Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Child Abuse: The Halakhic Source

I was standing by the bunk bed, heatedly arguing a point I knew to be correct. "No!" the sound ripped from my throat, "No!"

The camp counselor pulled out her copy of The Fifth Commandment. "Actually, Chana, yes," she said, and opened the book to page 113.

    Children must honor and revere parents even if the parents, for whatever reason, did not tend to their needs as they were growing up. Even if the children grew up in an orphanage, in foster care or were adopted, they must fulfill all their obligations towards their parents. Likewise, if one's parents divorced and he had limited or no connection to one of his parents, he is nonetheless fully obligated to honor that parent. Even parents who acted abusively towards children must be honored. [emph mine]
I looked down to read footnote 22, which explained:
    Honoring in-laws (see Chapter IX, Introduction to section D) is derived from the fact that King David called his father-in-law King Saul "my father." This was in spite of King Saul's terrible harassment of King David. Certainly parents must be honored despite the abusive fashion in which they treat their children. [1]

    In some instances abuse may place a parent in the category of rasha. A competent halachic authority should be consulted.
Images swam before my eyes. It was the summer of eighth grade and I had just read the horrifying memoir A Child Called It. I could not reconcile the words I was seeing on the page with the words I had read in that book, words that had seared themselves onto my mind, that gripped me and sickened me, words that were so terrible that there were times I had closed the book and dry retched because I was so nauseated by what the mother had done to her own child, by the absolute horror that is child abuse.
    "You've made my life a living hell!" she sneered. "Now it's time I showed you what hell is like!" Gripping my arm, Mother held it in the orange-blue flame. My skin seemed to explode from the heat. I could smell the scorched hairs from my burnt arm. As hard as I fought, I could not force Mother to let go of my arm. Finally I fell to the floor, on my hands and knees, and tried to blow cool air on my arm. "It's too bad your drunken father's not here to save you," she hissed. Mother then ordered me to climb up onto the stove and lie on the flames so she could watch me burn. I refused, crying and pleading. I felt so scared I stomped my feet in protest. But Mother continued to force me on top of the stove. (41)

    For nearly ten days I had gone without food. I had just finished the dinner dishes when Mother repeated her "you have two minutes to eat" game. There were only a few bits of food on the plate. I felt she would snatch the plate away again, so I moved with a purpose. I didn't give Mother a chance to snatch it away like she had the past three evenings. So I grabbed the plate and quickly swallowed the food without chewing it. Within seconds, I finished eating all that was on the plate and licked it clean. "You eat like a pig!" Mother snarled. I bowed my head, acting as though I cared. But inside I laughed at her, saying to myself, "Fuck you! Say what you want! I got the food!" (107)

    During the Easter vacation from school the spring before, Mother had sent me out to mow. She had set a quota on my earnings and ordered me to return the money to her. The quota was impossible for me to meet, so, in desperation, I once stole nine dollars from the piggy bank of a small girl who lived in our neighborhood. Within hours, the girl's father was knocking on the front door. Of course, Mother returned the money and blamed me. After the man left, she beat me black and blue. I only stole the money to try and meet her quota. (109)

    To my surprise there wasn't any bucket or bottles in the bathroom. "Am I off the hook?" I asked myself. This looked too easy. I timidly watched Mother as she turned the cold water tap in the bathtub fully open. I thought it was odd that she forgot to turn on the hot water as well. As the tub began to fill with cold water, Mother tore off my clothes and ordered me into the tub. I got into the tub and laid down. A cold fear raced throughout my body. "Lower!" Mother yelled. "Put your face in the water like this!" She then bent over, grabbed my neck with both hands and shoved my head under the water. Instinctively, I thrashed and kicked, trying desperately to force my head above the water so I could breathe. Her grip was too strong. Under the water I opened my eyes. I could see bubbles escape from my mouth and float to the surface as I tried to shout. I tried to thrust my head from side to side as I saw the bubbles becoming smaller and smaller. I began to feel weak. In a frantic effort I reached up and grabbed her shoulders. My fingers must have dug into her because Mother let go. She looked down on me, trying to get her breath. "Now keep your head below the water, or next time it will be longer!" ( 112)

    Suddenly her voice turned ice cold and she jabbed her finger at my face and hissed, "Get one thing straight, you little son of a bitch! There is nothing you can do to impress me! Do you understand me? You are a nobody! An It! You are nonexistent! You are a bastard child! I hate you and I wish you were dead! Dead! Do you hear me? Dead!" (140)

And The Fifth Commandment states that a child who has been abused by his parents is supposed to respect them? That he must honor them? Unless they could be proven to be a rasha?

And what is the halakhic categorization of a rasha? We are commonly taught it is one who lifts his hand to strike his fellow. And would it have been better if Dave's mother had never struck him, but had merely cursed him and verbally abused him, called him an "It" and had him stand in the corner repeating, "I hate myself! I hate myself!" over and over again? Because she would not, perhaps, have halakhically made it into the category of rasha, it would still be upon him to honor her?

No! Unthinkable! My camp counselor had to be wrong. There is no way that God created a world in which child abuse is permissible, in which the perpetrators of such abuse must be honored in accordance to the law. There is no way that God expects this from a child who is the victim of the greatest betrayal of trust that can ever be, an innocent child who is exposed to a world of horror and hatred, of complete and utter cruelty.

But I have looked and looked and I personally cannot find support for my view.

And I am deeply troubled by this. Because what is the Torah supposed to be? Is the Torah only valid for antiquity, in which case it is easy to excuse its emphasis and allowal of corporal punishment? Or is it supposed to be our moral guidebook even nowadays? And if it is, then how can it possibly be that the Torah does not provide for the rights of a child?!

It is true that we read in Baba Batra 21a "If you strike a child, strike them only with a shoelace." But this is only a suggestion. It is not the law.

We see in Exodus 21:
    טו וּמַכֵּה אָבִיו וְאִמּוֹ, מוֹת יוּמָת.
    15 And he that smiteth his father, or his mother, shall be surely put to death.
This entire section deals with the repercussions of people hitting or smiting one another. But there is nothing in this section dealing with someone hitting or striking a child. The closest we come to it is that someone hurts a woman with child, that is, someone who is pregnant, and the consequences of that. But nothing about children! Nothing protecting children, nothing ensuring that they cannot be beaten black and blue!

It is quite clear that teachers made use of corporal punishment. As I read yesterday in Eichah Rabbah:
    R. Abbahu was sitting and teaching in the Synagogue in a place in Caesarea. He noticed a man carrying a stick and about to strike his neighbor. He also saw a demon standing behind him with an iron rod; so he stood up and restrained him, crying, "Do you want to kill your neighbor?" The man said to him, "Can anyone kill with such a stick as this?" He answered, "Behold, there is a demon standing behind you with an iron rod; you will strike the man with this stick, but he will strike him with the other and the man will die! R. Johanan enjoined elementary and Mishnah teachers not to use a strap on the children during these days [between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Ab, because the blow might prove fatal.] R. Samuel b. Nahmani enjoined the elementary and Mishnah teachers to dismiss the young children during those four hours [the teachers would be irascible and liable to chastise the pupils.] [emph mine]
Even when it comes to Molech, that most disgusting and cruel form of idol-worship, the parents are not told they should not offer up their children as sacrifices because it is cruel to their children and one cannot hurt one's child, rather he must be put to death because "he hath given of his seed unto Molech, to defile My sanctuary, and to profane My holy name" (Leviticus 20: 3).

So Molech is wrong because it profanes God's name. But isn't it also wrong because it is a cruel and terrible thing to do, to offer up one's child and force him to walk over burning coals and/or be consumed as a sacrifice? Why is that not mentioned?

It must be that there is something here I have not found, some source I am not aware of. But where in the Torah, the written Torah, do we see clear laws protecting children or ensuring that they cannot and must not be abused? Where do we see that child abuse, whether physical, verbal or sexual, is a sin?

And if it is not here, why is it not here? Is it because I am trying to impose my Western morals upon an ancient text? But tell me, is the Torah not supposed to outline morality and proper behavior? And if it is, why is child abuse a matter of modernity rather than a matter of morality?

I know that as Jews we certainly do not condone child abuse. I know that regardless of whether or not there is an explicit statement in the Torah outlining this, we certainly do not allow for children to be beaten within an inch of their life, to be verbally put down, starved, terrified or otherwise hurt. My question is not in our practice of this law; I know we practice it. My question is with regard to the source.

Where halakhically do we see that child abuse is a crime, a sin, otherwise forbidden?

I ask this because I must know. There is nothing in this world that I hate more than child abuse, nothing that sickens and disturbs me more. I do not want to believe that God completely neglected to mention this issue in his Torah. But perhaps that is the truth. And if that is the truth, I want to know why.


[1] "Honoring in-laws (see Chapter IX, Introduction to section D) is derived from the fact that King David called his father-in-law King Saul "my father." This was in spite of King Saul's terrible harassment of King David. Certainly parents must be honored despite the abusive fashion in which they treat their children. "

This is the most illogical reasoning I have ever heard. King Saul tried to kill King David. You are seriously telling me that because King David referred to him as "father," because he preferred to remember the side of Saul that was good rather than the side that was cruel and unkind, this sets the precedent that all abused children must honor their parents?! Are you kidding me?


Ezzie said...

I'm sure one could argue that true abuse would fall under dina d'malchusa dina, but that's likely not what you'd like to hear.

Rebecca said...


If you're interested in what I have to say, u can e-mail me personally. But I don't think that the statement in the Fifth Commandment is a universal statement.

Anonymous said...

Couple of things:
Molekh is not about necessarily killing a child - just brutally injuring. The punishment for injuring is not death. The parent is killed because of the hillul Hashem. He / she would have gotten lashes also, if not for kim leih bederabba mineih.

Regarding kavod: a child is always obligated, as per the Shulhan Arukh. The problem is, is that sometimes we pretend it means honoring them.
1. Pikuah nefesh comes first no matter what - a child could certainly inform on his parents to protect his life OR his health.
2. A child only must do that which is considered to be kavod. If a parent asks you to do some unnecessary thing - you are not obligated to do so; we are only obligated in specific actions as spelled out by the SA.
3. A child does not need to be around to obligate himself in kavod. If he isn't there, he isn't obligated.
I'm not saying that this is not a completely horrible situation to be in, and even the minor issues of kavod and yirah that even such a child is obligated in, could make one sick.
I am just pointing out that, while a completely terrible and horrible existence, the mitzvah of kibbud av va-em should not make the child's life worse.

haKiruv said...

Train a child according to his way - Mishlei 22:6

teach [Torah] to your children - Dvarim 11:19

don't place a stumbling block before the blind - Vayikra 19:14

Abusing a child would violate all these laws wouldn't it?

Talmud talks about a father teaching his son a skill, teaching Torah, and finding a wife. There's another view about teaching children life-saving skills, like swimming. I'm not sure exactly where they are in Talmud, but I remember reading the quotes from some tractates. Those would be some rights, wouldn't they? Also, what about inheritance?

Also, isn't it forbidden to hit a fellow Jew?

Tobie said...

this article I found says basically my instincts on the subject- hitting a child is just as forbidden as hitting anybody else. Special dispensation was given for effective corporal punishment in a time when that was regarded as an efficient way to get things done.

As to honoring an abusive parent, I think the David story davka offers a very fair perspective on the whole thing. On one hand, David continued to give Shaul the official honor earned by his rank (whether as king or as father-in-law). On the other hand, he fled him. Got as far away from him and any possible forms of abuse that he could. Asking a child to still give an abusive parent official honor, difficult though it may be, is not the same as asking them to tolerate the abuse,

Larry Lennhoff said...

I've talked to several rabbis about this (mostly on the MO end of the spectrum) and been told the same thing by all of them - as an adult child if your parents are abusive you are obligated to respect them by not giving them the chance to abuse you - if necessary never seeing them. You may not curse them, but if you suspect physical abuse of a child still under their control pikuach nefesh applies.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it is so odd that there are not specific laws forbidding child abuse. There are laws forbidding physical or even emotional harm to people in general. If they apply to adult strangers, how much more so should they apply to defenceless children in one's care.

Anonymous said...

Just a note- I have read that A Child Called It is totally false- his allegations disputed by all siblings and adults around him during his childhood. While we live in time of recovered memories and the notion that if it feels like it is true for you then it is true, these questionable events do not hold up under scrutiny and are therefore useless to soldify ones points.

Chana said...

Anonymous 9:07,

Yes, The New York Times Magazine did a takedown of Pelzer's book and suggested that he suffers from delusions of grandeur and made the entire thing up. Of course, we've all seen how reliable they are when it comes to what they print.

Pelzer has been called a "professional victim," a huckster, a racketeer and other names. I have no way of confirming the authenticity of his work. We know that at least one brother confirms Dave's story. Dave would have to be extremely devious to imbue his work with so much power if he is truly making the entire thing up.

But that is neither here nor there. What matters is that I believed it at the time. If you think it is false, it is at the very least a powerful work of fiction. This may not have happened to Dave, but I know people who have been abused, and his story is only a magnified version of the horror they endured.

For that reason, I think his words can still stand. They are effective and powerful; to quote Chief Bromden, "it's the truth even if it didn't happen."

Irina Tsukerman said...

Hmm.. there's a probably a difference between corporal punishment and abuse. We can argue whether cp is necessary at all, and if so, under what circumstances, but I think it's safe to say that smacking a young child lightly and severely beating/injuring the child are very different things. The second category would probably be covered by the same prohibition as striking an adult.

Anonymous said...

Chana, while reading your post I was reminded of something I once read, and I was able to find it again. The source is a Rabbi Garfield of Atlanta, GA:

The Torah requires a child to respect the parent. This does not mean that they have to act as a doormat. Allowing a parent to act towards you in such a way does not show them respect, but rather disrespect by accepting such behaviors. The Torah would require you to be respectful in your response to their actions. An example of an appropriate response may be "It hurts me too much to hear you talk to me this way so I will be leaving the room" or "I am sorry you are so upset but responding the way you do will not help me understand your point of view any better." These responses are respectful in two ways. You are communicating your displeasure
respectfully and showing your respect towards them in not allowing them to act with you in a disparaging way.

I hope that is of some help.

But, yes, it is horrible, words don't even describe it, that many parents do not place treating their children properly as highly as, say, keeping Shabbat or kashrut. A parent should look at the laws that we do have about raising children, and any laws about how to treat other people properly should especially apply to one's children. I believe that a person who becomes a parent must make parenting properly the highest priority.

Anonymous said...

It may be true that abused children have to honor their parents. But maybe you should investigate what it really means to honor one's parents in such a situation. I can't say that I've personally spoken to any Rabbi's about this issue, but I have many friends who have, and they have told me quite the opposite of what your post seems to suggest. Your post suggests that even a child who is abused is obligated to always talk kindly to his parents, serve them etc. However, for a child who is suffering and burning with anger at his parents, based on what I've heard, this does not seem to be the case. I have one friend who has serious issues with his father and is in so much pain because of this. After speaking to his Rav about it (and I know the Rav - he is very respected), he told him that for his own sanity, if he needed to call up his father and call him every horrible word that this guy could think of, he should do it.
Again, I only heard this from my friend, not from the Rav himself, and I certainly don't have any sources off the top of my head to quote you, but the story I just stated is one of many like it that I've heard from other friends, so this would lead me to believe that there is something we are all missing here about what it really means to honor a parent who has caused a child immeasurable pain.
It seems to me that the sanity and health of the child comes first, and (if that is achieved), then honor comes second.
Perhaps since Dovid was on such a great level, he was able to surpass his own anguish to a point where he truly felt that he could show honor to his father-in-law.

Anonymous said...

You should know not to use an art scroll book as authoritative.

Anonymous said...

With regard to corporal punishment today to a child,it is halachically unacceptable today.Including opinions of R.Y.Kamemetsky and R.Wolbe(Alei Shor).

Chana said...

Daat Y,

Thank you so much. Of course I don't believe the Artscroll book is authoritative, which is why I had an entire fight with my camp counselor, but I had nothing to back me up and she had the book. I'll check out the articles.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

i'd think it would be obvious that a parent who is physically, verbally and emotionally abusive would be classified as a rasha‘.

Anonymous said...

Along the lines of Rabbi Garfield, check out Artscroll Yerushalmi Berachot 30b, note 4:

"It is preferable that [a son or daughter] avoid his mother who belittles him, lest he become guilty of treating her improperly (Yefeh Mareh). Although a person is still obligated in the honor of a mother who humiliates him (see Yerushalmi Peah 7:7), he is not obligated to make himself available to her as a target for her abuse (Alei Tamar)."

This is talking about verbal abuse. When it comes to genuine physical abuse, it is obvious that a parent who is guilty of such heinous conduct would be considered a rasha, and would be deserving of harsh measures.

P L said...


As a few commentators have stated all the laws that apply to everybody certainly apply to children. Being emotionally, verbally or physically abusive is explicitly strictly forbidden to your neighbor or friend, and would certainly apply to your child.

We have a new trend where city councilmen and state legislators are trying to impose special laws with heftier punishments for killing or hurting a person because they are black, gay, or any other "biased" reason. While bigotry of any kind is reprehensible, killing someone because of their wallet or because they are black still results in a dead person and that is the punishable crime.

My point is that the Torah only breaks down a new specific category if we wouldn't know that it applies to that category. Children (other peoples or your own) fall in to the same category of biblical prohibitions of speaking loshon Hora, embarrassing someone, or harming them etc. We do not need a separate injunction warning us that it applies to children.

The one distinction between your neighbor and your child is discipline. We can't discipline our neighbors (I wish we could!) but we must discipline our children.

The tricky part is in HOW we discipline our children. Back in the day it was standard practice to discipline a child by hitting them. Clearly the line between discipline and abuse in some circumstances had become blurred.

I tell you this, when a parent crosses that line between discipline and abuse s/he is violating multiple biblical laws and is making G-d extremely angry.

G-d loves kids just as much as He loves your neighbor, that's what He told me at Sinai. ;-)

come running said...

I read your post and my heart started aching.

How can I teach my son to respect people when someone who claims to love him shows no respect for his well-being?

"Children learn what they live."

How can I ask my son to respect me when I have to send him to someone who does him harm (mentally, physically, verbally, emotionally)? How can I ask my son to believe in truth and justice... in the Torah and Hashem???

Anonymous said...

If this halacha bothers you, I wonder if you have any thoughts on how halacha treats the rapist; namely that he is to marry his victim and never divorce her if that's what she wants, or he just has to pay a fine. I've always been troubled by this. I think the punishment for rape should be much more harsh.

Chana said...

Last anonymous,

I am planning to go into that in another post; I am slowly unlearning my assumptions about what is in the Torah and learning what is actually there. And rape is one of the crimes that is not actually punished harshly, as you mentioned...

Anonymous said...

I assume rape is included under the prohibition of bodily assault? The cases mentioned specifically involve married women, in which case the rapist is effectively punished like an adulterer as well as an assaulter. But in terms of physical harm, that would apply to all rape.

Anonymous said...

The sorry of the child being held under water brings back bad memories. My foster mother used a cold bath and pushing my head under water a very frequent occurance of so called 'punishment'. I am not Jewish, a christain myself. However, it does not matter to which religion, culture or any background, should a child have to face this. How can a frighten child have honor for their parent(s)?