Thursday, January 09, 2003

Honoring Parents Who Are Abusive?

Please read message at the end of this article written by Dr. Michael J. Salamon

Honoring Parents Who Are Abusive?
© (2003) Benzion Sorotzkin, Psy.D.

As a clinical psychologist in the frum community I have frequently been asked by patients to address the question of the obligation to honor abusive parents. As a result, I have researched the issue and have discussed it with some prominent Rabbonim. I would like to share some of what I have learned with other clinicians and anyone else who needs to address this issue.

It goes without saying that kibbud av va'eim is a very important and complex mitzvah. Any particular situation will involve specific clinical and halachic issues that have to be evaluated by a knowledgeable Rov for specific guidance. It does help, however, if the questioner is as knowledgeable as possible about the issues involved. It is for that reason that I would like to share with the readers some interesting and not so well known dimensions of this issue. 

Talmud Kiddushin 31a
A frequently quoted Talmudic passage regarding the extent to which one is obligated to honor even an abusive parent is the story in Kiddushin (31a) where a Roman officer is praised for maintaining his composure even after his mother tore his clothes off and spit in his face in public. Unfortunately, the comment of the Tosafos there that, according to the Midrash, the mother in the story was meturefes b'daata (e.g., insane or suffering from Alzheimer's disease) is usually not cited. This fact certainly puts the story in a very different light. Certainly, an Alzheimer's patient cannot be held responsible for such behavior. (Yet, it was terribly embarrassing to the son and therefore he is commended for remaining passive. Anyone who has cared for such a patient will testify as to how difficult it is not to respond harshly). It is unfortunate that this Gemara is cited as evidence that a child is required to passively submit to chronic abuse by a parent (who is not meturefes b'daata) in the name of kibbud av va'eim!

The well-known commentary on the Talmud, the Yam Shel Shlomo ( R' Shlomo Luria, the Maharshal), cites the Tosafos and adds (free translation):

I agree that this mother must have been meturefes b'daata since this story is cited in order to teach us the laws of kibbud av va'eim and if she wasn't meturefes b'daata the son would be permitted to protest in order to prevent his mother from causing him financial harm and certainly he can prevent her from causing him bodily harm. And even if she had already harmed him he can sue for damages in bais din..... So we must say that she was meturefes b'daata and that's why he couldn't protest and that's why he didn't rebuke ["go'ar"] her [the implication is that if she wasn't meturefes b'daata the son would be permitted to protest and rebuke her in order to prevent her attack]. 

The Yam Shel Shlomo then comments on the Tur who also cites this Gemara (without the qualification that the parent was meturefes b'daata):

This ruling of the Tur [that one should remain passive in response to such a parental attack] must be referring to a situation where he is unable to protest because it is already after the fact, and therefore he shouldn't insult [kelimah] or rebuke his parent. 

We see that this widely quoted event that supposedly mandates that children need to passively submit to chronic abuse, is in fact limited to where the parent is insane or where it's after the fact.
The sefer Kibbud Av Va'eim (Rabbi Hillel Litwack, p. 32) asks how a child can permit his parent to violate a Torah law by submitting to being hit and embarrassed in public by his parent. He also suggests that the child is not even permitted to be mochel [to allow, to forgive] the parent since a person is not permitted to harm himself. Likewise it's possible that one is not permitted to allow a parent to embarrass him in public since it is comparable to murder. He also concludes that it must be after the fact. Rabbi Litwack also asks why the Mechaber doesn't discuss the issue if the child is permitted to try to stop the parent before the fact as he does in a different case involving monetary loss. He cites one authority who suggested that it may be too obvious to mention that the child is not obligated to allow the parent to hit him for no good reason. 

Wicked parents
The Yam Shel Shlomo, suggests that perhaps it would be a meritorious act (midas chasiddus – i.e., beyond the letter of the law) not to protest even before the fact, providing the parent truly (and erroneously) believed that this was an appropriate educational intervention, for if the parent simply acted in a fit of anger then he is a rosha [wicked person]. In the Chidushei Rabbeinu Yaakov me'Lublin ve'Rabbeinu Heshel me'Krakaw (in the Tur Hachodosh) it states that if the father is acting like a rosha then the son is permitted to insult him [lehachlimo]. While the Rambam and the Mechaber rule that there is an obligation to honor a wicked parent, the Ramo and the majority of poskim disagree. The Oruch Hashulchan rules like the Ramo. A very prominent posaik told me that the normative Halacha is like the Ramo. 

The Yam Shel Shlomo then relates a dispute between the Rambam and Ravad regarding the obligation to personally care for a parent who acts inappropriately. He distinguishes between such behavior when it is due to tiruf ha'daas (e.g., suffering from Alzheimer's disease) where according to the Ravad there is such an obligation, and where the parent is acting out of ro'ah lev (a wicked heart) where there is no such obligation. 

While we do not hesitate to describe acting out teens as having a lev rah (wicked heart), we resist thinking of abusive parents as acting out of ro'ah lev. However, the Yam Shel Shlomo and others recognize this possibility and make it clear that there is no obligation for a child to honor such a parent. Where possible, it is best for the child to move away. However when not possible, according to these poskim a child is permitted to take steps to protect himself from abuse and can seek recourse in a beis din after the fact. It is very unfortunate that some teachers may (inadvertently) imply to children that the Torah obligates children to passively tolerate chronic abuse by parents when this is not the case. 

I heard that someone wanted to prove that there is an obligation to honor abusive parents from the fact that the commandment to honor parents was given to the generation of the Exodus in spite of the fact that their parents brought on them great pain and suffering. The parent's sinned with the Golden Calf and with the spies and so the children had to wander in the desert for 40 years. I, however, don't see how one can compare parents who indirectly cause their children suffering to parents who directly abuse their children. 

The petur of choleh
Harav Dovid Cohen shlit"a has stated that if interacting with an abusive parent makes a person emotionally ill then the child is exempt from this obligation. Since one is not required to spend more than a fifth of his assets for a mitzvas aseh then certainly one is not required to make himself sick. Obligating abused children to honor their abusing parents unconditionally will almost certainly exacerbate their emotional distress and/or disability. When presenting a particular abusive parent question to a Rov it is imperative to be completely open regarding the extent of the abuse and the degree to which the abuse is causing the child emotional distress and disability. Often children find it very difficult to be fully open even with themselves in this regard and it then becomes the clinician's duty to help the patient to formulate his/her question fully and accurately. 

Defending oneself
Many children feel that defending oneself from a false accusation is a violation of kibbud av va'eim. This is not so. In the Sefer Ben Yechabed Av (p. 91) he states that a child is permitted to respectfully state that the accusation is false. 

The obligation to admonish [hochocha]
Rabbi Litwack (p.34, and p. 47 in the name of the sefer Chadrei Daiah) suggests that just like a child is obligated to admonish his parent if he is violating a Torah commandment here too if the parent is speaking to the child abusively – clearly a violation of halacha – the child is obligated to rebuke the parent [as respectfully as possible under the circumstance]. 

Clinical consideration
I have elsewhere discussed at length the clinical challenges of treating Orthodox adolescents with abusive parents. One area of conflict is the kibbud av va'eim obligation. I explain why children are so resistant to acknowledging the abusive nature of their parent's behavior (even when it is blatant) and why it is important to help the child to overcome this resistance. I also elaborate on why it is imperative that abused youngsters be told clearly that what their parents are doing is abusive, against the Torah and inexcusable. Likewise, they need to be told that the parental abuse does mitigate their kibbud av va'eim obligations (the degree and nature of mitigation needs to be determined by a knowledgeable Rov). 

The Maharik on the limits of the kibbud av va'eim obligation
The popular perception (often reinforced by self-serving parents) is that the mitzvah of kibbud av va'eim is all-encompassing and without limits or qualifications. It is important to realize that there are clear parameters to this obligation. For example, the Maharik states that a father does not have the authority to forbid his son to marry the women he desires and the Ramo rules like the Maharik.
The Maharik gives three reasons for his ruling and I believe these reasons are clearly applicable to a child contending with an abusive parent.
  1. The halacha is that the parent has to bear the financial burden of the son's fulfillment of the mitzvah of kibbud av va'eim (e.g., the son has to prepare and serve the food for his father but the father pays for the food). If the child is not required to undergo a financial loss then he certainly does not have to endure personal suffering by not marrying the women of his choice.
  2. We see in many places in the Talmud that the Rabbis are concerned that a wife find favor in her husbands eyes so that they have a good marriage. By trying to force his son to forgo his choice in a wife it is as if the father is ordering his son to go against the Torah since he is not likely to have a good relationship with a choice forced upon him. [One can perhaps likewise argue that abused children frequently rebel against their parent's religious beliefs, or develop serious emotional disorders, neither of which is desired by our Rabbis].
  3. The Maharik rules [and this is the normative halacha] that the obligation to honor parents applies only when the parent asks for something that benefits the parent directly. The obligation does not require obeying commands that do not directly benefit the parents, for example, whom the child marries.
Defending the strong at the expense of the weak
It is sad that, as a society, our religious sensitivities causes us to be more concerned with the obligation of abused children to honor their parents than with the serious violations of halacha being committed by abusive parents! We are very comfortable saying to an abused boy, "Sure, it's unfortunate that your father is abusive, but that's how he is and he isn't going to change. You are obligated by the Torah to honor him so just get over it." What's more, abused children are often told that they are obligated to forgive their abusive parents even when their parents never acknowledged the abuse and have certainly never apologized for it. What's more, they are often compelled to apologize for getting angry over the abuse. 

In contrast, we seem to be too intimidated to say to the abusive father, "It's unfortunate that you are having difficulties with your boy, but every time you speak to him abusively you are violating numerous Torah commandments (e.g., V'ahavta l'rayacha komocha), and these violations are especially egregious because the victim is a family member. 

As Harav Dovid Cohen pointed out in his address to the Young Israel Council of Rabbis, when a prominent person is arrested for molesting children there is often more concern in the community for the fate of the molester than for the wellbeing of the child victims. 

The abused become abusers
A substantial body of research has shown that, while far from inevitable, children who are emotionally abused tend to develop a variety of emotional and behavioral problems including drug abuse, addictions and "revictimization". They also are more likely to be emotionally abusive of their own children later in life as compared to children who are not abused. 

Research by Briggs on sexually abused children found that those victims who minimized the depravity and negative consequences of their abuser's actions were substantially more likely to become abusers themselves in adulthood. It is as if they say to themselves, "If what was done to me wasn't such a terrible act, then it won't be so terrible if I do it to someone else." 

Children have a natural tendency to deny and/or minimize the harmful nature of parental abuse. It would seem likely that compelling children to honor their abusive parents would reinforce this tendency by indicating that abusing children does not diminish a person's honor. This would likely increase the likelihood of perpetuating this type of behavior. 

When the community starts putting more pressure on parents not to be abusive than on children to honor abusive parents, we may begin to make a dent in the ever increasing tide of youngsters with serious emotional and behavioral disorders. 

Excerpts from a speech by Harav Dovid Cohen shlit"a.
"Counseling the contemporary Orthodox Jewish family."
Young Israel Council of Rabbis Annual Conference, February, 2000

.......It happened in our community [that] the person who was [sexually] abused was made to suffer by the community. [They were not so concerned] about the person that was being abused, [rather they were] worrying about the abuser that he not Chas V'Shalom go to jail........... 

To address some of the questions [presented by] Dr. Sorotzkin [regarding the obligation of Kibbud Av Va'Eim when parents are abusive]..... In a case where children were abused by their parents. Now I maintain there is a difference as far as the type of abuse concerned. Kibbud Av Va'Eim comes with Nisyonos, as the Gemara in Kedushin tells us, Ad Heychan Kibbud Av Va'Eim the Gemara tells us where the mother of the Melech came and took off this chashuva beged and spat at him, so the Tosfos brings that she was a meturefes, she was insane. So, of course, that has a lot to say why the son, the Melech, did not really feel that his mother was embarrassing him, maybe he felt a tinge of embarrassment, but everyone understood because they saw she was a Meturefes. But, in a situation where a child was [sexually] abused by a parent.... we know it is worse than being a choleh [ill person]. A child who has to deal with a parent, who sexually abused that child, it's almost to say that that child will never become meshuchrar [freed], it's very difficult to get the damage out, and if the person has to deal with the parent, there are very few people that can possibly do so. So certainly when it comes to sexual abuse, I feel that it is not worse that a Mitzvah where most Poskim will tell you that a choleh is potur [exempt], we are talking about Mitzvas Aseh now, just as there is a shiur of mitzvos ad chomesh [one is only obligated to spend one fifth of his assets for a positive commandment]...., so the Poskim say when it is a question of being a choleh that it is the same thing, that being a choleh is like ad chomesh, so that there is really no chiyuv [to make one's self ill for the sake of Kibbud Av]...... 

There is another snif to be matir [reason for leniency], because when a parent is a Rosha [wicked person], in sexual abuse the parent has a Din of a Rosha.... So in the case of a Rosha, even though there are two daos [opinions] in the Shulchan Aruch, which is a little strange, because rov Rishonim disagree with the Rambam, and they hold like the pashtus of the Gemora, that there is no Chiyuv Kibud Av by Eino Oseh Maaseh Amcha [i.e., a rosha]. The Rambam says there is a chiyuv. But there are many, and the Bach is clear on this that the Rambam only meant this that it is a D'Rabanon. So again we have an extra kula [leniency], we have a machlokes Rishonim [most Rishonim rule that there is no obligation of Kibbud Av by a wicked parent] , and we also have the kula that it is only M'Darabonin, so we can be meikil, as far as that is concerned. 

[Regarding the question if it is permissible for a child to speak negatively about his or her parents in therapy]. In a situation of speaking to a therapist concerning these things, I'm not speaking [only] of sexual abuse necessarily, but all [issues] where the therapist feels that by discussing these things they can turn the patient around, [for example] where the patient could acquire affection from the parent, even though the patient has various tainus [complaints] on the parent, I believe the mekor [source to permit this] is the Gemora in Sanhedrin (84b), where the Gemora speaks about a child taking a splinter from a parent, where it can cause a chabura [wound] and the Gemora says a very interesting heter [reason for leniency] - V'Ahavta L'Rayacha Komocha [love your neighbor like yourself]. The way Rashi explains it to mean [that one is only prohibited to do to others that that he would not want done to himself – this excludes being "wounded" in the process of having a splinter removes]. This to my mind [is similar to when] the Poskim speak about Lashon Harah L'Toeles [for a helpful purpose], which is not limited to Loshan Harah. Any [transgression of] Bein Adam L'Chaveiro [when it is] L'Toeles is Mutar..... Indeed, the heter of a parent to hit a child is because it is L'Toeles for the hadracha [guidance] of the child. All [transgressions of] Bein Adom L'Chaveiro is Mutar [permissible] when it's L'Toeles. That's why a parent [is only permitted] to hit a child [if it's] L'Shem Shamayim. And from that Gemora you see, and it's a Safek, that Kibbud Av Va'Em has a Din of Bein Adom L'Chaveiro. So this of course, there are many other sevaros [reasons] to be Matir [be permissive], but I feel it is certainly Mutar Be Che'hai Gavna.

Response from Michael J. Salamon, Ph.D., FICPP
Please note: Dr. Salamon is a member of The Awareness Center's Executive Board of Directors
The abused become abusers:
Dr. Sorotzkin presents some interesting points regarding the limits of the Commandment's directive to Honor One's Father and Mother. It should be noted that the focus of his paper remains on the issue of children who were abused becoming abusive parents. While there is of course a likelihood of that occurring it is not the most frequent outcome. Observational findings reported through the early 1970's implied that this was an inevitable outcome. More recent research (cf. US Dept. of HHS, Administration for Children & Families; Kaufman & Zigler, 1986; Gershaw, 1992; Hunt, 2000; Bavolek; 2000) indicate that in the general population five percent of the population become abusive parents, whereas children who are abused are about 20% likely to become abusive parents. A significantly larger number, of course, but other outcomes are even more likely. These other outcomes of childhood abuse include higher rates of substance abuse, sexual acting-out and other self destructive behaviors.
I would suggest that Dr. Sorotzkin's work be viewed from a broader perspective. Children who are abused should be protected for a multitude of reasons. All of these reasons are perhaps sufficient to warrant a changed perspective on the commandment to honor parents.

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