Dear Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin,
I have been listening to your podcasts and YouTube teachings the past 3-4 weeks. I think I was searching for biblical teachings on finance and YouTube search results led me to you. I gained more than I was expecting, teachings not only on finance but life, and most importantly life’s teachings from the bible with a Jewish perspective. I try to listen each day to have the fundamentals of the 5 Fs be a strong foundation within me. I do have a nagging issue that has haunted me for most of my life, and because of your teachings about family it has highlighted the need for me to resolve it once and for all.
I am 39 now. I am an illegitimate child, born from an affair. My biological parents tried to hide the affair and pregnancy by having my mother date and marry my biological father’s brother. He raised me, loved me as any father would, but tragically died when I was only 3. The truth was revealed to me when I was a teenager, 13 years of age.
Up until then, I had spent all my childhood and early adolescent years grieving and longing for a father that died and left me as a child. I was heartbroken. We grew up in a religious home and in my teenage years I found solace in religion, believing God will take my pain away, forgive my biological parents and me for being their child. At 19 I turned to drugs and alcohol to relieve the pain; the addiction to drugs I have only managed to overcome in the past year.
My question is, when it comes to family in my situation, who is my father? Because I still feel this immense connection to my father who died, to me, he is my identity. As a child my world was built with him at the center. The pain I felt when I knew the truth had more to do with losing him as my father even though I was only 3 when he died. My family, and extended family, have all tried to make me forget the past and embrace my biological father, but I don’t feel at peace with that.
Is it okay that I don’t, is it normal to feel this way, or is it a lack of forgiveness on my part? I feel I have forgiven both biological parents. I believe I have dealt with the shame I felt as a result of their actions. But I can’t shake the connection I feel towards my uncle (I call my dad) as the father of my life and that is how I want to be remembered.
As companies that do genetic testing have abounded, many stories have emerged about people who have been shocked to discover that the men who raised them are not their biological fathers. The psychological fallout from these discoveries has been wide and deep.
It is not surprising that finding out your family’s secrets when you were at a young and impressionable age, threw you off-balance. We are so glad that you are off drugs and, quite frankly, you staying on an even keel is the most important concern here.
Ancient Jewish wisdom does emphasize honoring parents. It also offers the concept of a spiritual parent. This might be a teacher who consistently guided you, an adoptive parent or anyone who was a main influence in one’s emotional and spiritual journey. To bring home the point, there are discussions about what to do when there is a conflict between a physical and spiritual parent. For example, what is a child (who may be a grown-up) to do if both his spiritual and physical father ask for a cup of water. Who does he serve first?
The answer given, in broad strokes, is that the spiritual parent gets precedence. The physical parent gives the child life in this world—and that is very important. But the spiritual parent gives life in both this world and the next one (in heaven). Even though he died when you were three, your image of your father (your uncle) was by your side as you grew up. While you owe your biological father respect and a certain degree of physical care if he needs it, we see no contradiction with elevating your spiritual father in your memory and identity. As long as you are polite and respectful to your biological father, we do not see that your family has any right to demand that you do more. We don’t know how this request is manifested, but perhaps some compromise is possible. For example, if they want you to refer to him as “Daddy,” maybe “Papa Tom (or whatever his name is) would sit better with you. Members of your family may want to erase the past, but it is your reality. We suggest that you remain kind and sympathetic, but do not feel compelled to turn your life over once again.
Wishing you well,
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin
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