By Rabbi Mordechai Levin
The moral value which states that adult children should care for their elderly parents is deep-rooted in Judaism. The commandment of honoring parents is one of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:12): “Honor your father and mother. You will then live long on the land that God your Lord is giving you.” The Torah equally commands fear — or reverence — of parents (Leviticus 19:3): “You shall each fear his mother and his father and keep my Shabbats; I the Lord am your God.” Honoring parents is a way of honoring God, says the Talmud (Kiddushin 30b): “When a person honors his father and his mother, God says, ‘It’s as though they had honored Me.’ ”
The commandment to honor parents applies particularly to adult children of elderly parents. Respect involves a number of actions that we must not take against our parents, and honor refers to some things that we must do for them. The Talmud states (Kiddushin 31b): “What is reverence and what is honor? Reverence means that he [the son] must neither stand in his [the father’s] place, nor sit in his place, nor contradict his words, nor tip the scales against him [in an argument with others]. Honor means that he must give him food and drink, clothe and cover him, lead him in and out.”
To honor parents does not mean that we have to obey everything they say. Jewish sources give examples of this. For instance, a child must not listen to a parental request if a parent asks him/her to go against a commandment of the Torah. A child may refuse to comply his or her parents if the child wishes to move to the land of Israel and a parent opposes it. If parents object to a potential husband or wife and the child wishes to marry anyway, it is his or her right to do so. However, in each case where a child may disobey, the dignity of the parents must be maintained.
Adult children are required to take care of their elderly parents, seeing to it that their basic health needs are met. Judaism prefers that the children do this mitzvah, rather than finding someone else to do it for them. However, in the case of parents who need considerable care, that might not be possible.
Rabbi Elliot Dorff wrote that if children cannot realistically care for their parents themselves, then placing them in a facility for the elderly is not only permissible but possibly the most desirable, provided that the attitude with which this arrangement is made is one of honor, respect, and ideally, even love. Such a compassionate attitude must be expressed by visiting and calling parents regularly.
Must one honor an abusive parent? Rabbi Dorff added that, “Some maintain that these duties apply even to the worst of parents. Others maintain that if a parent abandoned a child or was truly abusive, then these duties to such parents no longer apply.”
The Torah commands that we honor our mother and father; it does not command us to love them. It recognizes that there are people who, for different reasons, do not love their parents, but whether or not we love our parents is beside the point. Parents fulfill their parental responsibilities to their children in varying degrees of skill and love, but according to Jewish values, the right thing to do is to treat them with honor and respect.