Between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day is a good time to return again to the fifth of the Ten Commandments, “Honor your father and your mother.”
The Ten Commandments are the most important demands God makes upon the Jews (and upon members of any religion based on the Jewish Scriptures). These are the commandments that Moses received on Mount Sinai.
Even those who do not believe in God would acknowledge that any society whose members adhere fully to the Ten Commandments would be a very decent society, undoubtedly the finest that ever existed. They would also have to acknowledge that whoever wrote the Torah deemed the creation of such a society as dependent upon honoring parents as it is dependent upon banning murder, stealing and adultery.
Of course, there are exceptional instances when honoring a parent is morally impossible. The Torah itself notes this in another verse: “A man shall fear his mother and his father [note that mother is listed here first, as the equality of parents is assumed by the Torah] but you shall observe my Sabbaths.”
This has always been understood to mean that if one’s parent demands disobedience to another of the commandments, God’s commandments take precedence. And there are times when honor becomes morally impossible when the parent him or herself is truly evil, just as there are evil times when lying and stealing and adultery (consider the case of Irene Opdyke, the Polish Catholic woman who became the mistress of a Nazi in order to save Jews) become morally acceptable, even necessary.
In our time, however, the connection between honoring parents and maintaining civilization is not widely recognized. Indeed, many of the best-educated parents do not believe that their children need to show them honor, since “honoring” implies authority figure, a status they reject.
In addition, many parents seek to be loved, not honored, by their children. Yet, neither the Ten Commandments nor the Torah elsewhere commands us to love our parents. This is particularly striking given that the Torah commands love of our neighbor, love of God and love of the non-Jew who resides among us.
The Torah understands that there will always be individuals who, for whatever reason, do not love their parent(s). Therefore, the Torah does not demand what may be psychologically or emotionally impossible. But the Torah does demand that we show honor to our parents — and it makes this demand only with regard to parents. There is no one else on earth whom the Torah commands us to honor (the rabbis later added teachers).
So, then, why is honoring parents so important? Why does the Torah believe that society could not survive if this commandment were to be widely violated?
One reason is that we, as children, need it. Parents may want to be honored, but children need to honor parents. Children who grow up without honoring their parents grow up, for all intents and purposes, fatherless and motherless. A father and a mother who are not honored are essentially adult peers of their children who happen to live in the same house and pay the bills. But they are not parents.
No generation knows better than ours the terrible consequences of growing up without a father. Fatherless boys are far more likely to grow up and mistreat women, commit violent crime and act out against society in every other way. Girls who do not have a father to honor — and, hopefully, to love as well — are more likely to seek the wrong men and to be promiscuous at an early age.
Second, honoring parents is how nearly all people come to recognize that there is a moral authority above them. Those who resent the idea of acknowledging a moral authority over themselves reject this and often reject the commandment as well. There are many such people.
But those who understand the moral necessity of people honoring a moral authority above themselves understand that this begins with children — and society — honoring parents.
Of course, for Judaism, the ultimate moral authority is God, who is therefore higher than even our parents. But the Torah, the Ten Commandments and later Judaism all understood that it is very difficult to come to honor God without having had a parent, especially a father, to honor. Sigmund Freud, an atheist, theorized that one’s attitude toward one’s father largely shaped one’s attitude toward God.
There is one more reason why honoring parents is fundamental to a good society. Honoring parents is the best antidote to totalitarianism. One of the first things totalitarian movements seek to do is to break the child-parent bond. Thus, under communism and Nazism, the importance of reporting one’s parents to the authorities was instilled in young people from a very early age.
For this reason as well as all the others enumerated here, I worry for our society. Child-parent bonds, especially child-father bonds, have been weakened, and are often nonexistent; the parental role is increasingly usurped by the state; and parents increasingly seek love rather than honor.
Only one of the Ten Commandments — honoring parents — provides a reason: “So that your days will be lengthened in the land I give to you.”
Why? Because without widespread fulfillment of this commandment, society will not long endure.
Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).