Honor thy children
One of our readers recently approached a member of our staff and asked a question that is well beyond our collective pay grades: Does Judaism teach us to honor our children?
OK, we’re journalists, not rabbis, so we didn’t have a ready-to-go answer.
But it was an excellent question, nonetheless, especially in light of last week’s decision by the Penn State board of trustees to fire its longtime president, Graham Spanier, and its legendary head football coach, Joe Paterno, for their roles (or lack thereof) in the child sex abuse charges leveled against Paterno’s ex-defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky.
Paterno, 84, who had hoped to coach for the rest of the season before retiring, had already expressed regret for not doing more when he first heard of the allegations against Sandusky.
That wasn’t good enough for the trustees, who correctly understood that the spotlight would not be on the play of the team, but on Paterno’s (and Spanier’s) roles in the ugliest scandal in Penn State history.
But back to the question.
Again, we’re not rabbis, so we consulted Rabbi Mark Washofsky, the Solomon B. Freehof Professor of Jewish Law and Practice at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. (Freehof, you’ll recall, was the senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom Congregation for decades and one of the leading Reform scholars of the 20th century.)
“Jewish law is like other legal systems in that it presumes minors are incapable of protecting themselves,” Washofsky said. “So it is up to the family, and if the family can’t do it, it is up to the wider community to protect them.”
And when it comes to violence and sexual abuse, Washofsky said children fall into the same category as everyone else.
“When you see someone being threatened or under attack, then you have a duty as is taught in Leviticus (“do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor”) to come to the aid of that person and do what you can do to protect any individual,” he said.
OK, but what about honoring children? Maybe the law protects our children from predators, but does it teach us to honor our children? After all, one of the Ten Commandments says, “honor thy father and mother.” It says nothing about honoring thy children.
According to Jewish law, Washofsky said, there’s nothing that commands honoring one’s children “in those powerful terms.” Jewish tradition understands that parents are obligated to care for their children, but there is no commandment that children are owed the same honor due one’s mother and father.
That may be the hardest lesson from this incident to process. Certainly, children cannot always be honored for their lives’ achievements, since they have most of their lives ahead of them, but can they not be honored for what they represent — the future of the Jewish people, and humankind in general?
We think so. We also think that maybe, just maybe, children would be more protected from at least some predators — those whose conscience isn’t completely dead — if they had that status.
Protection of children is a matter of law. Honoring them, it seems, is not, though we say it is certainly a moral imperative. If society were to emphasize this imperative in its schools, synagogues, churches, mosques and temples (not to mention its locker rooms and playing fields), wouldn’t our kids be safer around their coaches, teachers and mentors?