When discussing this sensitive and often painful topic, we need to bear in mind that every situation is different. There are many kinds and levels of abuse, and different people can cope with and tolerate different situations and relationships.
In any case of actual abuse, no conclusions should be drawn from this article without consulting a rabbi and a mental health professional, who can give advice that is right for you. Also note that in a case of criminal activity, or when a person is actively harming another, law enforcement and other appropriate authorities may need to be notified.
Bearing in mind that this topic may trigger some, we will try to give some perspective and general halachic guidelines, steering clear of specific instances of abuse, which must be determined on a case-by-case basis.
General Note to Parents
The Torah’s directive for children to honor parents does not provide the parent with a license to do as he or she pleases. It goes without saying that abusing children (including your own), be it mentally, physically, verbally or emotionally, is prohibited. Furthermore, a parent must endeavor not to put their children in a situation that would cause them to show their parents disrespect. To quote Maimonides:
Even though [children] are commanded [to be exceedingly devoted and dutiful to their parents], parents should not place too burdensome a yoke upon them or be too exacting with them in matters pertaining to their honor for fear that they may cause them to sin [by dishonoring them]. They should forgive their children and close their eyes, for parents have the discretion to forgo the honor due to them. Parents who strike their grown child are excommunicated because they violate the biblical prohibition, “You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind.”1,2
On this same note, Torah and mitzvot may never be “weaponized,” to be used as a tool to manipulate or control, and to make unfair or hurtful demands of children under the guise of legitimate respect is counter to Torah. Our focus here, however, is on the obligations of the children.
One of the main reasons for this mitzvah is to appreciate the fact that our parents are the source of our very existence in this world. So although honoring one’s father and mother is essentially an obligation between people, it is also a mitzvah between man and G‑d, since “there are three partners in [the creation of] a person: G‑d, the father and the mother.3” By doing this mitzvah a person will come to the realizationthat if he needs to respect his father and mother, who created his physical body, how much more so should he honor his Father in Heaven, who granted him with the superior component, his eternal soul!4
Thus, this mitzvah is not necessarily dependent on how well the parents treated the child, and at times would apply even if the parents did not raise the child.5
Going to Extremes
The Torah recognizes that fulfilling the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents, which is one of the Ten Commandments, is one of the more difficult mitzvahs, even under normal circumstances. Commentators explain that it is for this very reason that it is one of only two mitzvahs6 for which the Torah assures us long life as a reward.7
There are a number of anecdotes in the Talmud to illustrate how far one needs to go in honoring and respecting one’s parents:
The sages asked Rabbi Eliezer: To what extent must one exert himself to fulfill the mitzvah of honoring one’s father and mother? Rabbi Eliezer said to them: Go and see what a certain gentile did for his father in Ashkelon, and his name is Dama ben Netina. Once, the sages sought to purchase precious stones from him for the ephod [breastplate] of the High Priest for 600,000 gold dinars profit, but the keys to the chest holding the jewels were placed under his father’s head, and he would not disturb him. The next year the Holy One, Blessed be He, gave Dama ben Netina his reward, as a red heifer was born in his herd, and the Jews needed it. When the sages of Israel came to him, he said to them: “I know, concerning you, that if I were to ask for all the money in the world you would give it to me. But I ask only that money that I lost due to the honor of Father . . .”
Once Dama ben Netina was wearing a fine cloak [sirkon] of gold, and was sitting among the nobles of Rome. And his mother came to him and tore his garment from him and smacked him on the head and spat in his face, and yet he did not embarrass her.
The Talmud also relates this story of the great sage Rabbi Tarfon:
Rabbi Tarfon had a certain manner of treating his mother, that whenever she wished to ascend into her bed he would bend over and help her to ascend, and whenever she wished to descend from the bed, she would descend onto him. He came and praised himself in the study hall for performing the mitzvah of honoring one’s father and mother so thoroughly. They said to him: “You still have not reached even half of the honor due to her. Has it ever happened that she threw a purse into the sea in front of you, and you did not embarrass her?”
. . [Rabbi Tarfon’s] mother once walked in her garden and her sandal split so that she would have to walk home barefoot. Thereupon Rabbi Tarfon kept stretching his hands under her feet and she walked over them all the way. One day he was ill and his colleagues came to visit him. His mother then said to them: “Pray for my son Rabbi Tarfon, for he honors me more than is my due.” “What has he done to you?” they asked. She told them what happened. They replied: “If he had done to you thousands times more, he would not have done half of the honor enjoined in the Torah!”8
When It Is Painful to Be Together
On the other hand, we also find anecdotes that illustrate how, due to the circumstances, one can at times avoid having to honor one’s parents.
Rav Asi had an elderly mother. She said to him: “I want jewelry,” and he made jewelry for her. She said to him: “I want a man whom I can marry,” and he said to her: “I will seek one for you.” She said to him: “I want a husband who is as handsome as you.” At this point, he realized that she was senile, and that he would be unable to fulfill all her requests. Therefore, he left her and went to the Land of Israel . . .9
From this incident, Maimonides10 derives that if it becomes too difficult to care for one’s parents due to their mental state, a child may leave them (after first arranging for someone else to care for them in a fitting manner).
Similarly, Rabbi Yehudah Hachassid (1150–1217) writes that if there is a quarrel between parent and child that is causing a great deal of pain to either one of them, it is better that they separate, since they cannot stand being together.11
So where on the spectrum does your relationship with your parents fall? Is your situation like Rabbi Tarfon’s, or is it closer to Rav Asi’s?
It’s important to know some of the parameters of the obligation to honor one’s parents, which may help prevent a tense situation from spiralling out of control.
In general, the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents includes (but is not limited to) feeding, dressing, and helping them walk.12 And the companion mitzvah of revering one’s parents includes not sitting or standing in their designated place and not contradicting their words in a disrespectful manner.13
It goes without saying that in a situation where there is even a possibility of real danger due to abuse, we follow the rule that chayecha kodmin, your first obligation is to your own life.14 Additionally, one isn’t obligated to honor his parents if doing so would result in one’s suffering physical or emotional damage.15
But what about other situations?
Here are just a few pertinent guidelines to help give perspective:
May parents order their child around? According to most opinions,16 the mitzvah to honor one’s parents is limited to things that directly service or benefit the parents themselves.17 So if Mom wants pizza, you should make some or buy it for her, but if she orders you to make dinner for her mahjong friends, you can demur.
Must one obey a parent who orders the child to transgress Torah? The mitzvahs of the Torah come from G‑d, whom our parents are obligated to obey just as we are. Thus, if one’s parents ask him to do something that violates a commandment (even if it is only rabbinically forbidden), the obligation to honor the parent is superseded and the child should not comply.18
Must honor extend to losing money? In general, as long as the parents can afford it, the cost of honoring one’s parents, which includes feeding, clothing and caring for them, are covered by and can be taken from the parents’ resources. However, if the parents can’t afford to cover their living expenses but their child can afford it, the child is obligated to support his parents.19 Similarly, when necessary, the child is obligated to lose work time to actively care for his parents, even if the parents can afford to pay for a caregiver.20
When parents pit their children against the other parent. If there is strife between the parents, and the father (for example) tells the child not to listen to the mother in order to belittle her or cause her pain, the son should not listen to the father since the father does not have a right to pain the mother (or anyone else for that matter) and doing so is a violation of the Torah.21
Perpetuating strife. If a parent tells the child not to talk to or forgive someone, but the child wishes to make peace, he shouldn’t listen to the parent, since hating your fellowman is a violation of a commandment.22
What if a controlling parent objects to a child’s choice of life-partner? As long as the potential spouse is upstanding and befitting the child (with no other halachic issues), the child need not listen to the parents if they protest the match.23
These are just some of the general guidelines for this mitzvah. As we mentioned above, this is a very sensitive topic and every situation is different, both in terms of the form of abuse, whether it is ongoing, as well as what stage the child is at and what he can tolerate. One would need to discuss his specific situation with a competent rabbi and, if necessary, a mental health professional, who may tell them that they need to step away from a toxic relationship.
At the same time, it should be kept in mind that honoring one’s parents is one of the greatest mitzvahs. Our sages tell us that one who performs this (at times) difficult mitzvah properly merits long life, is rewarded both in this world and the next, and hastens the coming of the Moshiach and the ultimate Redemption.24