“The Torah’s Radical Approach to Parenting”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This Wednesday evening (August 9) and Thursday (August 10), we will observe Tisha b’Av, the Fast of the 9th of Av, commemorating the destruction of the Temple.

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, we encounter a basic law of the Torah that, if properly observed, may result in the rebuilding of the Temple. In parashat Va’etchanan, the Ten Commandments are recorded in the Torah for a second time. The Ten Commandments first appear in Exodus 20 and are repeated in Deuteronomy 5. The name “Ten Commandments” is really a misnomer, which is why traditional Jews refer to these verses as “Asseret Ha’dibrot,” or the Decalogue. Decalogue means ten “statements,” which is more correct, because not all the ten statements are commandments. According to some commentators, there are many more than ten commandments in the Ten Commandments.

The fifth commandment, as it appears in Deut 5:16, reads, “Ka’bed et avicha v’et ee’mecha,” Honor thy father and thy mother, that your days may be lengthened. This is often known as the “swing commandment,” because it is the statement that relates both to the first set of five statements and the second set of five statements. The first five statements, or so-called commandments, concern the relationship of human beings with G-d, while the second five commandments concern the relationship of human beings with their fellow human beings. However, the fifth commandment does not really fit with the first four commandments, since it deals with inter-human relationships of parents and children. The rabbis however say that since parents are “Loco Deus”–they represent G-d in this world–it is entirely appropriate for the fifth commandment to bind or meld the first set of five statements with the second five.

In Leviticus 19:3, we find another statement regarding child-parent relationships: “Eesh emo v’aviv tee’rau,” Every person should fear his mother and his father. The Torah here introduces the concept of Yir’ah, fear. The rabbis explain that fear doesn’t really mean to be afraid in the conventional sense, but rather awe or reverence. Children should be in awe of their parents and revere them, meaning that they should not do anything that will hurt them. This is what is meant by the Talmudic expression, “Yir’ah me’toch a’hava,” reverence resulting from excessive love.

The Code of Jewish Law, in Yoreh De’ah 250, deals extensively with the laws of honoring and fearing parents. “Honor” is interpreted to be the positive steps that a child must take in his relationship with his parents, while “Yir’ah,” reverence, are negative things to avoid. According to Jewish law, every child has an obligation to feed, clothe, shelter, and transport his parents. If the parents have their own money, then the child is entitled to use his parents funds to insure that these services are properly provided. If the parents are impoverished, and the child has the wherewithal, the child is expected to give of his own money to support his parents. If both the children and the parents are poor, the child is not required to collect for his parents, but rather should first take care of his own needs.

Yir’ah, reverence, according to Jewish law means that a child is not allowed to stand in the place where parents stand during prayer or sit in the seat that is usually the parent’s seat. Children are prohibited from calling their parents by their first name. They are not permitted to disagree with their parent’s words, or even say, “It appears to me that what you are saying leads to the following conclusion.”

The Code of Jewish Law cites a Talmudic example expressing the extent of a child’s obligation of Yir’ah, fear. Even if a child was a famous rabbi, sitting in his finest clothes, delivering a Torah lecture to a huge congregation, and his mother and father come, rip his garments, hit him on his head and spit in his face, the child is not permitted to embarrass his parents, but he must remain silent because that is what the Al-Mighty, King of Kings, has commanded. Another version has the parents taking the child’s life savings and throwing the money into the sea. Once again, the child is not permitted to embarrass his parents. However, he does have the right to sue them for the losses.

Interestingly, money and price are often not the decisive factor in determining whether one has properly honored one’s parents–-attitude is! If a child finds even a menial job for one’s poor parent, but does it with the primary intent of benefiting that parent, then the act is considered a blessing. However, if a child feeds one’s parents the finest foods every single day, but does it begrudgingly, it is not considered a meritorious act, and may even deserve punishment.

What derives from this brief survey of the laws of honoring parents is that according to the Jewish understanding, parents represent G-d, period. Parents have all the rights, while children seem to have no rights whatsoever. True, there are a few instances cited by the Code of Jewish Law from the Talmud, which permit a child to disagree with a parent, for example with respect to choosing a mate or going to a yeshiva to study in a city where the parents object. However, in all other circumstances, it seems as if the child has no rights, while parents have complete authority.

This radical formula of parenting espoused by Judaism requires analysis. Apparently, the Torah wants to set down the law, a priori, that these two human beings, father and mother, who biologically bore the child, deserve ultimate respect, simply because they are in effect the creators of their child’s life. They may be miscreants or scoundrels, but they still are entitled to the respect and honor of their children. Consequently, the Code of Jewish Law suggests that in circumstances where parents are crazed and the child cannot humanly show respect, then the child should move away, making certain that the parents are cared for properly by hiring someone to serve as a caretaker for them. However, under normal circumstances, because parents represent G-d in this world, the child owes total and unconditional allegiance and respect.

Now here comes the clincher! While the Code of Jewish Law and the Talmud say that parents have all the rights, the Code of Jewish Law clearly suggests that parents should not be too onerous or didactic in exercising those rights. In fact, there is a vital principle of Jewish Law that mitigates unilateral parental authority: parents who renounce respect due them may do so. This means that although the positive obligations–feeding, clothing, sheltering, and transporting–may never be canceled, a child may indeed call his parent by their first name if the parent explicitly allows it. He may sit in the parent’s place or stand in the parent’s place of prayer, and a child may even disagree with a parent, if the parent does not mind.

We see here Judaism’s attempt to create a very delicate balance. Initially, the child must know, without doubt, that the parent is the ultimate authority, and total respect is due that parent. Lay down the law, set up firm parameters, let the child know precisely the rules of the game. However, once a sense of respect and reverence has been established, a parent may, in fact should, become lenient. Of course, the cards are always in the hands of the parents, and if things get out of hand, they may once again choose to tighten the rules.

These are the radical regulations of parenting set down in our Talmud and in our Code of Jewish Law based on the insights of our Torah. They’re ancient and insightful, and they work!

Have a meaningful fast, and may we merit to see the rebuilding of the Temple in our lifetime!

May you be blessed.

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