books and reading · Jews/Jewish/Judaism/Orthodox Judaism

Honoring My Parents

A coworker of mine was planning her wedding. She was telling us about it when she went a little off topic and started discussing her relationship with her mother. All I could think was, “WHOA, this sounds like an abusive relationship.” And I tried as kindly as possible to point that out as the conversation headed increasingly south. But I realized as I told her this that there was a stark difference between our point of views. We both agreed that it was an abusive relationship. But she loves her mom. And because I don’t understand that bond, I realize quickly that I am somehow more objective but still missing the point of why this abusive relationship continues.

In my last post on parent-child relationships, I talked about a review for Julia Blackburn’s book, The Three of Us. An author quote that I briefly mentioned in the blog, really struck a chord with me: “I have to be fond of my mother, simply because I have nothing else in this … world to cling to,” Blackburn wrote at 16. I also realized that I had no other adult to cling to as a child. So I kept my mother’s abuse a secret, afraid of her and afraid to be without her. My aunt was a great role model as were my teachers but the secret detached me from them. I was isolated because of it. Because I felt that if people didn’t know this great secret about my life then they really couldn’t know me. But unlike Blackburn, I couldn’t cling to my mother. I would have been risking my soul, my heart, my mind.

I tried to cling to my mother. But she rejected me. Over and over again. But she gave me what to cling to in spite of herself. In my three younger sisters, I found all the love that I wasn’t getting. I found a reason to keep going, to keep living, to survive. But I hated the commandment that asked me to honor my parents. How could two such dishonorable people deserve honor? How could G-d ask this of me?

While I was in the process of converting, a friend, who knew that I was still struggling with the 5th commandment to honor my parents, emailed me the following piece by a frum therapist Benzion Sorotzkin, “Honoring Parents Who Are Abusive.” Several points made in the piece shocked me. Passively submitting to chronic abuse wasn’t part of “honoring” my parents. I didn’t even have to forgive my abusive parent because that might do more harm to me. “Where possible, it is best for the child to move away. If interacting with an abusive parent makes a person emotionally ill then the child is exempt from this obligation.” What? Wow.

But it turns my stomach when the piece mentions that the therapist experiences many challenges when treating Orthodox adolescents. It’s really difficult for these patients to acknowledge that their parents are abusive, that this abuse is “against Torah and inexcusable.” When I read this, I think that I am grateful that I knew at such a young age that my mother’s actions were “inexcusable.”

My sisters and I have been told all too often that we need to forgive our mother. “We are very comfortable saying to an abused boy, ‘Sure, it’s unfortunate that your father is abusive, but that’s how he is and he isn’t going to change. You are obligated by Torah to honor him so just get over it.” I’ve heard words such as these. Even the Children’s Services caseworker on my sister’s custody case told her that she should love her mother no matter what. And this was after hearing my sister cry through stories of my mother’s abuse. Thankfully, according to Sorotzkin’s interpretation Judaism doesn’t ask me to just “forgive and forget.”

And yet I still honor both my abusive mother and negligent father when I do good deeds and act as a good person. But I honor myself by refusing to remain silent about the injustices that too many children have had to experience.

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