis Aisentark and Horowitz.

(Click here and here to download and read the Mishpacha article.) – YA ]

Dear Reb Yakov:

Thanks for calling to discuss my column and as always it was a pleasure discussing chinuch matters with you. Along the lines of our conversation, here is some background regarding why the column was written, and what message it was intended to send, and feel free to send it to your readers.

The article was written in response to several situations brought to my attention where parents were quite literally living in abusive circumstances, when a rebellious child made life miserable for the rest of the family. The parents expressed their acceptance of these conditions because they were told to love their children unconditionally. I strongly feel that in situations like these, red lines need to set by parents, so that their lives become manageable and their home can continue to function.

The crux of my article was not to discuss the matter of parents dealing with children who abandoned Yiddishkeit due to abuse/molestation, or those whose experience in our school system was painful due to learning disabilities or emotional challenges, because they cannot control their situation. Therefore they should be loved and supported unconditionally.

The article was also not addressing children who are slipping in their observance level or even not observant at all, who are respectful of their family’s values and not undermining the authority of their parents. They, too, should be afforded every consideration to have them live at home in the embrace of their parents and siblings provided that they show some level of openness to religion (for example being open to discussing religion with a frum person of their choosing as a sign of respect for the family — as opposed to categorically refusing to engage in any talks of this nature.)

What I wanted to convey is that children who are spinning out of control, and who refuse any form of intervention, must understand that there are gedorim, red flags and lines which cannot be crossed while still using the home as a base once they have gone off the derech. There is no unconditional love in these circumstances. When a child does not want any help from therapists, psychologists, social workers, family members, rabbonim, he/she cannot expect that his/her parents will love him as before. Such a child must know and feel that the door is always open as long as he/she opens a pesach shel machat. Even though he/she has lost unconditional love, love is still there for one who wants to try somewhat.

Thanks for reaching out to me for clarification and best wishes for hatzlacha in your avodas hakodesh


Shneur Aisenstark
Having the greatest respect for Rabbi Aisenstark’s extraordinary accomplishments in chinuch over many decades, we feel compelled to share two points with our readers due to the importance of this matter:

1) Having dealt firsthand with similar situations for over sixteen years, it is our very strong recommendation to parents that their message to their OTD child and his/her siblings be one of unconditional love with no exceptions. Love does not mean acceptance. It means that the place our children hold in our hearts is not diminished regardless of how much they disappoint or even hurt us.

2) The story related of the rebbi who asked Reb Chaim Kanievsky, shlit”a about Yosef and his brothers, in the context of this discussion, conveys a dangerous message, that today’s kids are disrespectful, and implies that this is the primary cause for kids abandoning Yiddishkeit — when there are many diverse factors for this phenomenon (click here On The Derech for more on this.)

The reason that we do not pasken (determine) halacha (Jewish law) from aggadah (stories related in gemara) is because by their very nature, anecdotes are subject to wide interpretations.

And if in fact the implication of that story is correct, how does one explain the staggeringly high OTD rate on the Lower East Side a few generations ago or earlier during the times of the haskala (enlightenment)?

Most troubling is that some parents may derive a mistaken message from this anecdote, namely that little reflection and/or improvement in their parenting and quality of their home life is required because the blame is squarely placed on the shoulders of “today’s (disrespectful) kids.

We are deeply grateful to Rabbi Aisenstark for graciously opening this discussion, and we feel that this pilpul chaverim (discussions among friends) will help us all realize our deepest wishes that we have endless nachas from our children and grandchildren.

Yakov Horowitz

[To read Rabbi Horowitz’s article on demanding that a child leave his home, read here.

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15 Responses

  1. Allan Katz says:

    It is a pretty common reaction of siblings to focus their wrath on the favorite kid and not on their parents. The favorite child in the family is often on the receiving end of sibling hostility while the perpetrators – the parents mostly get off free from blame. This misdirection of resentment is pretty understandable. It is safer to blame a sister for being treated as special than to get angry at parents for treating her that way. If he takes issue with his parents this is likely to make a kid’s relationship with his parents worse.

    Unconditional love according to Alfie Kohn is not unconditionally loving what your child does , it is accepting and loving them for who they are , not what they do. Conditional love is loving your kid with strings attached , more or less depending how they perform or withdrawing your love. Unconditional love means collaborating to solve problems, address the concerns of both the parent and child, and then brainstorming to find solutions that are mutually satisfactory. I know many OTK who are out of their parents homes , yet felt cared, loved and supported by their parents

  2. BR says:

    I am dubious regarding the story of the rebbi asking R’ Chaim Kanievsky about lack of respect for a parent. The sugya of Ba B’Machteres, involves a thief breaking in to a home. The homeowner is allowed to kill the thief since there is concern the thief would kill the homeowner. The only exclusion is when a father breaks in, because a father would never kill a child. However, if the one breaking and entering is the son into a father’s home, the father is allowed to kill the son (the would be robber) since a son may kill a father.

    So a son may kill a father but would never disrespect a father?

  3. Steve says:

    I’ve heard this story of Rav Kanievsky before and I think it’s wrong to fault the story itself for the application chosen by Rabbi Aisenstark. Rav Kanievsky was not making a comment about OTD children. His comment related to all of today’s children. Our children question their parents and all authority in general. It’s a new generation (probably beginning in the 60s) and Rav Kanievsky was teaching us to be sensitive to the needs of today’s children, and their need to be understood and validated manifests itself in their questioning of authority. My take away is the complete opposite — authority today is not as effective in Chinuch as it once was and new approaches must be found. It seems to me that approach is…. loving our children/students, unconditionally! No matter what they ask, what they’ve done, or what they’ve been through.

  4. YM Goldstein says:

    When I read Rabbi Aisenstark’s piece in Mishpacha, the impression I had was that he was advocating that older teenagers can and should be thrown out of the house if they are completely unwilling to obey any of the rules and customs of the house, and that, as he put it, “unconditional love has its limits”. If a teenager, for example, has gone OTD but is unwilling to contain his/her hillul shabbos to his/her own room, and he or she raves like a lunatic in front of other children, I think that a Parent has to evaluate the interests of this child against the interests of the family and other children. OTOH, in real life, these situations don’t arise in isolation; it is almost uncanny how when reading about someone OTD, it become clear that their homelife was terrible.

  5. Shades of Gray says:

    I’ve read R. Aisentark’s article’s with interest, but was troubled by the current article when I read it this past Shabbos. I am happy to read here a clarification and would like to add some points.

    1) The Noverminsker Rebbe addressed this issue in an interview in a supplement to Hamodia called “Kids of Hope”(Peasch 5770, available online). He seemed to focus on the damage done to other children by the one OTD.

    “Speaking of those who are already off the derech…Some recommend unconditional love; others disagree.”

    There are no absolutes.

    On one hand, the door should always be open. On the other hand, if maintaining an open door can cause damage to other children in the family, then, unfortunately, he’s not welcome at home. You can’t expect a family to welcome a child who will be desecrating Shabbos.

    These children should be given every opportunity to connect with their parents, and to be shown the love that parents feel for their children. But there are certain rules they have to obey and standards they have to meet. It’s not a one-way street.

    The love is always there. But there can be cases and times when, unfortunately, these children are not welcome at home. Hopefully, it will only be a minority of cases. In most cases, a child [can be] shown by parents, “The door is still open for you, we still care about you, we love you..” It’s important to keep the lines of communication open.

    There are no absolutes in this parashah. There are rules, but then there are exceptions. In general, in chinuch, there are no absolutes. You have to judge each situation individually.

    He also added that, “They have to try to maintain in some way, either personally or through mentors, communication with children who are already off the derech…and be mispallel for them, and ask for siyatta diShmaya…”

    2) I have seen anecdotes going in the opposite direction of those quoted in R. Aisentark’s article (I can’t remember where I read them):

    R. Chaim Shmuleveitz put into practice his schmooze about not rejecting someone b’shetei yadayim, unlike R. Yehosuha ben Perachia. A boy in Mir in Yerushalayim was reading heretical books, and he said “as long as he is not affecting anyone, he can stay in yeshiva”, and he ended up being frum(one might argue that only a Rosh Yeshiva like R. Chaim can take responsibility for such a situation).

    People in a town in Europe wanted to pressure a Chasidish Rebbe to drive away his wayward child. They stopped when they overheard him saying in prayer, “Just as I tolerate my child even if not deserving so, too you, Hashen should tolerate Your people”.

    When parents want to be punish, perhaps they should also think of the ideal, which is Rav Carlbach in Europe, who would not eat bread with jam when he denied it from his children. This is also emulating Hashem, as far as “imo anochi b’tzara”.

    3) The organization Footsteps reaches out to OTD people and claims that they don’t proselytize; it’s better that someone within the Frum community does some of what they accomplish, such as trying to make peace between them and their families.

    As above, I understand the original article after R. Aisentark’s clarification of the context for it.

  6. Joe Hill says:

    Yasher Koach Rav Shneur Aisenstark shlita for a well written, well thought out, advice on how to appropriately handle difficult family situations. Your insight is truly appreciated and right on target.

  7. Crazy Kanoiy says:

    Rabbi Aisenstark makes a forceful point in his original article which he seems to temper in his clarification to Rabbi Horowitz. There must be red lines. When Avrohom Avinu was confronted with the wayward behavior of Yishmael he was told to follow the advice of Sarah. Garash es ben hamah hazos! Send him out! Away! Avrohom Avinu was the amud hachesed yet chesed and rachmonus have there limits. Yishmael ultimately did teshuva not because his father kept him in the house but because his father took a principled stand.

    Today we suffer from boys who are still “frum” yet text on shabbos etc. Perhaps this phenomena is an unintended consequence of too much love and not enough forcefulness and strength on matters of religious principle.

  8. Moshe Hillson says:

    I think that the title “Uncoditional Love Has Its Limits” is a bit misleading.
    If one must send a child away, it’s not conditional love, it’s TOUGH LOVE.

  9. cvmay says:

    We are certainly zoche to have two outstanding Mechanchim who are in touch with the youth*** of today. (Read Rav Brazil article in Mishpacha about youth & emotions) ***fragile, sensitive, emotional or needy.

    Can a different solution be had by Rav Horowitz and Rav Aisenstark due to the communities that they herald from? New York/Monsey is quite different from Montreal, while the former is ‘Casual ville’, later falls into the category of “Formal ville”. Children born and raised in different venues have cultural disparities. For example: The children/youth of England are closer in temperament to Canadians than Americans. Traits of private/personal, outgoing/introvert, talkative/reserved, friendly/shy, mingling with others/isolation – ghetto communities….produce diverse children who are in need of specific solutions.

    Kol Hakavod, cvmay

  10. Shades of Gray says:

    “Avrohom Avinu was the amud hachesed yet chesed and rachmonus have there limits.”

    It’s not a contradiction to having “unconditional love”. R. Chaim Shmulevitz(5772, 24 and 5771, 26)quotes Midrashim that Avroham loved Yishmael “ahavas nefesh”, just as he did Yitzchak. At the same time, he acted from hatred(“hanhagah shel sinah”) and did not give him gold and silver because he went “l’tarbus raah”. He also says(5771,26)that one should emulate Hashem when punishing someone and do it from “ahavah gedolah l’ein shiur”–unlimited love.

    This agrees with “love does not mean acceptance”, and also with the above quote from the Noverminsker Rebbe that “the love is always there”, even if the OTD child can not live in the house.

  11. Allan Katz says:

    ‘ Perhaps this phenomena is an unintended consequence of too much love and not enough forcefulness and strength on matters of religious principle.’

    I suggest reading Dr Benzion Sorotzkin’s website , being both a Rov and a professional he is well qualified. He quotes in the name of the Chazon ish ‘that what children need more than love is respect.’ It is not a question of a soft or hard approach , it is finding the way to help kids internalize Torah values, make them relevant and their own and find their place in the learning of Torah. This can only be done if we are interested in their thinking and in their perspectives and give them a voice. DR Sorotzkin also shares SDT – self determination theory which explains how teachers and parents can help kids be intrinsically motivated and self determined. Kids need to feel their is a purpose in their learning and keeping mitzvot , they feel autonomous and self directed rather than controlled by their parents, they are competent , and have good relationships with peers, teachers , siblings, parents etc We live in a world where the tools of control and persuasion no longer exists , so to quote the Rabbi, busineness consultant David Lapin – we can oly lead ( our businesses) and families by greatness. t means we have to become greater people, more attractive people that our kids would want to learn from and emulate – not easy . War on the internet misses the whole point.

  12. ben dov says:

    Rabbi Aisenstark has confused unconditional love with unconditional tolerance. Tolerance has limits. G-d forbid there should be limits on unconditional love.

    I think he meant to say there is a limit on what one does in the name of love. But the love itself must not be limited.

  13. Bob Miller says:

    “Stop in the name of love before you break my heart…” Think it over.

  14. milhouse trabajo says:

    Though there has to be some point where abuse cannot be tolerated by most parents, i’m sure there are some yechidim who can go lifnim mishuras hadin, while following in the pleasant ways of Hashem, who forgets sin and pardons the guilty on a regular basis (assumedly when there is still a possibility of teshuva). We can’t blame a parent for saying enough is enough, but that doesn’t mean that that is the paradigm, especially when looking at our own relationships with our Father.

  15. Dovid says:

    I understand why disruptive teenagers would be treated this way, but don’t understand what being OTD has to do with it.

    What if he’s “On the derech” and loudly and forcefully berates and ridicules his parents and siblings for not being frum enough?

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