Must One Honor Abusive Parents? by Rabbi Ephraim Sprecher, Dean of Students, Diaspora Yeshiva
“Honor your father and your mother” (Sh’mot 20:12) and “Your mother and father shall you respect” (Vayikra 19:3) are the Torah sources for children’s responsibility to their parents. Parents are due this respect because, “There are three partners in a person, G-d, the father and the mother. When a person honors his father and mother, G-d says, ‘I consider it as if I had dwelt among them, and they had honored Me also.” (Kiddushin 30b)
What is respect and what is honor? Respect means that the child must neither stand nor sit in the parent’s place, may not contradict the parent’s words, nor call a parent by their first name. Honor means that a child, when mature, must give a parent food, drink, clothing and provide transportation when necessary. (Kiddushin 31b).
Must a child honor an abusive parent? Opposing positions that require either unqualified or qualified duties of respect are advocated by the Shulchan Aruch and the Rama. The Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 240:18) maintains that “Even if one’s parent is a Rasha (a wicked person) and a Violator of the Torah, one must still honor and show respect for that parent.” Rema disagrees stating, “One is not obligated to honor one’s wicked parent unless that parent has done T’shuva.”
The Shulchan Aruch’s position, requiring respect in all circumstances, is based on the Rambam who ruled that a child must unequivocally honor parents even if they are wicked. This ruling that mandates unconditional honor may be based on the assumption that parental respect is a function of the biological relationship between parents and children and is independent of the nature of their personal relationship. The Radbaz explains that one must show respect to wicked parents, because those parents may, in the future, do T’shuva, so that the child retroactively violates the mitzva of honoring parents.
Rama’s position, exempting children from honoring wicked parents, is supported by a number of Talmudic passages. In Sanhedrin 47a the Talmud reports how King Chizkiyahu deprived his father of a proper burial and had his corpse dragged on a pallet made of ropes. Rashi explains that Chizkiyahu did not transgress the mitzva of honoring his father, as there is no such mitzva for a parent who is wicked. King Chizkiyahu’s purpose in dishonoring his deceased father was to show contempt for his father’s wickedness in spreading idolatry. The Talmud in Sanhedrin 85 and Yevamot 22 assumes that parents who do not conduct themselves according to the standards of decent society are not deserving of parental honor. Thus, respect and honor for parents are not automatic, but they are earned by merit, and only if parents show signs of T’shuva and have made amends to their children.
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