When a Child Should Disobey a Parent

Jewish law recognizes several categories of actions that should be avoided even if one is directed to do them by one's mother or father.

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues (Jason Aronson).

One area in which all authorities agree a child must not listen to a parental request is when a parent asks a child to violate a Torah law. If a child is asked by a parent to become intentionally ritually impure, for example, he or she need not listen (BT Yevamot 6a). The basis for this concept is the Torah verse about morah, which ends off with the command to observe the Sabbath.

The Talmud (BT Bava Metzia 32a) asks why were these two concepts put in the same verse and answers that it teaches us that though a parent must be listened to, this does not include any Torah precept that both the child and the parent are commanded to obey. Maimonides (Laws of Rebels 6:12) extends this idea even to a rabbinic law, which a child should not violate at the parent's request. It should be stressed, once again, that even in disobeying a parent in this instance, it must be done in a way that preserves the parent's dignity and not in a disrespectful manner.

Contesting a Parent’s Knowledge

Another area in which a child may disagree with a parent is in Torah learning. The Talmud (BT Megillah 16b) and the Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 240:13) state that learning Torah is more important than respecting one's parents. Therefore, if a child feels that he can better learn Torah elsewhere and a parent asks the child to remain at home to learn, the child may leave home in order to learn Torah (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 240:25).

girl with arms crossedThis is also seen in Rashi's commentary to Genesis 28:9, where he explains that Jacob was away from home working for Laban for 22 years. Later on in his life, his own son Joseph also was away from Jacob's house for 22 years as a punishment to Jacob for abandoning his father's house and for not keeping the commandment to honor (dignify) his parents. However, we know through simple calculation that Jacob was away from home an additional 14 years [which, according to rabbinic tradition, he spent] learning Torah. Why was he not punished for these years away from home? Because one is not punished when one learns Torah even when neglecting the mitzvah of honoring (dignifying) one's parents.

Settling in the Land of Israel

A third area where a child may disobey his or her parents is in settling the land of Israel. If a child wishes to make aliyah [that is, move to the land of Israel] and a parent forbids it, the child may settle in Israel against the parent's wishes. The Talmud records a case where Rabbi Assi left his elderly mother to settle in Israel (Kiddushin 31b). The first words uttered by God to the first Jew, Abraham, were to leave his parents and settle in the land of Israel (Genesis 12:1).

Rashi (the 11th century Northern French Torah commentator, commenting on Genesis 11:32) explains that the reason the death of Terah, Abraham's father, was mentioned in the wrong chronological place in the Torah (much earlier) is that the reader should not be upset at Abraham for leaving his elderly father in order to obey God's word and settle in the land. If Terah's death had been mentioned in its proper chronological place, Abraham's absence would have been more noticeable, which the Torah tried to avoid.

Choosing a Marriage Partner

The final area where a child need not listen to his parents is in the area of choosing a spouse. If parents disapprove of a potential husband or wife and the child wishes to marry anyway, it is his or her right to do so (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah 240:25--Moshe Isserles's gloss). However, later commentaries discuss [whether] it makes a difference or not if the parent points out a specific reason why he or she objects. A child is certainly encouraged to hear the parent out, since the parent does have more experience, is not "blinded" by love, and may have a better perspective. But the final decision remains in the hands of the child.

But in each case where a child may disobey, as well as in all the day-to-day conversations with parents, the dignity of the parents must be upheld. The child should also try to convey to the parents a sense of general gratitude and appreciation for being parents. Such a demeanor may go far to avoid and minimize many of the fights and disagreements so commonly found in families.

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Rabbi Nachum Amsel earned his rabbinical ordination and a doctorate in education from Yeshiva University. He is Director of Education for Hillel in the Former Soviet Union.