For the week ending 16 July 2011 / 13 Tammuz 5771

Old Friends

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Andy

Dear Rabbi,

I have decided to become observant. But I also enjoy the friends I have and the things we do. Is there any problem with still being with them even if they are doing things that aren’t good as long as I don’t do them myself?

Dear Andy,

It’s great that you’ve decided to become observant. It’s also great that you have good friends and want to keep up your friendships. And it is common in these situations that people experience a certain conflict of interests between old friends and habits as opposed to the new beliefs and practices associated with becoming religious.

As long as your old friends are acting in a way and doing things that are basically acceptable, it would not be wrong to spend time with them. If it’s possible, you might even discuss religious topics with them from time to time, without being aggressive, or suggest activities of a Jewish nature that might be taking place in your area.

As you grow Jewishly, your friends either will or won’t. As long as your friendships are fulfilling and consistent with your values, you’ll continue to value them. However, it’s natural that over time a person simply doesn’t enjoy spending time with or doing things with friends who aren’t in tune with his lifestyle. While these friendships may remain, the actual time spent together may wane.

However, if and when your friends are doing things that are not acceptable according to the Torah, you should not be with them, even if you personally are not acting in a bad way or doing anything wrong.

This should be obvious at least on one level: If you intend to abide by the law and had the decision to be with people who were doing something illegal or avoid them, you would clearly avoid being with them during the crime, and perhaps even at other times. You wouldn’t want to give your tacit approval to crime, you wouldn’t want to be suspected or implicated, you wouldn’t want to get punished, you wouldn’t want to get in harm’s way, and you wouldn’t want to be drawn into that behavior in the first place, which would only increase the chance of the other things happening as well.

Now I’m not suggesting that your friends are doing “illegal” things from society’s point of view. But if you’ve decided to become observant of Jewish Law, then things that oppose the Torah are illegal in that sense. And you should not be present if and when they transgress the Torah, even if it’s unintentional.

But even on a more subtle level, being there without doing anything wrong is also harmful. For one, it can subconsciously erode your commitment until you’ll eventually lapse into the same old behavior. Also, it has a spiritually damaging effect in that exposure to these things, even if you’re not actively participating, prevents you from refining your soul. This can be compared to someone who goes to a malodorous place – he absorbs the bad odor from the air such that when he leaves, others can still smell where he’s been. Conversely, being around righteous and holy people, even if we aren’t pious ourselves, has a good spiritual influence that can be compared to one who enters a perfume shop – even without putting on fragrance, the good scents one absorbs by just being there is pleasantly perceived when he’s left.

This dynamic is also readily apparent on children. When a good child starts hanging around bad children, even if he doesn’t do what the others are doing, the effect of their behavior on him is obvious. This is because children are naturally so innocent that the harmful effects of their environment are immediately noticeable on the backdrop of their purity. We, as adults, also have to be on guard to preserve the integrity of our souls.

Although you ask about friends, your question is also related to family, which is a much more sensitive and delicate subject. While in general what I wrote here would apply to family as well, in practice, even more love, sensitivity and patience is necessary. With the right intention and proper guidance, despite the potentially rocky and challenging period of adjustment, a newly-religious person should be able to maintain healthy and mutually-fulfilling relationships with non-religious friends, and even more so family, that last for life.

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