Parenting: A View from Jewish Sources

Rabbinic readings of biblical stories suggest some pitfalls to be avoided in raising children.

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In some biblical sources cited below, the description of punishment as "using the rod" may originally have been meant literally as corporal punishment, but the principles that employ that expression may be applied to other methods of discipline. Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues (Jason Aronson).

Based on numerous sources and stories found in the Bible and Talmud, certain educational and moral concepts have been developed to help guide Jewish parents to properly bring up their children. A few will be presented here, in brief form.

jewish parenting sourcesAvoid Favoritism

A Jewish parent must be sensitive to be consistent and fair with all his or her children. Favoring one child over the others can have dire consequences (Babylonian Talmud [BT] Shabbat 10b). This was demonstrated in the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers, where Jacob, the father, favored Joseph over all the other children (Genesis 37:3-4), and this helped to lead the Jews to the slavery in Egypt, according to this talmudic passage. Even though this favoritism might have been justified from Jacob's perspective (that is, he never really wanted to marry anyone but Rachel from the beginning, and Joseph was Rachel's firstborn), a parent should never openly show favoritism or any inequality between children. The consequences can be catastrophic.

A parent should not promise something to a child and then not deliver on that promise (BT Sukkah 46b). If a parent is not absolutely sure that a promise will be kept, it is better not to make the promise in the first place, as the frustration, disappointment, and anger by a child over this act causes great and unnecessary hardship.

Discipline with Flexibility

Another Jewish educational principle involves disciplining a child. Though it is clear that not disciplining a child at all is not a Jewish idea, as sparing the rod completely yields disastrous results (Proverbs 13:24), implying hatred for a child, knowing how and when to discipline and using the rod sparingly is crucial.

There must be a combination of caring and compassion on the one hand and of strict justice on the other hand, or, as the Talmud puts it, "pushing away with the left hand while drawing closer with the right hand" (BT Sanhedrin 107b). A good parent also knows when to be flexible, as the Talmud states that a person should never be as inflexible as a cedar tree but pliable as a reed (BT Ta'anit 20a).

Match the Treatment to the Individual Child

Possibly the most important educational principle for a Jewish parent to adhere to is the notion of bringing up each child according to his or her unique personality, character traits and talents (Proverbs 22:6).

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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.