Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Foster parents and Rabbis

I was fortunate to be able to spend Tikkun Leil Shavuot* at Pardes, in Jerusalem, this year. I learned at Pardes many years ago, and it was a wonderful experience. So when I knew that I was going to be in Jerusalem for Shavuot, it was an easy choice just to spend the entire night there. Little did I expect that one of the shiurim** would be relevant to foster parenting.

The shiur was entitled "Kibud Av [honoring parents] and Kibud Rav [honoring teachers/rabbis]" and was given by Rabbi Zvi Hirschfield. While I didn't think that his shiur gave enough attention to the needs of the student (foster child, in my interpretation), one of his sources gives a lot to think about. I've copied it below without too much explanation of the Jewish bits. But read it replacing the word "teacher" with the phrase "foster parent," and the subject person as a foster child, and all of a sudden, the Rabbis of olde could have been speaking to us.

Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia; Page 33a***

Mishnah: If a person's lost article and his father's lost article need attention, his own takes precedence. His own and his teacher's - his own takes precedence. His father's and his teacher's - his teacher's takes precedence because his father brought him into this world and his teacher who instructed him in wisdom brings him to the future world. But if his father is a sage, his father's takes precedence. If his father and his teacher were each carrying a burden, he must first assist his teacher and then his father. If his father and his teacher are in captivity, he must first redeem his teacher and then his father, but if his father is a sage, he first redeems his father and then his teacher.

Gemarrah: From where to we know this? R. Judah said in the name of Rav: "Save that there be no poor among you." Yours takes precedence over others. But R. Judah also said in the name of Rav: He who strictly observes this will eventually be brought to poverty. Our Rabbis taught: the teacher referred to is he who instructed him in wisdom, not he who taught him Bible and Mishnah, this is R. Meir's view. R. Judah said: He from whom one has derived the greater part of his knowledge. R. Yossi said: even if he informed him of a single Mishnah only, he is his teacher. Raba said: for example, R. Sehora, who told me the meaning of zohara listron.

Shmuel rent his garment [that is, observed the mourning rituals that are obligatory on the death of a close relative] for one of the rabbis who taught him the meaning of "One was thrust into the duct as far as the armpit, and another key opened the door directly."

Ulla said: the scholars in Babylonia rise before each other [that is, provide each other with honor] and rent their garments before each other in mourning; but with respect to lost articles, when one has his father's also, he returns the scholar's first only in the case of his most central teacher.

R. Hisda asked R. Huna: What of a disciple whom his teacher needs? Hisda, Hisda, he answered: I do not need you but you need me. Forty years they bore resentment for each other and did not visit each other. R. Hisda kept forty fasts because R. Huna had felt humiliated, while R. Huna kept forty fasts for having suspected R. Hisda.

It has been taught: R. Isaac b. Yosef said in the name of R. Yochanan: The law is as R. Judah.

I really, really hope that my exposition here is clear and doesn't assume too much Jewish knowledge or experience with Jewish learning. But if I've failed, feel free to slap me around a bit in the comments. (BTW: the line about being thrust into the duct has something to do with opening doors, one was easy and the other really difficult, but I don't remember the explanation and it isn't necessary. So don't fret that it is completely boggling and unintelligible.)

The basic question, and here I will use the language of the mishnah and gemarra, but strike them through and replace them with the language of fostering, is: given mixed or conflicting allegiances, who should the student foster child honor/respect/love more, his father bio-family or his Rabbi/teacher foster family? (Interesting, that "should." It's where we get into some stickiness in the foster care arena. But halacha**** is about should/must/may/must not much more than it is about does/is. So that is the language we use here, and then celebrate that relationships in foster care are not governed by halacha.)

The mishnah teaches first that one has to look out for himself or herself first. I think that this is intuitive and fair, and echoes our experience in life. I haven't had any kiddos in my home yet, but my guess is that kids in foster care experience this even more strongly. And it's what you are supposed to do on an airplane if there's a loss of cabin pressure.

Then the mishnah teaches that a student foster child is to place the Rabbi/teacher foster parent above the father bio-family. This is troubling even in the original context. As another participant in the shiur pointed out, this text was written by the Rabbis, so of course they were looking out for themselves. But why is this? It is because, as the mishnah continues, the father bio-family "brought him into this world" and the teacher foster parent is... filling the role that the bio-family would fill if they had the ability to do so. (See: "if his father is a sage"...then the student doesn't so much need a teacher.) (It is reasonable to note here that, at least of the first-year students at Pardes, many are exploring being more observant than their parents or have already made the decision to be more observant than their parents, so this question of what does "kibbud av" really entail is a frequent topic of conversation. So it may be that Zvi was already thinking about this question from that perspective when he looked at the texts that he used as sources.)

As it then goes on in the gemarra, what happens when a student foster child has many teachers foster families? To what extent is the student foster child "obligated" to maintain feelings of honor/respect/gratitude (not sure about that last one) for the foster families that took the kiddo in for respite or for only a few weeks?

The range of answers given indicates both an ambivalence about and a desire to require expressions of respect. The ultimate answer, that respect is only required towards the teacher "from whom one has derived the greater part of his knowledge" strikes a balance. It is not necessarily the right answer for foster parents who are interacting with foster children, as the kiddos have to be the ones to discover for themselves what an individual family means to them.

But this text does shine a light on the mixed feelings that our foster children might/will have; they will feel a tug towards their bio-family that might cause them to feel conflicted if they want to be close also to us. We just need to be sure that we don't tell them that they need to place us above their bio-families.

* It is traditional on the [first] night of the holiday of Shavuot to stay up all night learning. This is called a tikkun leil Shavuot.
** Shiurim (singular: shiur) are classes. There's a special connotation to the word "shiur" as opposed to simply saying it was a class.
*** This is the citation to the source. If you're not familiar with the talmud, this won't mean much to you. "Mishnah" and "gemarra" are two types of content within the talmud.
****Halacha is the word for Jewish law.

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