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Shabbat Parashat Vayishlach 5774

Ask the Rabbi: Encouraging a Child to Criticize His Parent (Part II)

Rav Daniel Mann

Question (edited): Psychologists sometimes believe that a patient’s symptoms – depression, anger, poor functioning etc. – are a result of his parent’s destructive behavior toward him. Can we encourage a patient to express his resentment to the offending parent in a controlled, appropriate manner? The goals of these interventions are to help the patient reduce his symptoms and the suppressed hatred toward the parent. This can help improve the relationship, even though, on an immediate basis, the negative feelings are legitimized and brought to the fore.


Answer: After seeing that there are times that a psychologist may encourage a child to “confront” his parent about harmful behavior, we will suggest some strategies, when possible, to minimize the halachic problem of disrespect to a parent. We refer to responsible, while flawed, parents.

The gemara (Kiddushin 31b) tells of Rav Assi’s mother who deteriorated to the point that she viewed her son romantically. Rav Assi left her to sever the relationship. The Rambam (Mamrim 6:10) rules that while one should try to tend to a parent whose mind has deteriorated, if their behavior is bad enough, he leaves the parent and instructs others to tend to him. The Ra’avad argues because he does not see an alternative to the child’s care. The Kesef Mishneh rejects the Ra’avad’s question because the Rambam is clearly based on the story of Rav Assi.

The Ra’avad seems to understand that the idea that the son leaves is permission because the task is not doable, and so he argues with the Rambam, saying there is no better alternative. The Radvaz (ad loc.) and Aruch Hashulchan (Yoreh Deah 240:32) explain that the child specifically could not be the caregiver. Others can deal more forcefully (which may be necessary) in a manner that a child is forbidden to do. Thus, the child will get someone else to do what he is not allowed to despite the parent’s need for such treatment. We see, then, that even when a parent needs non-respectful behavior, the child should find someone else to do it. Therefore, in our case, it is best (if it does not undermine the therapeutic process) for someone other than the child (e.g., the psychologist) to raise the grievances with the parent. Then the parent can approach the child and they can focus on ways to improve things.

Another halachic advantage of the psychologist broaching the topic is that it gives the parent an opportunity to be mochel (waive) his honor before discussion with the child ensues. The gemara (Kiddushin 32a) says that a father’s relinquishing of rights to kavod is effective. Some say (Raavad, cited by Rivash 220, Beit Yosef, YD 334) that he can only waive his rights to honor but not to allow being disgraced. Some equate a parent allowing disgrace to a parent allowing being hit (Turei Even, Megilla 28a) and some distinguish between them (Pri Yitzchak 54). In any case, some level of negative interaction must be permitted based on the following story (Kiddushin 32a). A rabbi did something upsetting to his son to test his reaction. The gemara asks that he was (possibly) causing his son to violate honoring his father and answers that the father waived his honor (see Birkei Yosef, YD 240:14).

When the psychologist prepares his patient for a conversation with the parent, he will teach him to raise the issues in a way that heals, not creates feuds. I imagine he will say things like “I know you love me, but when you act in a certain way, it hurts me.” While not pleasant to hear, it is likely not considered the type of disgraceful behavior for which mechilla does not work.

In summary, a child should be encouraged to complain to his parent about their parenting only when truly necessary for the patient’s mental health and/or the parent/child relationship. Even then, it is better for the psychologist to relay some of the harsher criticism instead of the child. The parent’s willful participation in the process, which hopefully will not be overly disgraceful, is helpful not only psychologically but also halachically.

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