Honoring an Abusive Parent?

Must a Person Honor and Mourn for an Abusive Parent?

The short answer is “no.”  One of the core principles in halakha when it comes to our obligation to others is hayekha kodmin, meaning our first ethical obligation is to ourselves.  One must prioritize her own physical, emotional and psychological health, even if this means that kibbud av v’em must be set aside.

Let’s explore this in more detail.

Honoring one’s parents is a mitzvah that can demand a great deal from us.  This is particularly true for the sandwich generation, adults who have responsibilities to their spouses and children, and yet who are called upon by this mitzvah to also attend to the needs of their parents. This mitzvah also demands that we relate to our parents with deference and respect, which, depending on the relationship, is not always easy.

If honoring parents came easily, there would be no need to be told to do it.  The Rabbis knew how difficult this could be, and prodded us in its proper performance, reminding us that honoring one’s parents is tantamount to honoring God.

At the same time, there are things that we are not required to do. The obligation of kibbud av v’em focuses on how we act, not on how we feel.  Context matters as well. If one serves her mother food, but does so in a manner of contempt, this is a violation of the mitzvah of kibbud av v’em.  But while one has to show respect, one is not required to actually feel this way.  Relationships are complicated, and the Torah does not make unreasonable demands on us.

This is not always the message that we get when it comes to this mitzvah.  Many of us have heard the Talmudic stories of the non-Jew who chose to forgo a highly profitable sale so as not to wake his sleeping father, or of the rabbi who made himself a footstool so his mother could get into her bed.  These stories have done much to contribute to the erroneous belief that one must honor her parents even at the cost of great psychological and emotional harm.

There is a difference between stories and halakhah.  These stories are presented in the Talmud with the introduction ad heikhan kibbud av v’em, “how far does honoring one’s parents go?”  It is a question of an ideal, not of a halakhic requirement.  And yet some of these stories are codified by Rambam and Shulkhan Arukh, a process that Dr. Gerald Blidstein, in his book on this mitzvah, refers to as the “codifying of the heroic”.  But most of us are not heroes, and when poskim submitted these stories to the rigor of halakhic analysis, they made it clear that there is a line where the obligation to one’s parents ends and where the responsibility to oneself begins.

A case in point is the Talmud’s statement that a person must not embarrass his father even if he throws his wallet into the sea (Kiddushin 32a). This statement is codified as halakha by Rambam (Mamrim 6:7) and Shulkhan Arukh (YD 240:8).  No sooner was the ink dry on this ruling than Rishonim clarified and qualified it.  They noted that while one must contribute his time and effort to honor his parents, he is not required to spend his own money to do so (this is not referring to cases where one’s parents do not have enough money to provide for their own care, which is discussed extensively in halakha).  Following this, they said, it would be permitted for a daughter to stop her father from destroying her property.  The Talmud’s statement was referring to a case where the wallet had already been thrown into the sea. It is only once the damage was done that halakha asks the child to work to control her anger and not react in a way that would embarrass her father (see Tur YD 240 in the name of Ri and Rama; Yam Shel Shlomo, Kiddushin 1:64, see also Beit Yosef and Bach ad. loc. regarding Rambam’s position). Rema in Shulkhan Arukh rules unambiguously: one can act to prevent a parent from causing her financial harm, even if doing so causes pain to the parent (YD 240:8).

It goes without saying that this would be true in a case of emotional pain.  This point is made by Rabbi Yosef Kolon (1420-1480, Italy), who ruled that a son did not have to listen to his father in regards to what woman he should marry (Shut Maharik 166:3).  He writes that the mitzvah of honoring a parent does not extend to cases where it would cause emotional pain to the person.   This is directly relevant to the case at hand.

If one’s parent is abusive, whether the abuse is sexual, physical, verbal or emotional in nature, a person absolutely must prioritize his or her own health.  Our first ethical obligation is to ourselves and our own well-being. One is not just permitted to act this way; one is obligated to do so.

As in any matter of health, one must make sure that he or she is getting the best advice.  Sometimes it will make more sense to find a constructive way to engage with this is possible, if this is possible, rather than to disengage completely.  All of this should be worked out and thought through with a competent therapist or mental health professional.

Often, even if the abuse is in the past, maintaining an ongoing relationship with an abusive parent, let alone showing him or her honor and respect, can be deeply emotionally and psychically damaging.  The person should try to determine what course of action would be in her best interests, and this can often be aided by working with a therapist.  If for her mental and emotional health she feels that she must move away or cut off or limit interactions with the parent, then that is what she should do.

In his responsa, Rabbi Kolon also states that a person is not required to honor his parent if it will cause him to commit a sin.  By demanding that his son marry a woman whom he does not love, says Rabbi Kolon, the father is causing him to transgress the prohibition against hating another Jew.  The same would be true in this case. Asking someone to honor his parents knowing it will cause the child emotional or psychological harm, is asking that person to violate his obligations to himself and his own well-being.  It is forbidden to honor one’s parent in such a situation.

Others argue that an abusive parent should be defined as a rasha, a wicked person, which would then alleviate the child of his kibbud av v’em obligations (regarding honoring a wicked parent in general, see SA YD 240:18, Shakh no. 20, Pithei Teshuvah, no. 15, and Yabia Omer 8:21).  While I do not question for a minute that many abusive parents are indeed reshaim, I am leery of using this halakhic argument.  I do not want to be in the business of labeling who is or is not a rasha.  People and relationships are complex.  The acts might be wicked acts, but not everyone who emotionally abuses her child is an evil person.  For me, the point to underscore is that self-care comes first.

What about when it comes to attending the funeral or sitting shiva for one’s abusive parent?  Halakha rules that eulogies are given to honor the deceased, not the living relatives (YD 344:10).  Just as one need not honor this parent in life, she need not honor him after he has passed away. In addition, there are times when it would be terribly painful for a child to attend the funeral of his abusive parent and hear people eulogizing and extolling the virtues of the deceased.  Once again, self-care takes precedence, and if necessary for her mental health, the child should not attend under such situations.

When it comes to shiva, Rema rules that this is an independent obligation and not just performed to honor the deceased.  Other poskim disagree and rule that shiva is primarily for the deceased (see SA YD 344:10 and Pithei Teshuvah, no. 2).  A child who has come to the determination that it is not healthy for him to sit shiva for an abusive parent can certainly rely on the latter opinion, and is not obligated to show the honor otherwise due to a deceased parent.  Following the same logic, one would also not be required to say Kaddish and Yizkor.

Even if shiva is an independent obligation, it is rabbinic in nature, and the person’s health must take precedence.  In cases of weightier Biblical mitzvah, like taking a lulav and an esrog, halakhah exempts a person if the financial cost to him is too high (SA OH 656:1).  The same would certainly be true when it comes at the cost of emotional suffering (see, in this regard, Nishmat Avraham, EH 1:1).  When damaging to a person’s health, sitting shiva is not something that halakhah dictates, and should not be construed as such.

Sometimes it will be helpful for a child to sit shiva or some modified form of it to achieve a sense of closure.  At the end of the day, the person should make the best decision for his or her mental and emotional health, with the aid of a therapist if appropriate.

Honoring one’s parents is a weighty Biblical mitzvah.  But there are other things that matter more.  Taking care of one’s health and well-being is one of them.  Therefore, if the mitvah creates great distress, one should see a therapist and work out what the best way to manage this distress is.

Important Caveat and Postscript

After publishing this piece, I received many strong reactions, both positive and negative.  The positive reactions were what I was hoping for – people who suffered true abuse as children, and had been harboring tremendous feelings of guilt because of what they were told in terms of their obligation to honor their parents.  What I did not expect was the negative reactions.

I heard from a mother who had been through a difficult divorce, and whose children were turned against her, made to believe that her parenting was abusive.  And then I heard almost the same story from a father whose children had been turned against him in the same way.  And I heard from psychologists who pointed out that adult children who have had difficult relationships with a father or mother might choose to label the relationship as abusive, and that people will use this label to erect a wall between them and the parent, when actually a relationship might be feasible.  My essay, they felt, could be used by some as a justification to avoid doing the necessary work to actually address the issues internally and between them and the parent.  The result could be harmful not only to the parent, but ultimately to the adult child as well, to his or her emotional health, and to their ability to achieve some closure when closure is possible.

This critique is well-placed.  A major part of the problem was that I did not define what constituted emotional abuse.   When we talk about physical and emotional abuse, these concepts are vague, and can range from horrific to mild. It is complex, and the specifics make a huge difference, and there is no way to quantify them.

As I wrote, relationships are messy, and even painful ones are not necessarily abusive.  Or if they are, the abuse may be mild or moderate (which doesn’t excuse it, of course).  And even when the relationship has been emotionally abusive to a greater or larger extent, it is often possible to protect oneself emotionally and to stay in the relationship, in a way that is true to the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents.  Sometimes the best that can be hoped for is to find a way to navigate a difficult and fraught relationship.  And sometimes perhaps, true reconciliation might be possible.  We should remember that together with putting great weight on protecting oneself, the Torah also puts great weight on telling someone how they have pained you, and on being open to the other’s remorse and repentance, so as to leave the door open to reconciliation when possible.

The other point that needs to be reiterated is that people should not be making such decisions on their own. When someone has been hurt, he or she is often not in the best position to determine what the best course of action is, even for their own emotional well-being.  It is not advisable for people in emotional distress to  decide on their own whether it is best for them to talk to their mother or cut off all communication.  It is not advisable for them to decide on their own whether that they should not say kaddish, sit shivah, or the like.  A person might impulsively decide not to sit shiva, only to years later regret this decision, winding up feeling that by not sitting shiva he has allowed his father to continue to have a hold over him and that this has prevented him from achieving closure.  At the end of the day, it is best that these decisions by made with help from a psychologist, rav, or with someone with the experience, wisdom and training to determine what decision ultimately is the right one, both for their parent, be he or she living or dead, and for their own mental and emotional health and well-being.

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