Child-rearing issues are too important for the courts
by Jonathan Rosenblum
November 2, 2000
Refuting the legal analysis underlying the Supreme Court's recent ban on spanking is not difficult, as Evelyn Gordon so incisively demonstrated last week in these pages. The court itself barely offered any legal reasoning. It contented itself with quoting the title of the 1992 Basic Law on the Dignity of Man, and stating the obvious: children are human beings, too.
The court's social science was no more convincing. Here it was content with a half-page string citation of authorities, without even deigning to tell us what they say. Justice Dorit Beinisch seems blithely unaware that the pendulum has swung once again on the issue of physical punishment (as it is wont to do in such matters).
A number of recent studies have come to the conclusion that moderate physical punishment can be an effective educational tool and is not harmful to children.
Beinisch's entire argument against any physical punishment was that anyone who spanks their child even once may become a child abuser - a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. She assumes, without support, that every parental spanking is a microcosm of what child abusers do on a continuous basis. But that is false. The means, intent, and psychological makeup of the child-abuser bear no relation to those of a normal parent who occasionally spanks a child.
Moreover, the argument is logically absurd. No one ever became an alcoholic without taking a first drink, but that hardly mandates Prohibition.
But let's not fall into the trap of making the court's decisions the starting point for discussion of every societal issue. Child raising is too important a subject to be confined to the pronouncements of three justices with no self-evident qualifications in the area.
Political and moral discourse in Israel has become debased by Justice Aharon Barak's philosophy that the "whole world is filled with law" and there is a legal norm for every sphere of human activity. The law has become the measure of all things.
In the political sphere, for instance, we are fast reaching the point where if a politician does not end up in the slammer, he is viewed as having been given a good government stamp of approval.
In one respect, however, Beinisch's opinion reflects a widespread intellectual malady. She suffers from what economist Thomas Sowell has termed cosmic egalitarianism. She is offended not only by inequalities created by human
legal systems, but by those written into the cosmos. Thus she repeats numerous times the trenchant observation that children are little and parents are big, and that apparently offends her.
But maybe God knew what He was doing when He created the world that way. The Torah view is that the parent-child relationship is the model for our relationship with God. For that reason the commandment to honor our parents is placed together with the commandments dealing with our relationship to God.
Children are born dependent. They rely on their bigger and wiser parents to protect them and to guide them, just as we rely on an omnipotent and omniscient God. Children learn from their parents that they are subject to rule, and some authority commands respect.
FAR from granting parents unlimited authority to punish their children in any manner they want, the analogy between the parent-child relationship and our relationship with God imposes severe restrictions on parents.
God created the world only to bestow good on others. Prior to Creation, He was complete unto Himself. Everything that happens in this world conforms to that purpose. If "bad" things happen to us, which we experience as punishments, they are designed to enable us to partake of the greatest possible good - a relationship with Him. (How that works is the subject of entire books, and no book alone will convince anyone.) Those punishments are forward-looking, not punitive. Their purpose is not to hurt us for what we have done in the past, but to improve us with an eye to the future.
As parents, then, the sole justification for punishing a child is the desire to help him grow to become the best possible person he can be. The future, not the past, is our
Punishment inflicted because we are angry, or because we feel personally injured by our children's failure to heed us, has no parallel in Divine punishment. God needs
nothing from us, and we cannot injure Him.
If we spank our child because we feel personally injured by him, writes Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, one of the great ethical teachers of our day, that is not punishment but vengeance, which is specifically forbidden by the Torah.
God does not "lose it," and we are not entitled to either. If we cannot limit ourselves to a simple potch, designed to convey a message, not to hurt the child, writes the Gaon, we should not spank at all. To make sure that he never punished out of anger, the Alter of Kelm always waited two days before punishing his children.
Most important of all, nothing the parent does should ever cause the child to lose the sense that he is beloved. The child must understand that it is his wrong action that necessitates the punishment, not who he is. As soon as the punishment has been meted out, advises the Gaon, the parent must take pains to demonstrate his love with gentle words.
That love, unfortunately, is something no court can legislate.
Related Topics: Israeli Supreme Court
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