In the Ten Commandments, we are told to “honor (KABED) your father and your mother” (Ex. 20:12; Deut. 5;16). Some English translations render KABED as “respect” or as “regard (treat with honor, due obedience and courtesy).” Similarly, in the Apocrypha, Tobit tells his son Tobias, to “honor (your mother) all the days of your life” (4: 3). In Lev. 19: 3, the term is even stronger: “You shall revere your mother and father.” The Hebrew word here is YARE, and means, almost “fear, stand in awe.” In the New Testament, children are required to “obey” their parents (Ephesians 6: 1; Colossians 3: 20).
The Hebrew Bible expresses the hope that by honoring your parents, “you may long endure on the land that the Lord your God is assigning to you.” In other words, you will live longer. We find a clear rationale for the dictum in rabbinic literature: you need to honor them “because the father and the mother are the reason for your existence” (Sefer Ha-Hinukh, 33).
Two questions: 1. To whom is this commandment addressed? Parents can easily impose themselves on their children when they are young. The Talmud asks: What does honoring mean? It answers: “Providing them with food and drink, clothing and covers, and taking them in and out” (Kid. 31b). My impression is that the instruction is directed to adult children who are responsible for the wellbeing of their elderly parents who cannot fend for themselves. It is then that honoring becomes more relevant.
2. The verb “honor” here is noteworthy. One would have expected to find “you shall love your parents.” Is this on purpose? Could that mean that we must “honor” our parents, but not necessarily “love” them?
Jewish literary sources put a high emphasis on the necessity to show respect for the parents, but parental authority on the children is not absolute. For example, according to Jewish law, “a man should never terrorize his household” (Git. 6b). If a father orders his children to break a Torah law, the children can ignore his demands (Shulhan Arukh, YD, 240: 15). If the father objects to his son’s marrying someone of his choice, the son can disregard the father’s objections (Shulhan Arukh, YD 240: 25).
On the other hand, Jewish sources also show that, honoring the parents is an obligation even if there is no loving relationship between children and mother/father. For, as Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher of the medieval times, once wrote to Obadiah, the proselyte, saying, “It is possible for a person to honor, hold him in awe and obey one whom one does not love.”
Years ago, when I was in congregational rabbinate, I had to confront the dilemma of “honor” vs. “love” in a concrete life situation: Once a woman came to see me in my office, and told me that her father was ill, and needed personal attention. Her question to me was whether or not she had to comply with his requests. I said, the Decalogue instructs us to look after our parents, and, as the Rabbis add, “even if you have to go around begging for it “(JT, Peah, 15d). She retorted: Rabbi, you do not know all the facts. My father sexually abused me when I was young. I cannot touch him!
Upon reflection, I said to her: I don’t expect you to help him out physically and personally. The biblical text tells us to “honor” our parents, not necessarily to “love” them. We are not obligated to love a parent who has been abusive. If you cannot do the job yourself, you are still obligated to take care of him. Just hire and pay for another person, maybe a nurse, to look after his wellbeing for the rest of his life. She liked the idea, and followed my suggestion.
I posed this dilemma to my Ethics class at Framingham State University, some of whom had indeed experienced abuse by parents, and they, overwhelmingly, voted to abandon them at the time of their need. “Let him rot in hell,” said one. Jewish law, as I understand it, is otherwise. I would argue that we still have responsibilities towards abusive parents, but we must find other means to carry them out.
What do you think?
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Books by Rifat Sonsino:
FINDING GOD (URJ; Behrman House)
THE MANY FACES OF GOD (URJ; Behrman House)
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN I DIE? (URJ; Behrman House)
DID MOSES REALLY HAVE HORNS? (URJ; Behrman House)
SIX JEWISH SPIRITUAL PATHS (Jewish Lights; Turner)
THE MANY FACES OF GOD (URJ; Behrman House)
AND GOD SPOKE THESE WORDS (Commentary on the Decalogue; URJ; Behrman House)
VIVIR COMO JUDIO (Palibrio)
MODERN JUDAISM (Cognella)
MOTIVE CLAUSES IN HEBREW LAW (Scholars Press)