To What Extent is a Child to Honor and Respect a Parent Who is a Scoundrel?
I. The Question:
a. Case A The question as asked is “If a first child (daughter) of a father is born out of wedlock (my father married my mother after I was born, put his name on the birth certificate, but divorced her 6 months later) what laws and rules should I obey and how am I viewed in Jewish law?”
b. Case B A modern Orthodox wife and mother becomes more spiritual and observant. Her modern Orthodox husband undergoes a midlife identity crisis, he cannot tolerate his wife’s newfound and to his view, excessive piety, or his children’s religious sincerity. He leaves his home, wife, and children and connects with a Korean woman—young enough to be an oldest daughter-- who subsequently iconverted under non-halakhic auspices. His oldest daughter, a former Hebrew language and literature student of mine at a local Orthodox day school, becomes engaged to be married. Her father the home breaker and formerly observant, well educated Jew, demands that he and his new wife [a social gesture symbolically validating his new wife, his moral choices, and his newly discovered existential identiy] be invited to his daughter’s Orthodox wedding—after all, his daughter is Orthodox, she has to keep all the rules, including honoring him; the bride says, “I hate him, I do not want him in my life and certainly not at the wedding.” What to do?
II. The statutes
a. The Torah at Exodus 20:12 and Deuteronomy 5:16 commands “Honor your father and your mother.” This apodictic syntax is foundational, constitutional, and seemingly allows no apparent exceptions.
b. The Oral law teases out of the constitutional
Torah text several specific norms:
i. bQiddushin 30b. When married in rabbinic antiquity, the pappa who pays the penny gets the preference in honor which is expressed materially [Genesis 13:2]; if divorced, the parents are totally equal in their claims to respect.
ii. bQiddushin 32a also requires that parental respect be expressed tangibly, by providing financial support for parents.
iii. bKetubbot 103a. The child is obliged to honor his parents’ spouses, even if that spouse is not a parent.
iv. pQiddushin 1:6 requires that the child beg [seek alms from people at their doors] in order to sustain a parent.
v. Maimonides, Mamrim 6:1 teaches that we respect and hold both parents in regard because God says so, and by implication, not for meta-halakhic fantasies. By respecting our parents, we respect God the lawgiver Who commanded that we respect our parents.
vi. Supra.¸6:2. Cursing one’s parent is a capital offense.
vii. Supra.¸6:3. We do not sit in judgment of or contradict our parents’ words, or sit in their seat. We stand in their presence and we do not address them by name during and after their lives.
viii. Supra.¸6:7. Even if our parents exhausts our wealth and even after they shame us, we honor them because God in the Torah as so directed us to do so.
ix. Supra.¸6:10. If a child is unable to handle a demented paren, the child may provide care through surrogates.
x. Supra.¸6:11, If a child is legally illegitimate, i.e. s/he was conceived through either incest or adultery, respect for the birth parent remains in force.
xi. Supra.¸6:12. Only when a parent commands a child to disobey a Jewish law is the child to disobey the parent. It is God’s honor that generates value; parental honor is therefore derivative.
III. The value-driven decision
a. Case A refers to a man who is able to be a biological father but is unable—or unwilling-- to fill the moral role of father. The child’s obligation to honor her father derives from Torah law, and not from parental merit. By dint of her carrying her father’s DNA, she owes her father respect, deserved or not, because that is the Torah norm.
b. Case B also requires respect for the wayward, sinful father. But here the case has a subtle nuance. Since her father gave his daughter his DNA at conception, she owes him respect and she must invite the “gentleman” to the wedding. The bride protested that she hates her father, she “cannot help it.” I responded: your father can say, “I cannot help it [=my feelings]” as well, and the Torah also happens to teach that hating is by law a forbidden moral disposition. [Leviticus 19:17] But since his consort was not Jewish by halakhic standards, his consort is not his wife according to Orthodox Jewish law. Therefore, while the bride owes her father respect in general and a wedding invitation in particular, she owes nothing at all to her father’s consort, who not being Jewish according to Orthodox Jewish law, she need not invite her to the wedding, even over her father’s objections. The father does not have the Jewish legal right to demand of her that she recognize what for Orthodoxy remains an intermarriage. The offended father happily did not attend the wedding.
c. The Torah is teaching that we obey God without flinching, doing the right thing even if our egos find such obedience distasteful.