My father is over 90. He has remarried and will not be buried with my mother, his wife of almost 50 years who has passed. I don't love my father. I don't believe he loves me; we have not spoken in years and when we have it just opens old wounds and literally makes me ill - physically and mentally. Both parents were abusive in different ways. Do I have any obligation to mourn?
As painful as it is to read your words, I must say at the outset that I couldn't be more pleased with being afforded the opportunity to respond to you and your most difficult circumstance.
Many years ago, I attended a rabbinical gathering where the subject matter expert advised rabbis present to consider sermonizing on the painful reality of estrangement within the Jewish family. At the time, I must admit, I did not see what the 'big deal' was. Later, I came to understand just how widespread this awful phenomenon has become.
I chose one Rosh Hashanah to speak directly to a congregation on this subject. The sermon had just the right impact, even causing a congregant to approach me with the request for a copy of my words which she wanted to send on to her son, who was experiencing the pain of being estranged from his children.
I wish to speak directly to your circumstance and offer you some mussar--values and ethics, Jewishly.
You are clearly attempting to justify your attitude and treatment of your father (and mother). This is understandable, but unacceptable in Jewish tradition. Have you ever wondered just why in the Asseret Ha-Dibberot--the so-called 'Ten Commandments' or Decalogue, the mitzvah/commandment of Kibbud Av va-Em, the Honoring of Parents is highlighted and even records -unusually - the reward for this mitzvah's observance?
Let's look at the commandment: "Honor your father and your mother: that your days may be long in the land which God your Lord gives you." (Book of Exodus 20:12) In a slightly different form, the Decalogue is repeated in the Book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 4, verse 16: "Honor your father and your mother, as God your Lord has commanded you; that your days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with you, in the land which God your Lord gives you." See also, "You shall fear, everyone, his/her mother and his/her father." (Book of Leviticus 19:3)
I like to refer to the 'Ten Commandments' as the 'biggies.' It is interesting that Maimonides has his own categories or classification of mitzvot, including those commandments which are intuitive and do not require a Divine revelation, and those which are not intuitive, thus requiring revelation in order to learn that these are Divine requirements placed upon us at Sinai. It may sound counter intuitive for us to hear that in Maimonides' society and times he could categorize Kibbud Av va-Em--Honoring Parents in the intuitive category, that it would not have to have been revealed to us as a Divine imperative.
To Maimonides, honoring of parents and teachers is a part of the Creation and nature, as designed by the Supreme Creator of all life.
You present several reasons for why you question whether you have the responsibility to demonstrate respect for your 90 year old father and whether you need to mourn your father when the time will come. Among these cited reasons are: his remarriage following the passing of your mother and his wife of around 50 years; his choice of burial not with your mother; your lack of feelings of love for him; your belief that he does not love you; not having spoken with him for years; the painful experience of reopening old wounds, and your feelings of being abused in one fashion or another.
You seem to believe that according to Judaism that only parents who have earned your respect in accordance with your judgment and needs, are deserving of being honored, especially to be mourned upon their passing.
This assumption is completely wrong and very un-Jewish. The commandment is explicit: a parent, whether father or mother, is to be honored. A parent does not have to do anything specific to be deserving of your respect. Yes, a parent has responsibilities towards a child, but nothing will absolve you of demonstrating honor to your parents.
Who has the right to decide for your father, whether he can or cannot remarry after the passing of his wife, or even after a divorce? No one.
The Sages of Israel are explicit in their interpretation of the Torah in this matter, as presented in Rabbinic literature. We see this presented in the Mishnah and Talmud in several tractates including: Kiddushin, Sanhedrin, Ketubbot, Bava Metzia and Yevamot.
A pivotal source on the subject of Honoring Parents is to be found in Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, his compendium of Jewish Law. This is in the fourteenth book, Sefer Shoftim--Judges, Laws of Mamrim--Rebels, Chapter 6.
Law One: "It is a great positive precept to honor father and mother; so too, to pay reverence to father and mother. Scripture considers the duty of honoring parents and revering them, to be equal to the duty of honoring and revering God. It is written: 'Honor you father and your mother' , and it is also written: 'Honor God with your wealth' (Proverbs 3:9) ....
Law Three: "What is the distinction between reverence and honor? Reverence signifies that the son must neither stand not sit in his father's place; he must not contradict his father nor decide against him . . . What does honoring signify? The son must provide his father and mother with food and drink and clothing, paid for by the father. If the father has no money and the son has, he is compelled to maintain his father and mother as much as he can. He must manage his father's affairs, conducting him in and out, and doing for him the kind of service that is performed by servants for their master; he should rise before him, as he should rise before his teacher...."
Law Seven: "To what lengths should the honoring of one's father and mother go? Even if they took a pocketful of gold pieces belonging to him and cast it into the sea right in his presence, he must not shame them or scream and be angry at them; instead, he should accept the divine decree and keep silent...."
Law Fifteen: "A person is obligated to honor his father's wife, even though she is not his mother, all the while his father lives, for this is included [in the commandment] of honoring his father. So, too, he must honor the husband of his mother all the while his mother lives; however after her death he is not obligated ...."
I have chosen to highlight but a small selection of the details enumerated by Maimonides, there is so much more.
Under no circumstance is it Jewishly permissible to ignore or rationalize away one's obligation to honor a parent. Most certainly you are obligated and commanded to mourn the passing of your father. This may be a challenging, but with God's help you will succeed in fulfilling your responsibilities.
First of all, let me acknowledge what a complicated situation this is. Also, it is clear from your words how difficult and emotional this relationship with your father is. With humility, therefore, I express my hope that my words help to provide you with the information you seek in order to make the best decision. It seems to me from the fact that you are asking the question, that it is important for you to understand how our Jewish tradition approaches a situation like this. So I will start by saying that from a Jewish legal perspective the answer is yes - you do still have an obligation to mourn. What that would mean is observing the laws and customs of Jewish mourning related to: burial, shivah, recitation of mourner’s Kaddish and year following the death. Speaking more broadly, let us acknowledge that no one can “command” one to have particular feelings and thus, in that sense, the Jewish tradition does not try to dictate your inner life concerning this. Rather it focuses on the traditional behaviors that mark this life cycle. Philosophically, the rationale for the obligation of mourning, even in the case of an abusive parent with whom one does not have a positive relationship, is that your father is still responsible for giving you the gift of life. For that alone, the tradition feels a proper recognition of his death is merited. I hope this response aided you in your struggle with this question.
I am so sorry that you find yourself in this painful situation. It is sad when one does not feel loved by a parent and when one cannot offer that love. The abusive treatment you experienced clearly left deep wounds that remain tender. While your question lists several behaviors by your father that you object to, it is only the question of abuse that is relevant to the question of whether you must mourn his eventual passing or not.
There are two key issues embedded in your question. (1) What are the limits of the command to honor one's father and mother, at least regarding mourning. (2) For whom are the rites of mourning intended?
(1) It is worth noting that the Biblical command is “to honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 19:12). To honor, not to love. The Torah, and the rabbis in turn, are aware that abuse exists, that not every filial relationship evokes feelings of love. As a minimum standard the tradition mandates that the child assure that the parent has food and drink, clothing and shelter. The cost of these expenses is to be borne by the parent. Additionally the task of seeing to these needs can be assigned to an agent. (Maimonides, Hilchot Mamrim 6:3)
While this minimal reading of the obligation allows a child to create distance between themselves and the parent, distance that may be necessary for the child's protection, it falls short of answering if there are circumstances in which the obligation does not hold.
Rabbi Mark Draitch, the founder of Jsafe (The Jewish Institute Supporting an Abuse-Free Environment), discusses this as part of a longer article, Honoring Abusive Parents, which appeared in
Hakirah, the Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought. In considering those who might be considered exempt from observing shiva he note the following:
Rema adds to this list those who sin on a continuous and regular basis, even if they do so le-teyavon ̧out of a lack of self-control. R. Eliezer Waldenberg notes that Rema would also disqualify from this list those who violate a commandment le-hakhis (intentionally), even if that violation is not on a regular and continuous basis.
Draitch proceeds to outline a debate in the classical sources on this question, but then states clearly:
Nevertheless, an abused child is not obligated to mourn an abusive parent and may not be compelled to observe shivah, sheloshim, or the twelve-month periods of mourning.
I take seriously your statement that when you and your father have spoken “it just opens old wounds and literally makes me ill - physically and mentally.” As if in response to your comment Draitch specifically states that
it may be cruel for us to impose mourning rituals on these children. After all, being compelled to perform acts that honor an abuser may be abhorrent to the victims and may create additional feelings of resentment against the perpetrator, the community, and the tradition that places this onus upon them. In addition, listening to tributes for parents that children know are undeserving and unworthy further victimizes those children emotionally.
He goes into much more detail than I can include here. This is sufficient to allow me to say that the tradition certainly exempts a child who has suffered abuse at the hand of their parent from observing mourning.
(2) That leads, however, to the second question: for whom is the mourning intended. If it is for the benefit of the deceased, then Rabbi Draitch has provided a sufficient answer. If, on the other hand, it serves a productive, healing purpose for the survivor, then perhaps a case can be made that you would benefit from observing rituals of mourning.
It is conceivable that observing the rituals of mourning may offer a path to healing, either by using traditional observances or opting for more contemporary options.
Rabbi Dr Joel Wolowelsky theorizes that “opting out of the mourning process would only cement the lifelong feeling of betrayal... [Mourning an abusive parent] might just inspire individuals to seek help in coming to peace with their past” (cited in More Than a Tear: A Shiva Guide for Mourners and Consolers, by Yigal Segal). While clearly recognizing that “the halacha exempts abused children from sitting Shiva if they would suffer emotional distress,” Segal suggests that the process may offer a way to look forward to a future wholeness.
A similar outlook, though using less traditional practices, is offered in the book, Sexual Abuse in Nine North American Cultures: Treatment and Prevention, edited by Lisa Aronson Fontes (pg. 154ff). She suggests that some form of mourning may release some of the grief and sense of betrayal surrounding the abuse.
She cites this example that was published in the Valley Women's Voice by M. Wolf:
Sitting shiva for one's abusive parents is indeed a holy and spiritual process... The mourner is taken care of by her community for a period of time...one cries and tells one's story and feelings so often and with so many supportive mirrorings being reflected back, that it transforms one's memories from painful stones in one's shoes to threads lining the back of one's coat. In other words, what one has suffered no longer is a source of new original fresh pain, but part of what is behind you and magically transformed into something that protects and keeps you warm.
Aronson Fontes also notes the examples of those who have used the mikveh, the ritual bath, to provide a sense of spiritual cleansing and purification. Also, she offers the suggestion of creating affirmations that can be used through the time of mourning or in daily prayer/meditation. All of these have a goal of helping one connect with their cultural, historical, and spiritual background.
Clearly, based on the opinions outlined by Rabbi Draitch, you may choose not to observe mourning rituals for your abusive father. Alternatively, it may be worth considering if there are ways in which some traditional or contemporary rituals may serve you in your process of healing.
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