It can be said that one only knows what they truly value when it comes into conflict with their own principles. This is particularly true with prescribed values, such as the Ten Commandments in Judaism, when exceptions to the rules may be beneficial in the modern world. Today, people tend to grapple with one commandment in particular: “Honor thy father and thy mother.” Must a child continue to love a parent in cases of abuse or emotional neglect? Are there limits to how a parent can behave before a line is drawn?
In the Torah, “honor your father and your mother” is the fifth commandment, coming before murder, adultery and thievery, making it quite significant. By definition, honoring someone entails respecting them, even if you do not necessarily love them. Regarding this specific commandment, “honor” would constitute avoiding public quarrels, taking care of the individual as they age and more. In some texts, honoring one’s parents is even compared to honoring G-d, as children supposedly owe their existence to their parents, just as human beings owe their existence to G-d. Abraham continues to honor his father despite his idolatry, suggesting that honoring one’s parents may have an even higher priority than honoring G-d. Of course, since then, there have been a lot of significant changes to family structure, religious priorities and our conceptions of morality.
This idea of respecting one’s parents unconditionally has parallels among many other more traditional cultures, an example found in filial piety in Chinese culture. This aspect of Chinese culture puts a lot of emphasis on taking care of one’s parents and bringing honor to their ancestors’ and their name. This importance is reinforced during festivals such as Chinese New Year where everyone remembers their ancestors by burning incense and paper gold to represent bringing them wealth in the afterlife. We also practice 拜年, where elders and children wish blessings upon each other for the upcoming year. This includes not only one’s parents but also one’s aunts, uncles, grandparents and any married member of the older generation. While obviously not always perfect in practice, Chinese parents and their strictness with their children are often to an emphasis on discipline and hard work to benefit the child’s future. Moreover, Chinese parents who immigrated to other countries are living proof of the sacrifices that parents have made for their family’s future, and such sacrifices thus earn the child’s respect. Such a mutual relationship between child and parent is one that illustrates how mutual respect can work to strengthen the family structure, but this too poses the question of “how can I respect my parents if I feel no love for them?”
While the importance of honoring one’s parents may hold true for families who readily accept the validity of the Torah or their social context, how does this apply when a child’s safety is at risk because of an abusive or unhealthy relationship? It is crucial to mark the distinction between disciplinary parenting and emotional neglect or that which is outright damaging to a child’s well-being. As Jews, we must also consider Pikuach Nefesh, or the importance of preserving a life. Pikuach nefesh dictates that any Jewish law can be broken to save a life, an example being that it is preferable for someone to eat food that isn’t kosher rather than starve, or how using a pacemaker on Shabbat is not be seen as a violation. According to many applications of pikuach nefesh, the commandments themselves are open to interpretation, as they too do not exist to restrict life, but rather act as a guide on how to best live life in the image of G-d. In cases where carrying out a mitzvah directly conflicts with someone’s livelihood, it is excused or dismissed by pikuach nefesh. While it may be difficult to make a distinction of when a parent does goes too far, it may be safe to say that if a parent’s actions cause perpetual fear or, parallel to the idea of keeping a life, lead a child to see suicide as a better alternative than living under their current conditions, they are no longer acting in the role of a parent, and do not deserve to be respected as such.
Religious views aside, there is undeniably a lot of pressure on children in seemingly functional households to reciprocate love for someone who has seemingly never made an effort to do the same for you. It is too often seen as disrespectful or shocking for a child to demand respect or to want to feel loved and valued. This social expectation can even be reflected in the etymology of the common idiom “blood is thicker than water.” The meaning of this phrase has been altered completely from its initial lesson. The original phrase being “the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,” teaches that bonds formed by choice are stronger than obligatory connections like those that exist in the family structure. While I definitely do not advocate fully neglecting your family, this phrase does highlight how unreasonable and damaging the expectation of unconditionally loving family, over people who make you feel worthy of care, is. This is an observation worthy of attention, as it is simply impractical to expect human beings to blindly accept abusive treatment or neglect for the sake of unconditionally loving someone that has little love and respect for you.
As all matters of Torah are, this one is very much open to interpretation, even though honoring parents is a very important commandment; how can we balance our values as Jews with modern social situations that we must face. As helpful as religious laws and ethics may be to make sense of it all, some things like one’s relationship with his or her family, cannot be defined through black and white text. When emotions and relationships come into play, it is too difficult to find a definitive answer to this conflict. Personally, I believe that regardless of moral or religious alignment, every child deserves to feel loved in their own home and ultimately, it is how a family feels to a person that matters, not that there is a blood connection. More emphasis needs to be put on the importance of cultivating good relationships between parent and child, and how this is undoubtedly a joint responsibility.