Ask the Rabbis // Parenting

By | Jan 06, 2016

Is there a “Jewish” way to parent?



Yes—it’s called “detachment,” or, in biblical Hebrew, shemitah, which is also the word used to describe the ritual of detaching from our ownership of land every seven years (Deuteronomy 15:1). The second-century sage Beruriah taught that our children do not belong to us, but rather are our wards (Yalkut Shimoni, Mishlei 964:7). In fact, a parent who injures his or her child is no less liable than one who injures an adult (Tosefta Baba Kama 9:3). Nor may parents instill terror in their kids (Gittin 6b), or punish them with consequences that the child cannot connect closely enough to the undesirable behavior (Semachot 2:6). And when you discipline your child, “Do not distance them with both hands, but let your left hand distance while your right hand draws near” (Sotah 47a)—meaning that even in the midst of showing our disapproval, we must reassure the child that our disapproval is not synonymous with withdrawal. Nor are we to live through our kids, seeking to create them in our own image. Rather, we must raise them according to who they are as individuals (Proverbs 22:6).

Such rules and principles existed in our tradition thousands of years before Western civilization instituted legislation against child abuse. And there are many, many, many more.

Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Thousand Oaks, CA

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Putting aside the gender bias of the verse, my favorite Jewish parenting instruction comes from the Talmud (Kiddushin 29a), which instructs a father to teach his son Torah, get him a wife, teach him a craft and, some say, teach him to swim! It’s the final piece of advice that catches our attention. It’s one thing to instill values and ideals, to acquire a partner in life and a livelihood. But most important is learning survival skills. When parents are no longer available, we want our children to be self-sufficient and have the inner strength to manage adversity.Along these lines, we recognize that life is not always fair, that pain and suffering are part of the human lot. We need to prepare our children by being truthful, by not dodging tough topics or hiding behind euphemisms. We also need to respect our children’s intelligence: They are quite capable of distinguishing between myth and reality. To this end, we want to encourage critical thinking. Part of good Jewish parenting is allowing our children to question authority—an age-old Jewish tradition—and to foster healthy debate. (This collides with a more repressive Jewish tradition—“Freg nit! Don’t ask!”—which silenced any objections.)Finally, we distinguish between authoritarian parenting, which admonishes and demands, and authoritative parenting, which is caring and supporting. We choose the latter, which recalls the sentiment of Baba Batra 21a, “If you strike a child, strike him with a shoelace.”

Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
New York, NY


When my son was an infant, I wrote a poem that began, “Don’t chew on your mama’s tefillin.” Every time I share it aloud at readings, people laugh. It’s funny because in previous generations that sentence would never have been written.What makes my parenting “Jewish” is not the flavor imparted because my life (and thus my kid’s life) is steeped in rhythms of weekday and Shabbat, melodies of prayer, texts from our tradition. What makes my parenting “Jewish” is that it’s an expression of the spiritual directive of renewal and reinvention that is core to Jewish life and practice.Our liturgy praises God Who every day renews the work of creation. Like the Holy One of Blessing, we too are perennially called to renew: our practices, our understandings, our teachings, our way of being Jewish in the world. Parenthood demands this, too. Parenthood is a constant practice of discerning what halachists call the “demand of the hour” and striking the right balance between tradition and innovation.I parent “Jewishly” when I am most attuned to the balances between loving-kindness and boundaries, past and future, how my parents reared me and what I most hope to transmit to my son.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Congregation Beth Israel
North Adams, MA


Here are three parenting “do”s and one “don’t” that transcend shifts in social science and fads in parenting advice. First, don’t parent like a biblical patriarch! Abraham scarred two sons with near-death experiences; Isaac seemed hapless; Jacob played favorites. Though holy, the Bible’s parents are far from perfect. What should we do, then? Be expansive, generous and balanced.

Expansive: With no single “right” or “Jewish” way to parent, let’s teach children to become more fully who they themselves are, reflecting God’s wide-ranging image more than our own. Early on, let children learn from Judaism’s diversity, its emphasis on inquiry over doctrine, its deep pluralistic teachings about respectful disagreement.

Generous: As Holocaust survivor and French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas taught, we enter the world deeply in debt, given our own early dependence on parents and others; we thus share a moral obligation to “pay it forward.” Parents should both be generous and encourage generosity in our kids. Parenting guarantees no quick returns; it’s our best, longest-term investment in the future.

Balanced: Our legacy is not just through our own progeny but also through all whom we teach, touch and empower. It truly “takes a village”; let’s celebrate everyone’s positive influence on other people’s children, too.

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Congregation Adat Shalom
Bethesda, MD


You might think we could turn to parents in the Tanakh to find examples of “Jewish” ways to parent. But that leads us to some challenging examples. Abraham was set on sacrificing Isaac until a ram was presented for sacrifice in his place. Rebecca encouraged Jacob to deceive his father. King David’s sons fought over succession, so surely his parenting style is to be questioned. Rather than looking simply at the parents in our sacred texts, we can find guidance and “Jewish” ways to parent when we look at our challenges and questions through Jewish eyes. How do I find the patience to deal with a cranky child at the end of a long day? How can I reprimand my child without embarrassing or shaming him? How should I respond when all I get from my teen is an argument? Judaism provides guidance and insight to these and other questions. Our tradition’s teachings on middot, Jewish virtues—among them, patience, courage,
rebuke and attentiveness—offer “Jewish” answers to these and other parenting questions. When we look at these questions through Jewish lenses, our parenting tasks become sacred obligations.

Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
Fresno, CA


Our neighbor was sick with the flu and I was making her chicken soup. I asked my then four-year-old daughter to make Jan a get-well card. “Mommy,” Tamar asked, “why are we bringing soup to Jan just because she is sick?” I replied quickly, “Because it is a nice thing to do for a good neighbor.” That evening I was teaching an adult education class on mitzvot, and, as it happened, we spoke about visiting the sick. I suddenly realized the mistake I had made when I answered my daughter’s question. We brought soup to Jan not simply because it is a nice thing to do, but also because it is a mitzvah—a commandment—to visit the sick. I should have said so explicitly.

To parent Jewishly is to teach Jewish values and to live Jewishly. Judaism is a gold mine of family-friendly holidays, rituals and virtues. Gratitude, honor, joy, humility and anger management are just some of the many middot, or qualities, that can be taught using Jewish language. Jewish parenting is about using Jewish language to frame and name the values that are the essence of living Jewishly—welcoming guests, visiting the sick, giving to the needy with an open hand, thanking God for blessings in our lives, honoring our parents, caring for the earth and remembering that we are created in the image of God.

Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
Springfi eld, MA


Parenting is a universal human phenomenon, so it is hard to say that there is a Jewish way to parent. There is no uniquely Jewish way to conceive or to breast-feed or to discipline a child. Nevertheless, how we express the universal desire to create life and pass it on is embedded in the culture and religion of the individual. Judaism places great stress on family—hence the many traditional
observances focused on family and home. The Torah and tradition emphasize
the importance of transmission of the covenant to the next generation—hence the centrality and glori cation of education in Jewish culture. Similarly, tikkun olam, repairing and making this a better world, is a strong theme in Jewish religion. This translates into an emphasis on achievement and the dignity of making a livelihood.

These values—family, education, achievement—are so deeply rooted that they have persisted among Jews who are “secularized”
or assimilated. However, there is growing evidence that if the deculturation goes far enough, then the Jewish difference shrinks or disappears—along with the Jewish identity.

Rabbi Yitzhak Greenberg
Riverdale, NY


There are certainly Jewish ways to answer the three vital questions we should ask ourselves about Jewish parenting: the why, the what and the how. Most crucial: Why are we parents? Because we have a divine mandate in the world—to bring consciousness of God and his plan to humanity—and we can do that only with Jewish continuity. Children are the way in which we take our personal avodah, our sacred work, and extend it into the future. Once that becomes our understanding of why we become Jewish parents in the  first place, then it’s easierto understand what it’s all about:  first and foremost, making Judaism the single most attractive thing in our children’s lives, giving them enough con dence, love, passion and enthusiasm for Judaism so that it becomes a stronger force than any distraction that the vicissitudes of life can throw at them.

Of course, Judaism has a lot to say about how we go about doing it. One of the most valuable parts of Jewish parenting is that when we deal with issues of authority and discipline, we don’t make the mistake of saying, “You better listen to me because I’m your mother!” A beautiful tool of Jewish parenting is to be able to say, “Look, Hashem really doesn’t want you to act this way.” And the child realizes that the parent isn’t this towering human  gure that the child is compelled to rebel against, but that the parent, as well as the child, bends to God’s authority 100 times a day.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein 
Loyola Law School
Los Angeles, CA


Some would identify Jewish parenting as a combination of kvetching, kvelling and a healthy dose of Jewish guilt. In reality, Jewish parenting means inspiring the next generation to embrace the destiny of the Jewish people. Children do not belong to us. G-d gives us a sacred responsibility to create a home that is suffused with mitzvot and Jewish spirituality. To parent “Jewishly,” seek out positive emotional Jewish experiences to offer your child. Light candles on Friday evening, study Torah together, read Jewish bedtime stories and sing the shema every morning and night.

Being a Jewish parent to teenagers can be challenging. My role as the director of
education for a post-high school program is to create an environment that empowers young Jewish women to develop their G-d–given talents and creativity to express aspects of Jewish identity and purpose to the world at large. As a parent, you can help your teens  and the contribution that they can make to Jewish life. We all have unique capabilities, whether in the area of Jewish music and art or in some other  eld of interest. Your teen can play a role in strengthening the Jewish community and making the world a better place.

Rabbi Aaron Herman
Tzohar Seminary for Chassidus and the Arts
Pittsburgh, PA

2 thoughts on “Ask the Rabbis // Parenting

  1. Suzon Gordon says:

    I’ve just read in the July/August issue “A new book of the Bible. . .” and can’t wait until you post it online. I am totally delighted by the Modern Orthodox response regarding “The Book of Miriam the Prophetess. . .” Women are still so often officially and deliberately underrated and/or misunderstood (see the many reactions to Secretary Clinton, which I believe are simple sexism) just because men’s egos have demanded (or required) inflation. Unfortunately, too many women have bought into the argument.

    My rabbi-daughter is no less a rabbi to her flock than her grandfather was to his. It certainly won’t be technology that will change minds and hearts–she’s an expert at that–but she was compassionate before she developed her expertise. Technology does not teach compassion, it is only a tool. It will be the growth of compassion and caring by all people, male and female and regardless of sexual orientation. People teach compassion, mostly by behaving with compassion in the presence of the next generation.

    Some day, I hope, but maybe not in my lifetime. . .

  2. Rubin Guttman says:

    As I read the Rabbinic discussion on intermarriage in “What the Jewish World Will look like in 2050?” I wondered who among the highly assimilated Jews of Berlin, Vienna, and Warsaw or the religiously observant among them in 1910 imagined what their Jewish world would look like in 1943, or 33 years later. Perhaps the diffference is that today we have a Jewish State with a Jewish army. But unless we stem the tide of intermarriage and assimilation we will in time lose far more than than the one-third of us we lost to Hitler. Yes, we have always had intermarriage. And the progeny of those intermarriage have assimilated into Jewish oblivion over time. The only antidote is a combination of Jewish education, Jewish pride and Joyous Jewish practice, in the home and in the community.

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