My mother’s Yahrzeit was this last week. I went to synagogue and said Kaddish (the prayer for the dead) for her.
When I came to Judaism both my parents were dead. When I stand to say Kaddish for my Daddy, I do it with love in my heart and tears in my eyes. But when I stand and say the same words for my mother, there are no tears – and, unfortunately, no love.
I don’t have any children and I don’t have any regret about that. Even though it was a decision I made when I was still in my teens, I never changed my mind. I was terrified I’d be the same kind of mother my mother was; who was the same kind of mother her mother – my grandmother – was; who was the same kind of mother her mother – my great-grandmother – was. I was lucky, or unlucky, enough to have known them all.
Several years ago, for an all-night Shavuot study session, I took the opportunity to learn more about, and to speak about, the challenging (at least for me) commandment to honor your parents. Well, specifically for me, to honor my mother.
The fifth commandment is just these few words from Deuteronomy 5:16 (though it is found in other verses as well)
Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may long endure, and that you may fare well, in the land that the Lord your God is assigning to you.
I started with researching the simple meaning of the words. Christians (on the internet anyway) seemed to have more of a tendency to equate honor with love – which does not seem to be the general Jewish perspective – and to interpret the phrase “that you may long endure” to refer to individuals – also not the general Jewish perspective.
So what was the “general Jewish perspective?”
Let's start with the easy part, at least for me. The end of the verse: “that you may long endure, and that you may fare well, in the land that the Lord your God is assigning to you.” The Jewish perspective is that the “you” in this verse refers to the Jewish people as a group, in the sense that if children respect their parents, and carry on the Covenant from generation to generation, then we will remain in, or return to, the land of Israel.
This makes perfect sense, as most Jewish texts tend to be phrased in the plural and the only way for Jews to survive as a religious group is if children continue the faith of their parents. As far as this influencing our return to the land, well, that is an entirely separate conversation.
Now the hard part, the beginning of the verse.
The 5th commandment to honor our parents is on the first of the two tablets given at Sinai along with other declarations concerning our relationship with G-d. G-d is considered to be the third “person” involved in the creation of a child and thus to “Disrespect to our biological creators is not merely an affront to them; it is also an insult to the Creator of the Universe.” Several of the sources I've read said that this commandment is considered the most difficult one to fulfill because no matter what you do, there is simply no way you can ever show enough gratitude to equal the great gift of being given life.
And in a general way, I’ll agree that that is true.
I've said I was grateful to my Daddy, not for giving me life since, of course, he didn’t, but for being such a good father to his step-child.
But if I am honest, I would have to admit, I wasn't at all grateful to my mother for the “great gift” of my life. I spent all of the years before I was 30 being ragingly suicidal because after all, if my mother didn't love me (since I thought at time: of course, all other mothers love their children) I must be beyond worthless.
I can remember laying curled up in bed, and thinking maybe I should just go ahead and kill myself now just so I wouldn't use up air a more deserving person could breathe.
So when I read the lists of actions that you should do to fulfill this obligation of showing regard, concern, and affection to your parents (I'm not going into the full list here as it is easy enough to find online) and it became obvious that this commandment was primarily about adult children and their relationship to their parents, especially to their aging parents, I was first surprised and then, way less than happy.
I did a very bad job (thank goodness) of cutting my wrists when I was in my late 20s. Then I moved thousands of miles away from California, mainly so my mother couldn't drop in to visit me. I finally stopped taking her calls, because it would take me weeks to regain my equilibrium after I talked with her. I couldn't change her, but I could get away from her. So I ran away to Colorado to save my life. I was still crazy, but I firmly closed the door marked “suicide is easier than living like this.”
So where does the commandment stand on parents who neglected their children or subjected them to either physical, mental or emotional abuse as they were growing up? Does that whole laundry list of duties still apply?
A Rabbi from the American Jewish University says that some Rabbinic authorities maintain that these duties apply even to the worst of parents, and they remove our duties to our parents only if they are bad in the extreme. One does not have to have terrific parents to be obligated by the duties to honor and respect them.
He continued by saying that it is possible for one to honor one's parent for being a parent, and not for how well or how poorly that parent has lived up to the demands of their role. Whether by refraining from a public response of anger or by observing mourning practices and reciting Kaddish after a parent has died (emphasis mine), an individual who incurred emotional or physical harm at the hand of a parent could still affirm the importance of parenthood itself, even while rejecting her particular parent as a model for how that role should be fulfilled.
Reject the specific role model, affirm the importance of parenthood. I felt I could do that. Whatever my feelings about my mother, I do, in fact, respect and admire folks who are good parents. It is not an easy job.
It occurred to me, though, that as a convert, perhaps the obligation to observe the Yahrzeits of my parents didn't even apply to me?
Although naturally not all Jews agree, The Jewish Virtual Library has an article on conversion which contains the following: “Nevertheless, proselytes are still obligated to fulfill the biblical commandment of 'Honor thy father and mother,' and therefore the Jewish laws of mourning must be observed by the proselyte when his non-Jewish parents die.”
So it would seem that even though my observance of the Yahrzeits of my parents is not equally heartfelt, it is still my obligation, and I am fulfilling it. A Rabbi I know once told me that the reason the commandment is worded to “honor” is because we can't be commanded to “love”. Not having to equate honor to love helped me a lot in accepting this commandment.
One of the interesting sources I found, when doing my original research, was a biker (as in rider of a Harley Davidson) Christian theologian. One of the reasons I may have found him so interesting is that it turns out that his mother was also an abuser. He did write a, mostly mainstream Jewish perspective, blog article about the 5th commandment, but it’s something he says while writing about Mother’s Day that really struck a chord with me.
“It was not until just before my mother died… that I came to grips with my relationship with her. I finally recognized that she had her own demons to wrestle with and that she did the best she could given who she was. Her best was not good enough, but I could not change that and finally accepted that fact and forgave her in my heart.” An echo of what the Rabbi from the American Jewish University said above.
In my case, it was after my mother died that I slowly began to come to grips with my relationship with her. I know that she was the mother that her mother and her grandmother taught her to be. I think I might well have been the same kind of mother. Living with the memories of my childhood is an ongoing and still painful process. I am glad I didn't pass it along to another generation. I am still trying to forgive those three generations of mothers... in my heart.
I loved my Daddy, and I treated him as respectfully as I knew how while he was alive. And, had he still been alive when I became a Jew, I would have happily risen every time he walked into a room and all the rest of that list of actions to show how very much I willingly honored him.
I’m not one of those people who love their abusive parents anyway. The best I could ever do, late into middle age, was a hard-won emotional neutrality. Given I am pretty sure my mother never changed (my grandmother and my great-grandmother never did) I am also sure that distance continued to be my only protection.
I am very grateful now that my sister was there for her. And if I had been Jewish while she still lived, I hope that I would have been able to honor her by helping my sister with her care… but it would have to have been from afar.
Learning about this commandment allowed me to experience again what a good man my Daddy was and how lucky I was to have known him.
And it helped me to work through some of the lingering pain of my relationship with my mother.
A major thing I learned was that “to honor” may also mean “to forgive”.
- - - -
Must One Honor an Abusive Parent?
While fully aware of the corrosive effect of abuse by parents, rabbinic literature still encourages expressions of respect and honor for such parents.
By Rabbi Peretz Rodman
Parashat Aharei Mot—K'doshim
May 2, 2009 / 8 Iyyar 5769
This week's commentary was written by Dr. Judith Hauptman, E. Billi Ivry Professor of Talmud and Rabbinic Culture, JTS.
Rev. Dr. Monte Canfield, Retired Protestant Pastor and Theologian, jointly credentialed in the United Church of Christ and the Moravian Church
Shabbat Parashat Yitro - 22 Shevat 5770 - Parents and Children -
February 6, 2010 / 22 Shevat 5770
By: Rabbi Elliot Dorff Rector and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at American Jewish University
When a Child Should Disobey a Parent
Jewish law recognizes several categories of actions that should be avoided even if one is directed to do them by one's mother or father.
By Rabbi Nachum Amsel
Honoring Parents Who Are Abusive
By Benzion Sorotzkin, Psy.D.
Reprinted (with minor modifications) from:
The International Network of Orthodox Mental Health Professionals - NEFESH News
Aseret ha-Dibrot: The "Ten Commandments"
Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible, Rabbi Joseph Teluslikin
Jewish Literacy Revised Ed: The Most Important Things to Know About the
Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History, Rabbi Joseph Teluslikin
TANAKH: The Holy Scriptures, JPS