I recently travelled to Australia 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 her parents. “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 Hazon 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 spareth 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 apparently acceptable form of discipline. Rabbi Karelizt 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. In legal terms that is known as assault and battery.” Now, personally, I am against corporal punishment, as are virtually all contemporary Rabbis and educators, by anyone, not just someone with anger issues, but my point here is not to discuss corporal punishment per say, but to analyse the response of Rabbi Karelitz.
Rabbi Uziel Milevsky, of blessed memory, explained Rabbi Karelitz’s response as follows. Clearly a parent has rights over her child. We have the right of incarceration, “go to your room and stay there till I call you.” We have the right to limit their freedom of movement, “you are grounded!” We have many, many rights over them. However, the understanding of Jewish law is, that those rights are given to a parent only in order to enable the parent to fulfil their responsibilities towards the child. So I have rights over my child but those rights are directly related to the fulfilment of my responsibility. To use those rights when it is not in fulfilment of my responsibilities is comparable to exerting control and power over a complete stranger, in other words, assault, deprivation of freedom, kidnapping, battery etc.
And that is what Rabbi Karelitz was saying to the father. “You know if you were a calm person and if you were someone who I would know for sure is not in the state of anger, and he has made a calculation about hitting the child and so on and so forth, then I may say it is okay. Because then I would know that you are exercising your rights only in order to fulfil your obligation. But I know you as an angry person, which means my suspicion is that your exercising of those rights is not for the benefit of the child, it is rather because you are frustrated and so you are lashing out. Therefore since you are not doing it for the benefit of the child then your actions toward that child are simply assault and battery. It is like walking up to someone on the street who you do not know and you are very, very angry so you decide to hit the person. Clearly, that is a crime.”
Again, I want to emphasise I am not condoning hitting the child under normal circumstances, which I believe is wrong, but what I am saying is we hear an important principle from Rav Karelitz; which is that the child is not a possession, the child is a responsibility
I did not explain this to the stewardess because we were late for the flight and there were people waiting behind us to get on. But next time I am asked, “Does he belong to you?” I will have a moment’s hesitation before saying, “Yes.” Of course, he is really my son, but, does he belong to me or is he part of me and my obligation? I think he is much more of an obligation than a possession, a very beautiful, wonderful obligation, but an obligation nonetheless.