“The Torah’s Radical Approach to Child Rearing”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Kee Teizei, we learn of a seemingly horrific Torah law, the statute of the Ben Sorer U’moreh, the wayward and rebellious son. According to tradition, despite his parents’ warning, shortly after his 13th birthday, the rebellious son steals money from his parents, and purchases and consumes a large amount of meat and alcoholic beverages. The child is then taken out to the Elders of the city for judgment, and, if found guilty, is publicly stoned to death.

The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin 71-72 explains that the case of the rebellious son is essentially a theoretical construct. The conditions required to execute the child are so extreme and complex that they can never really be fulfilled. Rashi explains that, in theory, the child is punished for theft, gluttony and drunkenness in order to underscore that this early prodigal behavior is an indication of potential murderous inclinations. Better the child be punished before he has a chance to act on his nefarious tendencies.

While the law of the rebellious son may be only theoretical, the portion of Ben Sorer U’moreh underscores some of the Torah’s most fundamental educational philosophies. The entire parent-child relationship espoused by Jewish tradition is quite revolutionary, especially in the post Benjamin Spock era, and in light of contemporary assumptions and practices.

Based on the Torah, Jewish law spells out the two fundamental responsibilities that the adult child (age 12 for women, 13 for men) has to his/her parents. “Kibud Av V’em,” honoring one’s parents, is interpreted by tradition to mean that a child has an obligation to feed, clothe, shelter and transport one’s parents, assuming the parents do not have sufficient resources to care for themselves.

On the other hand, “Yir’ah,” reverence for parents, underscores the negatives of the child’s responsibilities: Do not sit in a parent’s chair, do not call a parent by their first name, do not contradict a parent, or even say that it appears to me that what you mean to say is…, etc.

The Talmud gives some extreme examples of what is expected of a child. It depicts the scenario of a child who has attained great respect as an honored teacher or rabbi and is delivering a lecture before a large audience. His parents enter, rip his garments, strike him on his head, and spit in his face. According to Jewish law, the child is not permitted to insult his parents, display anger toward them, or even show distress in their presence, but must remain silent and show that he fears the King of Kings, who thus decreed.

Clearly, the Torah grants parents ultimate authority over their children. In fact, in Jewish religious tradition, parents are, for all practical purposes, considered to be Loco Deus, in place of G-d, in their relationship with their offspring. Just as no one would dare challenge G-d’s authority, so no child may ever challenge a parent’s authority, since parents (like G-d) are the bestowers of life upon the child.

Jewish law clearly establishes very distinct boundaries in parent-child relationships. The child has all the obligations, and practically no rights, while the parent has all the rights, and quite limited obligations. The Torah, in effect, is practically saying to the child, “You may not breathe without your parent’s approval.”

On the surface, the parent-child relationship espoused by tradition seems quite primitive and brutal, but, in reality, the Torah is simply establishing very stark, clear and unimpeachable boundaries. Parents rule. Period, end of report.

How do we comprehend this imperious attitude toward child rearing, especially in light of the Torah’s clear tradition of pursuing the “Golden Mean”–avoiding the extreme in almost all cases?

Contemporary educators who are experts in discipline know that the foremost elements that are required in order to inspire proper discipline are awe and respect. This is exactly what the Torah attempts to do. Without hesitation, the Torah starkly declares who is boss. There is no “wiggle room,” in this relationship.

Yet there is a second operating principle in Judaism with regard to parent-child relationships. The Code of Jewish Law decrees: “Av sheh’machal al k’vodo, k’vodo ma’chul,” a parent who renounces his obligation to be honored, is permitted to do so. This principle seems to go entirely against the direction of the strict disciplinary system ostensibly advocated by the Torah. But not really. Once the child recognizes that the parent is indeed Loco Deus, G-d’s representative on earth, then it is expected that the parent will loosen up. Consequently, with the parent’s consent, a child may sit in a parent’s seat, may disagree with a parent’s opinion, and may even call their parent by their first name. Establishing boundaries and proper reverence is the essential first ingredient. A healthy, loving relationship can then ensue.

The Talmud tells us that there never was or will be a case of a convicted rebellious and gluttonous child. Set boundaries, set clear boundaries, loosen up, and show love. That’s the Torah’s secret formula for child rearing. It works.

May you be blessed.

Postscript: It must be noted that the Code of Jewish Law strongly condemns any form of child abuse, and hitting a child, while permitted in limited instances, is considered extremely counterproductive.