Jewish Journal

Determinism & Freedom: Is One Punished for the Mistakes of One’s Parents

by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

March 3, 2013 | 8:50 am

Like Father, Like Son

Scholars have noted for centuries an apparent biblical contradiction about whether children are punished for the wrongdoing of their parents. On the one hand, Deuteronomy 24:16 says, “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin,” implying that all are judged on their own merits. On the other hand, Exodus 34:7 states, “[God] maintains love to thousands, and forgives wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation,” suggesting that children can indeed be punished for the mistakes of their parents.

The Gemarah (Sanhedrin 27b) gives a clear answer to this question: “It is written, ’He punishes the children for the sins of the fathers’!?  That is only when they grasp the deeds of their fathers in their hands.” The rabbis taught that this rule does not operate by metaphysical determinism but rather through human agency. If one chooses to continue the negative path that their parents set them on, then they will be punished for the mistakes their parents made and passed along to them. However, if they chose to break free from their upbringing, then they are virtuous.

Psychologists today believe that parents have a significant role to play in how their children develop, which increases the chance that their children will very likely end up similar to them. While skeptics have tried to discount this while promoting genetics as the sole determinant, recent research has tended to support the former idea. For example, a  study of more than 300 adoptive families demonstrated that there was a significant association between a hostile marital relationship, hostile parenting, and aggressive behavior by adopted toddlers. In addition, the feeling of financial strain was associated with hostile marital relations and aggressive behavior by the adopted toddler. Since the study involved adoptive parents and toddlers, genetics did not play a part in the correlation between antisocial personality traits and hostile marital and parental behavior. Another study largely corroborated these results, showing environmental factors within the family alone accounting for the association between antisocial parental behavior and childhood depression, while indicating genetic factors were responsible for their child’s hyperactivity.

Unfortunately, politics plays a role in this debate. As Professor Eleanor Maccoby, Barbara Kimball Browning Emerita Professor of Pscyhology at Standford University, stated 

If one does believe… that conditions such as poverty, parental conflict, coercive or abusive parenting, dangerous neighborhoods… are unimportant for children’s welfare, then there’s very little point in trying to intervene to change them.

Thanks to the mapping of the human genome, we have been able to locate genes that determine longevity, blood type, and susceptibility to certain diseases, disorders, and disabilities.  Research studies have also identified more than 50 locations on the genome associated with obesity. Unfortunately, thus far scientists have been unable to predict or develop personalized treatment for obesity, which indicates that we have much to learn in the area of genetic influence on children and how they develop.

Do children grow up to be like their parents? Politically and financially, the answer appears to be mostly yes. A 2005 Gallup poll of teenagers found that 71 percent said that their social and political ideology was about the same as their parents, versus 21 percent who said “more liberal” and 7 percent who said “more conservative.” Of course, there can be some generational differences; in the 2012 election, young adults age 18-29 voted 60-37 percent for Democratic candidate Barack Obama, while their parents voted Democratic at a significantly lower rate. For example, those 40-49 voted 48 percent for Obama and 52 percent for Republican Mitt Romney. Financially, a recent Pew Economic Mobility Report indicated that only about half of Americans earn more than their parents did, with the greatest stagnation in the bottom quintile, where 43 percent raised at this level remain at the bottom as adults. When they grow up, children generally wind up close to their parents’ economic level.

As adults, we know where we came from, and in the vast majority of cases we are grateful for the sacrifices our parents or guardians made for us. Nevertheless, our parents, friends, and schools can teach us principles, but as we approach adulthood we must make our own decisions. We often reject what our parents advise and make impulsive choices. As we mature, we may realize that our parents knew best, and that we made mistakes. While we are not the clones of our parents, and may choose an independent path, we are their physical creation by virtue of our chromosomes, and their spiritual creation through their nurturing and guidance. As humans, we are constantly seeking autonomy, independence and authenticity, as we should, but on some level we must also embrace that without reflection and serious transformation, we generally end up quite similar to our parents (for better and worse). May we have the courage and insight to learn from the past and also to truly chose our own destinies.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."

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Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz...

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