Must One Honor an Abusive Parent?
While fully aware of the corrosive effect of abuse by parents, rabbinic literature still encourages expressions of respect and honor for such parents.
We learn what we truly value when the principles we hold true come into conflict with one another.
Such is the case with a son or daughter who must determine how to relate to an abusive parent. The Torah requires that we honor our parents. But does this imperative extend to a parent who has been physically or emotionally abusive?
The Jewish tradition puts great emphasis on the honor a child should show his or her parents. It goes beyond the general exhortation of the Ten Commandments: "Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long on the soil that the Lord your God has given you" (Exodus 20:12). Rabbinic law and legend and medieval and modern ethical tracts give very specific guidelines for the ways in which honor for parents is to be translated into concrete actions and prohibitions.
On the other hand, the Jewish people are exhorted by the Torah: "You shall be very watchful of yourselves" (Deuteronomy 4:15), which is understood in classical biblical interpretation to be a call to guard one's own health and well-being. When working with the children of abusive parents, mental health professionals urge those children to make a careful separation from the abusive parent, for the sake of self-preservation.
How, then, does one obey both imperatives? To what extent, and in what ways, should a child show respect for such a parent? Even if a son or daughter does choose to fulfill the biblical mandate, can it be done in a way that does not expose him or her to further damage?
Parents are Warned
Rabbinic literature is fully aware of the potential for abuse of parental power, and there are many passages in which parents are warned of the ill effects of physical and emotional abuse. We read in the Talmud (Gittin 6b): "Rabbi Hisda said: A man should never impose excessive fear upon his household, or else he may be the cause of great tragedy. [...] Rabbi Judah said in the name of Rav: If a man imposes fear upon his household, he will eventually commit the three sins of illicit sexual relations, bloodshed, and the desecration of the Sabbath." Meaning, his wife will not observe the laws of ritual purity because she is afraid to tell her husband she is not yet allowed to have relations with him, members of his family will meet with disastrous fates after running away from home, and the household will relight a lamp on the Sabbath for fear of his anger at being in the darkness.
In another instructive Talmudic tale (Mo'ed Katan 17a), a domestic servant of a prominent sage saw a man beating his grown-up son and, displaying the rabbinic wisdom she had picked up in the rabbi's household, said: "Let that man be put under a ban, for he transgressed the admonition of the Torah: Before the blind you shall not place a stumbling block (Leviticus 19:14)." Her concern was that by striking his son he was, even if inadvertently, goading the son into striking his father, an offense with dire consequences in biblical law.
A more shocking report of child abuse in Talmudic literature is the story told in Tractate Semahot, chapter 2, about a child from B'nai Brak who was so afraid of the excessive punishment usually meted out by his father that he committed suicide.
Clearly, the Rabbis who shaped classical Judaism offered no sanction to child abuse, and rabbis of all denominations have spoken out in recent years in opposition to the abuse of children by parents or teachers. But did the Rabbis see such behavior as sufficient to release the child from responsibilities toward the parent?