My Child – Parshat Yitro 5773

I recently travelled with one of my children, which was a wonderful experience, giving us a lot of time together, without too many distractions.  As we were getting onto the plane, I handed our boarding passes to the stewardess, but it was not obvious that my son was standing with me, so she pointed to him and said, “Does he belong to you?”  My automatic response was, “Yes,” because I understood that her question was, is this person, your son who is he travelling with you, and listed on the boarding pass.  The exchange got me thinking about the word “belong” in reference to my child. I don’t think that “belong” is the most accurate term for the relationship between a child and his parent. “Belong” implies ownership, control and possession, but I think that Judaism views our relationship to our children in a very different way.

Last century, one of the greatest Torah scholars in the world was Rabbi Isaiah Karelitz, known as the Chazon Ish, after his magnum opus. A man once came to him for advice about how to deal with his “out of control” son. The father asked Rabbi Karelitz for guidelines about corporal punishment; when to hit, how to hit, etc.  The Rabbi responded that it was completely prohibited for the father to hit his son.  The father was shocked by the response and countered with the famous verse from Proverbs (12:24), “he who spares the rod hates the child.”  He also pointed out that corporal punishment for a child or student is something discussed in the Talmud as an acceptable form of discipline.  The Chazon Ish replied that indeed the verse and Talmud both agree and were quoted accurately.  However, he explained, that hitting the child is only permitted when it is done with the purest of intentions, solely for the benefit of the child. The Rabbi continued, “I know you well and I know that you have a bad temper and some anger issues. Therefore, I believe, that when you hit your child you are doing it because you are angry. You are lashing out as a way to express your anger. We call that assault and battery.” Now, personally, I am against corporal punishment, and my point here is not to discuss its merits, but to analyse the view of the Chazon Ish.

Rabbi Uziel Milevsky, of blessed memory, explained Rabbi Karelitz’s response as follows. Clearly a parent has rights over the child.  A parent has the right to limit the child’s freedom of movement, as in, “you are grounded” etc., etc.  However, the understanding of Jewish law is that those rights are given to the parent only in order to fulfil his responsibilities towards the child.  So I have rights over my child, not because he “belongs” to me, but because I have obligations towards him, and I need those rights in order to properly fulfil my obligations. To use those rights when it is not in fulfilment of my responsibilities is wrong.

The Chazon Ish knew the father to be an angry person, and therefore believed that hitting the child was an expression of frustration and anger. He concluded that since the father was not exercising his rights purely for the child’s benefit, then his actions were assault and battery.

Again, I want to emphasise I am not condoning hitting child under any circumstances, what I am saying is that we have to understood our children as responsibilities, not possessions. Any decisions we make regarding our children, whether it is punishment, reward, custody, or discipline, should always be made with this principal in mind – is the decision fulfilling our responsibility to the child, or is it about us.

I did not explain all this to the stewardess because I didn’t want to delay the flight, but on the next flight, when I was asked if my son “belongs” to me, I had a moment’s hesitation before saying, “Yes.”

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