From the alon Komemiyut (You can download the original Hebrew here.) The column is entitled Adnei Habayit by R. Elyakim Levanon; this week’s is entitled Horim Makim, Abusive Parents.
Question: I’m a 22yo single, not living at home. When I visit I find it difficult to see my father berating my mother, who naturally responds in kind. But the greatest difficulty is when one of them hits my younger siblings. It pains me, and I feel as if I want to physically prevent it, because I know how much I suffered from the same treatment. What should I do in this situation?
Answer: One of the curses in the Mishneh Torah, when the nation of Israel doesn’t follow the Torah, is that, “Your sons and daughters will given to another nation and your eyes will wear out from watching for them, and you will be powerless.” (Deut. 28). The emphasis is on the inability to change an existing situation. There is a feeling of despair and powerlessness accompanied by great pain. I well understand your difficult feelings when seeing your parents behave disrespectfully toward each other. And of course, the suffering of your siblings. But know that your self-control and your pain are not worthless, and they have an effect, both on the family and in heaven. An important principle: Parents educate their children, but children don’t educate their parents. Nevertheless, it’s proper to show your parents that their fighting causes you pain, and even to mention it [emphasis in the original]. After all, parents love their children, and they are affected when something causes the son pain. In addition, when you approach it as a single who is surely thinking of raising a family, you notice the minor details that lead to stress and anger between parents, and you can draw conclusions about how to properly build your own home in the future.
And regarding your younger siblings, who are hit by their parents. The terrible sorrow this causes is manifold. On the one hand, by parents who instead of influencing their children with love influence them through beatings, embarrassment and suffering. And second, by the children, who suffer physically and emotionally both now and in the future.
But, even so, one must be strong and not say anything to the parents [regarding the abuse] [emphasis mine]. Because it will cause greater damage. The main concern needs to be neutralizing the continuing negative influence on the siblings. Abused children can become abusive parents. Your ability to help is through love and encouragement [emphasis mine]. Try with all your might not to speak negatively about your parents, because this will cause additional pain to the children. Even abusive parents are parents. And each child must have a parental figure. Of course, there is no need to justify the parents’ actions, but you can tell your siblings that the parents work hard and struggle for their children, which happens to be true. And this causes them to be stressed and easily annoyed, so they pour out their wrath on the children. A statement like this will comfort your siblings a little. And if you add a warm hug, they will no doubt be strengthened [emphasis mine].
In order to complete the picture I must add that not all physical punishment of children is negative. Today the mistaken idea is circulating that one must distinguish between different parts of the family and relate to each one separately. This leads to organizations that promote the welfare of a child, as if he is an independent unit separate from the rest of the family. Therefore the court punishes parents who hit their children, causing serious damage to the entire family through the disintegration of the family hierarchy.
“He who spares his rod hates his son,” as we learned from King Solomon (Prov. 13) because sometimes one must draw “red lines” at specific negative behaviors. The rod serves this purpose regarding children. But it needs to be used only infrequently, when there is a sense of the framework breaking down. In general [parental] direction must come through love and positive reinforcement, and thus one corrects behavioral flaws. Darkness is removed through the addition of light.
But I find it appalling that in light of the multiple, severe child abuse cases that have recently come to light in Israel, a rabbi can advocate keeping abuse “in the family.” Since the letter-writer doesn’t specify the severity of the violence, how can the rabbi be sure that the younger children aren’t in danger?
Does the rabbi seriously expect this young man to prevent his siblings from “becoming abusive parents” (and that’s the least of their worries at this point, I would say) by a few kind words and a hug on his infrequent visits? What a responsibility to lay on a 22-year-old.
It’s very nice, in theory, to preserve the integrity of the family by not interfering. But we know that many couples do not have even the most basic tools needed to raise their children (as the rabbi himself hinted when he said that abused children can become abusive parents). How can we advocate allowing a family at risk to muddle through on their own? No one is suggesting that the older brother run to the police to report his parents. But at least suggest speaking with the community rabbi, educator or hotline about the situation, so that this family can begin to get the help that they need.
And what about the 22-year-old himself? He is obviously in pain, but is left not only to deal with his resentment of his parents for the way they treated him, but with the responsibility of his younger siblings’ well-being. He must bear all of this on his own, without any assistance except for the rabbi’s guidance. He desperately needs to share his burden with a sympathetic, experienced listener so he can begin to sort through his conflicted emotions.
We are only left to hope that this young man (and others in similar situations) chooses not to follow this rabbi’s advice.
Note: After I published this post a reader emailed me about her rabbi who, when he realizes he is in over his head, says,”I’m not a professional. Let’s ask a professional.”