The following story from the Chicago Tribune, ‘Jewish clause’ divides a family, state courts weigh in on a man’s will that disinherited any descendant who married a gentile, is proof not only of God’s existence, but that God must love the Jewish people very much, because nothing else explains the ongoing existence of people behaving this badly! Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but this story of greed, family fighting, and identity politics is truly sad. But because it raises so many issues that touch so many families, Jewish and otherwise, and the fights that they have, I share it with you. But where to begin the sordid tale?

Let’s start with the deceased grandfather, Max Feinberg and his desire to see his grandchildren marry Jews. Okay, I get that. But holding money over them as an incentive? I actually get that too, it’s the last redoubt of a desperate man, so I feel sorry for him, but don’t endorse it his actions. He went so far as to describe such progeny who made a life with with a non-Jew as “deceased”! And that is beyond the pale.
Neither parents, nor grand-parents are obligated to prove their love by rewarding their kids equally when they have not all behaved equally. But to imagine that someone you love is dead because of a theological disagreement is pretty dangerous territory to stake out.

It’s not that it is surprising for a man of his age, but that doesn’t make it okay either. Which is why his son’s claim that “he has no choice but to honor his father’s wishes” is so troubling. Of course he has a choice! But I imagine that it’s easier for this father to deal with his own frustration with his children’s choices by hiding behind the fifth commandment (honor your father and mother), than it is to figure out how to keep the enforcement of the “Jewish clause” from shattering his family.

In fact, if he read a little further in the Bible, he would come upon the words of Leviticus 19:3 which are understood to provide a limit to how far the obligation to honor parents extends. We are told that if honoring parents requires the violation of Divine will, then there is no obligation. So given that maintaining peace in the family is also a Jewish legal requirement, either dad has to admit that he is acting against his kids because of his own resentment, or stop hiding behind his father’s will and re-inherit his own children.
But let’s not forget the grandchildren. Despite their attorney’s claim that this case is about the children’s greed – their desire to keep the grandchildren from grandpa’s bucks. Of course, it is about greed, but it’s the grandchildren’s! If they did not want the money, there would be no case. So once again we have lawyers making a bad situation worse by dragging everyone into court and trying to project their clients’ worst failings onto those against whom they brought suit. Well, you know what they call a thousand lawyers at the bottom of the ocean….
To be fair though, I understand how the hurt these grandchildren feel is being funneled through their pursuit of the money. Even if they don’t realize it, what they almost certainly want most is to be acknowledged as members of the family who are continuing their grandfather’s legacy, even if they are not doing it exactly his way. And it’s heartbreaking that nobody has stepped in to address this issue.
Finally there are the judges who have behaved in decidedly un-Solomonic fashion. There is the Jew, Judge Alan Greiman of the Illinois Appellate Court, who defended Dr. Feinberg’s “Jewish clause” with the words: “Max and Erla had a dream with respect to the provisions of their will and if you will it, it is no dream.” Misappropriating Theodore Herzl’s words about the dream of a Jewish state and summoning the will to create it, Judge Greiman injects his own Jewish identity politics into both his decision and into other people’s lives. There may well be a reason to uphold the clause, but that is not it!
But Judge Patrick Quinn, writing for the majority, which struck down the clause, fared no better. Claiming that this clause was a slippery slope which could not be tolerated, and comparing it to a white person’s desire to penalize his grandchildren for marrying someone black, he creating his own slippery slope – and one far more dangerous than the one he claims to fear. First, the law should give us the tools to navigate such slippery slopes, not become an excuse for avoiding them before they exist. And second, unlike the faith line, the color line holds no intrinsic distinctions of importance. That is why one can easily find members of a single faith in every color of the rainbow. And if one can not, there may well be a problem with that faith.
So let’s harvest some principles that might help us to navigate through such inter-generational conflicts when we encounter them in our own families. First, never use money to coerce conscience or faith. Second, if you feel hurt by something a child or grandchild has done, talk about it. Actually ask them what their actions mean to them. you might discover that they are honoring one part of your legacy to them even as you experience them violating another. Third, don’t confuse disagreement about an issue within a relationship with the death of that relationship. Fourth, you have more power in any relationship than you initially imagine – don’t hide behind the desires of others. Fifth, don’t use God as an excuse. There is probably a religious counter-argument to whatever religious argument you are making, and it’s probably just as valid. Sixth, stay out of court! Once it becomes adversarial, someone has to lose and in a family dispute, that means that everybody loses. Seventh, be careful about how you seek redress for legitimate hurt. The fact that your cause is just and hurt is genuine, does mean that all forms of redress are healthy or will even get you what you really want most. And finally, beware of others, who with the best of motivations, will happily play out their own dramas in the midst of your life, instead of in their own.
These rules will not end all family squabbles, but they will help you to keep from burying those you love, either before their time, or under mountains of legal paperwork from which neither of you is likely to recover any time soon.
More from Beliefnet and our partners
previous posts