Dear Jew in the City-
I know that “honoring your father and mother” is a major imperative in Judaism, and I take it seriously.
But what about when parents are unreasonable or harmful to their children? In my case, my parents have distanced themselves from the rest of our extended family, for reasons of pride with which I do not at all agree and asked that I do the same. This is an extremely painful request of me, as I value family and I love my family members that they are asking me to shun. My parents have set it up so that if I honor my parents, I will cut off the rest of my family. And if I want to have a relationship with my family, I have betrayed my parents. I feel manipulated and feel strongly that my parents are burning down a house to kill a spider.
And of course, there are far worse situations, thank God not mine, in which parents are physically, emotionally, and otherwise abusive of their children, or draw their children into destructive behaviors.
So how do we honor our fathers and mothers when they ask us to join a path we think is wrong? Where is the line? Is there a line? When I search for these answers, I find a lot of Christian theology online, but only a little from a Jewish perspective. I’d love to hear more from JITC.
Thanks for your question. We covered some of this in a previous post. There, we discuss that the Torah’s definition of “honor” is pretty narrow. The Torah does not require us to love our parents, or even to like them. It only requires that we respect them. We owe them that much for giving us life even if they have done nothing else to earn it. This is comparable to the way people traditionally say to respect the office of president even if you don’t like the person who currently holds the office. (I wrote that example in 2015. Our current political climate is so contentious that many would disagree even with respecting the office but I think the concept is still valid for illustrative purposes.)
So what are examples of honoring our parents? The Torah requires things like not contradicting our parents and not sitting in their designated spots. Generally speaking, if our parents ask us to do something, we should do it, but that doesn’t mean that we necessarily have to do everything they ask. The Torah is clear on this point in Leviticus 19:3, “Every person must defer to his mother and his father, and (also) keep my Sabbaths.” The idea behind this is that if our parents ask us to violate the Torah, such as by performing a forbidden labor on Shabbos, we must decline. We are obligated to listen to our parents but both we and our parents are obligated to listen to God. They are not empowered to countermand His commands.
It’s important to note that when circumstances require us to disagree with our parents or to refuse a request, we must do so politely, without raising our voices.
The areas in which we may refuse our parents’ requests are not limited to violating Torah law. Other traditional examples include who we choose to marry and where we choose to live. Our parents are certainly free to chime in with their opinions and requests but, ultimately, each person gets to decide these things for himself. I have never seen your specific example discussed – namely, parents cutting out other relatives and requesting that the children do the same – but I wouldn’t be surprised if you would be perfectly justified in politely declining to comply as this particular request might be “above your parents’ pay grade” to make.
Of course, even if your refusal to comply is not a violation of the Biblical expectation of how we treat our parents, that doesn’t mean they have to like it. Even atheist parents might ask things of their kids and expect them to comply because, after all, they’re the parents. Your parents still won’t like it if they perceive you to be taking sides against them even if such is not your intent. So, while you still have a dilemma, I think the nature of your dilemma is more interpersonal/familial in nature rather than a matter of Jewish law. I don’t believe you would be obligated to comply with your parents’ wishes in this particular instance (or in many other life choices) but that doesn’t solve your problem. A family counselor would probably be best equipped to help you navigate that particular minefield.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent