Should we avoid associating with Godless people? I’m the only religious child with 3 brothers and two sisters and I’m frequently torn between seeing them and avoiding the negative effect they can have on me. I find they do drag me down when I’m in their presence.
Do I owe anything to them because they are family?
The short answer is, “yes,” but that doesn’t answer the question, “What do you owe them?” God placed a moral obligation upon siblings towards one another. But the borders are not black and white. Many children gravitate towards rules, be they in games or classrooms, and get upset when a rule is unclear. As we grow, we learn about nuances and exceptions to the rules, but we are constantly tested by needing to straddle lines such as between justice and mercy or discipline and compassion. We human beings often find it easier to live in a world of black and white rather than in the real world that God placed us which has many shades of grey in most of the real-life decisions we face every day.
You are in such a situation with your family, though you haven’t given us any examples of why they drag you down. At one extreme, you have no obligation, shall we say, to join your siblings at a movie that doesn’t meet your moral criteria, but in most cases, while you might not enjoy meeting occasionally for coffee or a family party, we would recommend that you do so. There should be a way to retain some contact while simultaneously limiting and shaping it.
If the negative is blatant, then creative thinking might be helpful here. A friend of ours found it difficult to speak to one of his uncles because the uncle’s conversation leaned heavily towards (harmful) gossip about people they knew in common. He finally hit upon the strategy of preparing questions in his head about a subject that interested this relative and constantly guides the conversation in that direction. He found that in this way he could call once a month or so, keep the conversation relatively short but feel that he wasn’t abandoning a rather lonely uncle. A student of ours realized that she and her sister both enjoyed music and so they attend concerts together, giving them a joint activity that minimizes the interaction between them.
It might be worth recalling King David’s advice for when you have to interact with people who are truly a negative influence on you.
Happy is the man who has not walked by the counsel of the wicked, or stood in the path of sinners, or sat down in the company of the insolent. (Psalms 1:1)
Notice that he lists three specific verbs: walk, stand, sit, in that sequence. Ancient Jewish wisdom reveals the deeper meaning. Sometimes, circumstances force us to have dealings (either family or business) with wicked people, sinners, or insolent people. The trick is to minimize it in a state of full personal awareness. If you must, walk with them although the best is not to do even that. However, if you have to walk with them, at least avoid stopping with them. As long as you’re walking and moving, you’re not fully associating as you would when you stop and stand with them for a long chat on the street corner. Finally, if you must stand with them at least avoid pulling up a chair, sitting down and joining the club. For your situation, this teaching from the opening of Psalms, advises you to grade your interactions and engage only to the extent necessary. Keep walking, standing and sitting in your mind as metaphors for levels of involvement.
We suggest you ask yourself what about your siblings drags you down and strategize accordingly. Do what you can to make seeing them, if not more pleasant, then less unpleasant. Remember too that, in their eyes, you are a representative of religion and belief. That puts a responsibility on your shoulders to avoid giving them the impression that those who love God don’t care about people.
As an aside, and without knowing your specific situation, we discourage gratuitous labeling of people. We know many who never set foot in a synagogue or church but who nonetheless have a deep spiritual connection with their Creator. Sadly, there are others who identify strongly with a church or synagogue but whose behavior doesn’t align with what we would consider to be Godly instruction.
We don’t know your story and so this point isn’t necessarily directed at you, but there is a fine line between having standards and being excessively judgmental in a way that could be seen as obnoxious. Are you looking for the good in your siblings? Does your brother coach Little League or your sister volunteer at a soup kitchen? Are they faithful spouses, involved parents and responsible employees? Is it possible to find something positive in your siblings’ lives that you can admire and even praise?
While you, and many of us, might have chosen different relatives if we had been given the opportunity to do so, God placed these specific people in your life and you are inextricably connected to them. Find the area of compromise that allows you to retain some level of obligation with the least chance of damage to your own personal growth.
Wishing you success,
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin