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Honoring Abusive Parents

I have a very sensitive question. I truly believe in honoring one's parents. My father, God rest his soul, died in 1990. He was an abusive, misogynistic alcoholic, who cheated on my mother and abandoned his duties as a father. His last words to me were angry ones.

My mother has drug/alcohol issues and was highly abusive to me as a child. I suffered psychological problems for many years because of the abuse. I am now a grown woman with children of my own and have never repeated any of the patterns of abuse which I learned in my own home. I adore my children, and have done my very best with them. They know that I love them, and I know that they love me, too.

My question is: How does one honor one's parents if that parent is mentally ill or still abusing drugs and alcohol? I have tried to be the peacemaker in my relationship with my mother. Things go alright for awhile, but she still returns to her irrational behavior and is occasionally abusive and manipulative to me.

Please advise on the Jewish perspective. The topic troubles me deeply.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

We all hope to have parents who are loving, nurturing, understanding and patient. But the unfortunate reality is that some parents are irrational, abusive, manipulative and intimidating – leaving deep emotional scars that may not heal for a lifetime.

In an abusive situation, does the obligation still apply to "honor your parents"?

To answer, let's go to the source.

The commandment to honor parents was first given to the generation of the Exodus from Egypt. In the desert, God provided everyone's needs: manna rained down from heaven, a portable well provided endless water, "clouds of glory" gave shelter, and clothes never wore out. All were gifts from God. This generation of parents did none of the things we would normally expect to give parents gratitude for.

Furthermore, the parents of this generation even brought great pain and suffering to their children. They made the Golden Calf and later voted with the "spies" not to enter the Promised Land, effectively sentencing everyone to wander in the desert for 40 years.

Nevertheless, it was precisely this generation which stood at Mount Sinai and heard the Ten Commandments: "Honor your father and mother…"

This teaches an amazing thing: While changing your diapers, paying for your college education, and treating you with care and respect is one reason to feel gratitude toward parents, in the absence of all that, one essential factor still remains – your parents, if nothing else, gave you life.

Of course, this does not absolve a parent from abusive behavior. It goes without saying that Judaism forbids any type of child abuse. Children are precious gems that God deposits with parents. Abusive parents damage these jewels and will pay a heavy price for their negligence.

Practically speaking, if the mitzvah remains to honor even an abusive parent, what should a child do?

Whereas in a normal situation, the honor is something the child "owes" the parents, when the parents are a destructive force in the child's life, the honor is no longer owed. The child can now determine the parameters of the relationship with the parents so to insure their safety. While honoring your mother and father is a tremendous mitzvah, the Torah also obligates us to be responsible for our own welfare. One is not required to endanger his emotional or physical health for a parent.

The best solution is to keep a safe distance, avoiding contact whenever possible. If the parent is not around, the interactions and painful confrontations will be greatly reduced.

And when the situation does arise, it may be helpful to emotionally distinguish between your parent as a "life-giver" and as an "abuser." Honoring parents does not require honoring the sickness in them.

The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 39:7) records that it was only upon the death of his father that Abraham received the Divine command to emigrate to Israel. This was so that people should not say: "What kind of a son is this that leaves his old father all alone?" And yet, according to tradition, Abraham's father was not only an idol worshipper, but also an idol manufacturer! Abraham's father was essentially evil. Yet Abraham's honor of his father took precedence, so to speak, over serving God more directly.

God sends us life's challenges, not because He is trying to trip us up or to make life difficult, but because He wants us to succeed and knows that we can. Challenges – whether in the form of abusive parents or otherwise – are there to stretch and hone us for life ahead.

The Talmud talks about a great man whose mother ripped his clothes and spit in the face, yet he maintained his composure. Was he able to do so because he was a great man – or did he become a great man because he did so?

Of all the challenges in life, having an abusive parent is surely among the most difficult. But it helps to know that the greater the difficulty, the greater the reward.

Of course, all that we've said does not in any way absolve abusive parents. On the contrary, this is one area where parents have an especially great responsibility. From the moment of infancy and beyond, the way a parent acts toward their child forms in the child's consciousness a paradigm for how God relates to us. The primary role of a parent, therefore, is to communicate to the child: You are loved and cherished. You are unique and special, creative and talented. You are cared for and protected. You are never alone.

If a parent is untrustworthy and uncaring, it subconsciously sets into the child's mind that God must somehow be the same. This is an emotional handicap that can be difficult to overcome later in life.

To learn more, see the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch – Yoreh Deah 240). And may the Almighty give you strength, courage and clarity.

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