by R. Gil Student
I. Whom to Honor
Is a child obligated to honor a parent who leaves Torah observance? We are speaking here of the child’s obligation and what is best for the child, not the parent’s right however that may be defined. Let’s say that a child whose parent stopped being religiously observant asks what the Torah requires him to do, given that the child wants to remain in the same religious place.
To avoid any misunderstanding, let me emphasize upfront that Rav Moshe Sternbuch rules that regardless of other considerations, a child must honor a parent based on prevalent social customs (Teshuvos Ve-Hanhagos 1:528). It would be absurd to suggest that a Torah observant Jew show less honor to a parent than is expected in secular circles. The question is whether the Torah obligation applies in that situation. For example, the Torah requires a person to suffer verbal abuse and embarrassment from a parent (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 242:3). In my estimation, secular standards do not require this level of honor. Which level of honor must a child exhibit to a parent who has left Torah observance?
Why would we think that the biblical obligation does not apply to a non-religious parent? Rambam includes the obligation to honor parents within Hilkhos Mamrim, which also includes the laws of a Zaken Mamre (a scholar who rejects the authority or the Sanhedrin). Rambam see parents as part of the chain of tradition, transmitters of religious truths. The laws of honoring a parent are part of the honor for God and for tradition. There is room to think that a parent who leaves that tradition and no longer serves as part of that chain forfeits the accompanying honor.
II. The Non-Religious Parent
However, in fact, Rambam (Mishneh Torah, (i>Hilkhos Mamrim 6:11) writes that a mamzer, an illegitimate child, is obligated to honor his father even if that father — who committed adultery in fathering this child — remains a wicked man. In contrast, the Tur (Yoreh De’ah 240) disagrees with Rambam and writes that a person is not obligated to honor a non-observant parent. He quotes as proof the Gemara (Bava Metzi’a 62a) that if someone inherits from his father stolen objects, he must return them out of respect for his father. The Gemara asks that if his father was a thief, then he was non-observant and the son has no obligation to honor his father. The Gemara answers that the father repented of his sins when he died. The clear implication is that a person is not obligated to honor an unrepentant, sinful parent.
Rav Yosef Karo (Kessef Mishneh, ad loc.) defends Rambam’s view and explains this passage as being about whether the son inherits a stolen object, not about whether there is an obligation to honor a sinful father. If the father does not repent of his theft, then the son inherits the stolen object and it belongs to him. He does not need to spend his own money to honor his father. However, if the father repents, then he intended to return the object and the son never truly inherits it. Therefore, he has to return the stole object to its true owner.
Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai (Chida; Birkei Yosef, Yoreh De’ah 241:4) quotes the midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 39:7) that God specifically exempted Abraham from the mitzvah to honor is father in order to leave for Canaan. Apparently, even though his father Terach was an idolator, Avraham was still obligated to honor him if not for this explicit divine exemption. This supports Rambam’s view that the obligation applies even to a non-observant parent. (Bach, Yoreh De’ah 240 brings a somewhat similar proof.)
III. The Wicked King’s Son
The Gemara (Pesachim 56a) says that King Chizkiyah dragged the bones of his deceased, wicked father, Achaz, through the streets and the Sages agreed with his actions. What about the obligation to honor his father? Rashi (Sanhedrin 47a s.v. al) says that there is no obligation for a non-observant father. How does Rambam explain this Gemara?
Rav Yisrael Lipschitz (Tiferes Yisrael, Pesachim, ch. 4, Bo’az no. 3) answers that since honoring a dead parent is only required rabbinically, it does not apply to a non-observant parent. Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Me’or Yisrael, Pesachim 56a) points out that this is difficult because the broad consensus is that honoring a dead parent is biblically required.
Rav Moshe (Maharam) Schick (Taryag Mitzvos, no. 33) asks how, according to Rambam, Chizkiyah could drag his father’s bones. He answers that Rambam would agree that the technical obligation to honor a parent does not apply to someone non-observant however a child still may not cause pain to a non-observant parent. That generally translates into a requirement to honor a non-observant in order to avoid causing him pain. However, when the parent is deceased, failing to honor him does not cause him pain. Therefore, a child is not obligated to honor a deceased, non-observant parent.
IV. Who Is Non-Observant?
Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah 240:18) follows Rambam that a person must honor his non-religious parent. Rema (ad loc.) follows the Tur that there is no obligation in such a circumstance. Shakh (ad loc., no. 20) adds that even according to Rema, a child may not cause pain to his non-observant parent. However, Rav Yitzchak Fuchs (Halikhos Bein Adam Le-Chaveiro, ch. 5 n. 205) points out that later Ashkenazic authorities follow Rambam and Shulchan Arukh on this (e.g. Kitzur Shulchan Arukh 143:9; Chayei Adam 67:18).
Rav Chaim Ben Atar (Rishon Le-Tziyon, Yoreh De’ah 241:4) says that Rambam is only speaking about someone who violates commandments, even long term, out of desire. Rambam would agree that a person is not obligated to honor a parent who rejects the Torah, such as someone who converts to another religion or lives a secular life. Similarly, Arukh Ha-Shulchan (Yoreh De’ah 240:39) says that Rambam and Tur only disagree regarding a parent who is non-observant out of desire (le-tei’avon). But there is no obligation to honor a parent who is non-observant for ideological reasons (le-hakhis), such as someone who does not believe in the Torah.
There is a generalization often repeated in the observant community that people only leave the life of observance out of desire, in order to enjoy forbidden activities. If true, this would require children to honor an OTD parent. However, it is, at best, a broad generalization about a class of people. Everyone has their own story, their own thoughts, their own reasons for leaving.
Pesakim U-Teshuvos (240:49) raises the suggestion that we consider the parents of ba’alei teshuvah (returnees) to be tinokos she-nishbu because they did not receive proper religious instruction while growing up. Therefore, they are not considered liable for their sins. If so, perhaps the obligation to honor them still applies. Additionally, very often, over time religious children have a positive religious effect on the parents. Can this also be applied to those who were raised religious and then left observance? Maybe if the parent was physically or emotionally abused, he can be considered someone who never received a proper education. I have not seen any authority suggest this and it seems farfetched to me. It also seems more likely that the parent will negatively affect the child religiously than vice versa.
Rav Moshe Sternbuch (ibid.) rejects this entire approach and says that we base the rule on whether someone is observant in practice, regardless of how he got there. Therefore, he concludes that a child is not obligated to honor a parent who is non-observant. As explained above, although I don’t know that Rav Sternbuch would agree with this distinction, that applies to a case when the parent is non-observant for ideological reasons.
Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Yabia Omer, vol. 8, Yoreh De’ah 21) adds that if a parent tries to turn a child away from Torah observance, then the child has a right to resist. The Torah does not require that we put ourselves in the position where we are subject to anti-religious coercion. A person who acts that way does not deserve honor.
V. Concluding Thoughts
As mentioned above, Rav Sternbuch emphasizes that a religious Jew cannot act below accepted societal standards and must honor his parents in a way that is expected by the secular world. People need to find a way to balance their honor for their parents with their own religious needs. An independent adult will find that easier than someone young. If the parent does not make the child feel welcome, the child will come less frequently if at all.
However, I add, for your own emotional health you need to find a way to maintain a relationship with even antagonistic parents. The story is told of a young, newly religious yeshiva student whose parents did not allow kosher food into their home. Somehow he survived this situation and grew into a brilliant rabbi. I don’t know how he lived through that antagonism, whether he cut off contact for a few years until his parents became more reasonable or he sat and suffered through the insults and ate raw fruits and vegetables for the sake of family unity. Most people in such difficult situations will have to do a little of both. Over time, you will find that as you maintain a respectful attitude without sacrificing your religious behavior, the relationship will improve and become healthier and more mutually respectful.