Thursday, June 24, 2010

Listening to Your Parents

As a parent, I believe that all children must listen to their parents. As a child, though, I believe that children must follow their own paths even if it bothers their parents. What does halakhah have to say about this?

In 1984, R. Basil Herring published a fabulous book, Jewish Ethics and Halakhah For Our Time: Sources and Commentary, recently republished. R. Herring proposes a number of complex ethical dilemmas and then proceeds to analyze them. It would be wrong to say that he addresses them from an halakhic point of view because that implies a limited discussion of halakhic rulings.

Rather, he begins each chapter with a translation of relevant sources from Bible, Midrash, Talmud and Rishonim. He then shows how the interpretation of the various passages, the resolution of conflicting texts and the emphasis of one over the other, yields different approaches to the subject. These are intentionally complex case studies, so each discussion covers debates among the commentators. With an eye to textual interpretation, including the interpretation of enigmatic commentators, R. Herring also keeps another eye on history. He keeps one foot grounded on historical progression -- who preceded whom and on what sources did he rely -- without engaging in historical interpretation. The conclusion is invariably inconclusive, because that is the point. R. Herring shows the areas of universal agreement but also how the conceptual differences lead to different conclusions.

When it comes to listening to your parents, the issue boils down to a general debate over whether the obligation to respect and fear them also includes obeying them at all cost. Everyone agrees that you do not listen to them if they tell you to violate a prohibition. But do you have to otherwise obey them? Rabbenu Tam (quoted in Ritva, Yevamos 6a) and Ri (Tosafos, Kiddushin 32a) hold that you only have to obey them if they somehow benefit from your obedience. If the issue is entirely neutral to them, you may disobey them without worry. The Rashba (Yevamos 6a), as understood by the Gra (Bi'ur Ha-Gra, Yoreh De'ah 240:36) and the Chazon Ish (Kiddushin 32a), and the Meiri (Yevamos 6a) hold that you must obey your parents unless they ask you to violate a prohibition.

This debate is reflected in the responsa and codes regarding the common question of marrying someone against your parents' wishes. The Maharik (Responsa 164:3) and Rema (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah 240:25) follow Tosafos, that since this is not an issue thay may or may not benefit a parent, a child need not obey his parents. The Netziv (Meishiv Davar vol. 2 no. 50), however, adds a qualification to this lenient approach. He holds that while obedience is only required when a parent benefits, a child may still not cause the opposite of benefit -- embarrassment or pain. If marrying a particular person does so, then a child may not marry that person. The Chazon Ish (ibid.), though, follows the Rashba and does not allow you to marry someone if your parents are totally opposed to the union.

R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the Ba'al Ha-Tanya, wrote a responsum about whether a man can become a chassid against his parents' wishes (Iggeros Ba'al Ha-Tanya U-Vnei Doro, pp. 48-49). He is generally lenient and upholds a man's right to disobey his parents in such a circumstance.

R. Herring's case is more complex than ours, in that he deals with a mentally unstable parent and the obligations of both the child and the parent. For our general case, it seems clear from our summary that the general trend is towards greater latitude for a child, with some noteworthy strict authorities. But all agree that a child must obey a parent when there is some direct benefit to the parent. R. Herring concludes: "It would be a truism to say that in such family situations each case is sui generis, requiring its own special treatment and resolution.")

What is particularly interesting is the uniqueness of this book despite the intervening 26 years since its original publication. In that time there has been a storm of halakhah books. These types of issues are addressed by many other excellent writers, both online and in print, with many more sources from an expanding database of available literature. Yet R. Herring's analysis remains fresh because he engages the sources and shows how their interpretation affects the bottom line (an approach that is not seen in the summary presented in this post). He doesn't only tell the reader what the different authorities say, he explains how and why they got there.

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