Can you sue your parents?

July 14, 2020 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the Rabbi.

Rabbi Raymond Apple

SUING YOUR PARENTS

Q. May a child sue his/her parents for bringing them up wrongly?

A. Just as children have duties to their parents, so parents have duties to their children.

“Do not sin against the child” (Gen. 42:22) is a pillar of Jewish teaching.

Some sins against children are obvious, such as paedophilia.

We also know cases of violent parents causing physical and/or mental injury to their children, an unjustified application of the parental right to exercise discipline in the home: Proverbs 13:24 says, “He who loves his son seeks to discipline him”, but Maimonides warns against harshness and abuse (Hil’chot Talmud Torah 2:2; cf. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 334:43).

Your question is presumably concerned with another aspect of the problem.

Firstly let me ask whether children can complain that no-one asked them whether they wanted to be born, and the answer is No.

Parents are fulfilling a Divine command to “be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth” (Gen. 1:28). They are expressing their love for each other. They are also conferring a benefit on the child, since every child brings a blessing to the world.

With rare exceptions, parents do their very best to nurture their children according to the standards of their time and place.

Jewish teaching has its ethic of child-rearing – an important criterion against which to measure what they do. This ethic speaks about material things such as food, clothing and security, and about qualitative aspects such as helping a child to grow in faith, knowledge and wisdom.

There is an old supplication, “You who give nourishment to all that live, forget not my children in the scattering of Your bounty… Inspire me that I may know how to guide them wisely, to cultivate in them goodness and piety, and to dispose their hearts toward noble and honest pursuits.”

There are different kinds of children, and the Book of Proverbs says, “Train a child in its own way” (Prov. 22:6).

I doubt whether a child has a right to sue a parent for not doing their job properly, but I would like to see every nation endorse the world declaration on the survival, protection and development of children, formulated in 1990.

BECOMING A RABBI

Q. Why would anyone want to be a rabbi?

A. Someone must have told you that it is hard to be a rabbi, and it certainly is.

Yet there is another point of view. It is said that SY Agnon, the Nobel laureate, became a writer because he felt that someone was dictating the words and he had no choice but to write them.

Theodor Herzl spoke of being borne on eagles’ wings and it was impossible to get off.

Abraham Joshua Heschel told his students that Rainer Maria Rilke, the German poet, told a young man who asked whether he should become a poet, “Only if you cannot live without being a poet”, and Heschel added, “Be a rabbi if you are certain your life depends upon it”.

So why would anyone want to be a rabbi? Because they feel they are called to it from On High and have no choice: they cannot run away from their destiny.

Of course there are rabbis who entered the profession because they were desperate for a job, like the teachers about whom Bernard Shaw (or was it someone else?) wrote, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”. Sometimes they succeed, but it’s a miracle.

And there are rabbis who entered the rabbinate for the right reasons but found their idealism was squashed.

So the problem is not only why one becomes a rabbi but whether the community taskmasters will allow a person to remain a rabbi.

ZEALOTRY & THE THREE WEEKS

The national mourning period from 17 Tammuz until after Tishah B’Av recalls a Talmudic story about three wealthy men who were living in Jerusalem at the time when the enemy were besieging the city.

One rich man said, “I can provide enough wheat and barley for everyone”.

“I can supply wine, salt and oil”, said the second.

The third said, “I have enough firewood for the whole city”.

Many of the people said the city could thus withstand a long siege.

But a group of zealots who were determined to fight set fire to the stores of food and caused a famine.

The residents of the city now had no choice but to take up arms.

The resistance was doomed; in the end the city fell.

The moral of the story may be that solidarity and mutual respect can be irreparably harmed by acts of fanaticism and zealotry.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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