The Ten Commandments: An Inspiring Conversation With D About

D’s Letter

Shalom Rabbi Emanuel,

I do have a question for you about the Ten Commandments, and more specifically about the 5th Commandment.   “Honor your mother and father” doesn’t completely make sense to me.  

Should you still honor your mother and father if they are bad people? Should you honor your parents’ wish if they tell you to murder another person, against the 6th Commandment?

I have a hard time understanding this specific Commandment.  Are you required to honor your mother and father no matter what?


My Answer to D.

Shalom D.,

Thank you so much for your email and question!  It’s a great one, that I am happy to elaborate on. 

I have posted a Comparison between the two versions of the Ten Commandments in my website.  I recommend you take a look at it even though it doesn’t really answer your specific doubts and questions.

The Hebrew verb that opens this Commandment is כַּבֵּד – KABED – an imperative tense of the verb.  Indeed, most of the translations to English use the word Honor. Very few use the word Respect.  Only one adds in parenthesis “Obey” and “Care For” as possible meanings. 

In Hebrew, verbs are conjugations of roots that comprise of three letters.  Each conjugation means something different and yet, most meanings somehow relate to each other.  The additional meanings of conjugations of the root KABED stems from do include Honor and Respect, as well as many others.  Adjectives such as heavy, weighty, massive, massy, burdensome, onerous, laborious; difficult, slow, sluggish, ponderous, unwieldy, lymphatic, hulk, hefty are all derivatives of this root.  Verbs such as to burden, to make heavier, to be heavy, offer refreshments and clean also derive from this root.  However, OBEY is not a derivative of this root. 

Indeed, part of respecting and honoring someone is listening to what that person says, considering it and acting accordingly.  If whatever that person requests contradicts with your own values, you should “respectfully disagree” and not obey.  Honoring your parents may be a heavy burden, difficult and slow to act upon, as implied by the additional meanings.

Obedience and following commands were very basic and core principles I adhered to during my military service in the IDF.  Stands for reason, isn’t it?  Without that, an army cannot function.  Along with these came the clear instruction: “Don’t you dare obeying a blatantly illegal command!”  Because if you do, you will bear the full consequences of your actions.  And the one to make the call and judge whether a command is legal or not is you.

Let me now take these insights back to your question.  If someone, be it your parents or anyone else, asks you to murder or do any immoral act, disobey.  By disobeying the request, you actually respect and honor that person.  You elevate one from being an accomplice, a criminal, to a state of misjudging right from wrong.  Of course, by inference, this principle applies to other requests that counter other laws, or values that you hold dear.

This conversation leads me to another very basic concept in Judaism:  Free Choice, or Free Will.  We chose what we do and how we respond to whatever happens to us and around us.  AND we bear the consequences of our actions.  AND we also have the ability to do T’shuva (inadequately translated into repentance), to make amends.  Doing T’shuva means that we change the way we will conduct ourselves in the future in similar situations. 

We learn from Torah that everything is open to questioning in a respectful way.  In fact, it is a very basic foundation in Jewish Thought, that encourages debate and questioning authority.   Even God’s intents and decisions are debatable, and Torah gives us so many stories of such cases.  Avraham argues with God about Sodom and Amora; Moshe convinces God not to annihilate the Israelites are a few examples.

And lastly, to your question: “Should you still honor your mother and father if they are bad people?”

We believe that there is no such thing as a totally bad person and nor probably a totally good person.  A Hasidic tale says that there are 36 righteous persons in the world that thanks to them, the world exists.  It adds that even the thought of being such a righteous person would remove that person from the 36…  Everyone has some good qualities and did something good and it is our duty to find and uphold it.  That will enable us to relate to one as a human being, allowing us feel compassion to that person. 

Here is one good thought about parents, no matter how bad one may think that they are.  They – separately and together – gave me life; without them – I would not exist.  And for that single deed I should be grateful to them, and respect them for that.  When you start thinking that way, you may find additional qualities, instances and deeds that are not utterly bad.  You may start looking at things from different viewpoints; and maybe even see things from your parent’s perspectives.

In conclusion, here is King Shlomo (Solomon) interpretation of this commandment (Proverbs 1:8 – my translation that tries to keep the “subtext meanings” as well): “Hear, Listen, Think and Consider, my son, to the morals, the burden, even the torture that your father bestows upon you, and do not forsake the teachings and directions given to you by your mother”.

D, I hope that I was successful in some way to clarify your initial doubts.  And I am certain that it would generate more questions.  Please let me know what you take from all the above, and ask as many questions as you may have. 

Wishing you and your family all the best!   

Warm Blessings,

Rabbi Emanuel Ben-David

D’s Response with Additional Questions

Shalom Rabbi, and thank you for answering my question.  I do have a few more thoughts and questions though.

You talked about respecting our parents for at least creating us. You also talked about seeing the good in them and trying to see things from their perspective.  Now, I do agree with this for the most part.  I do believe in trying to see things from other perspectives and trying to see the good in people. 

However, this does lead me to my question.  What determines how good or bad a person is?  I do understand that there is not a completely evil person and similarly not a perfectly good person.  How do we know to distinguish the fine line between a good and a bad person? 

At the end of the day, parents are still human beings.  With all that being said, if a parent is abusive, should one still try to understand their viewpoint?  Should one still try to see the good in them? 

I suppose the main question that I go back to is what determines if someone is good or bad.  Can a murderer still be considered “good”?  I am not sure if I accept the whole concept of categorizing people as “good” or “bad”.   After all, human beings are not so black or white in that sense but rather being on a gray scale. 

My next question is how literally should one take the Ten Commandments?  For instance, there is the commandment that tells us not to lie.  Does it mean that we should never ever lie? that seems unrealistic to me.  Sometimes we may lie for good reasons.  If someone asks me if I like their shirt, I will probably say yes even if I don’t like it.  I do that so as not to hurt one’s feelings.  Yes, it is a lie, but it does not hurt anyone in the process.  So, would it be ok according to the 10 Commandments? 

Thank you for your time!  D.

My Additional Answers to D.

Shalom Demitrious!

Thank you so much for your thoughts and additional questions! I admire your maturity, moral values, and the way you express yourself.  I am totally amazed by your words.  You are a fine young man with a beautiful and very sensitive good soul and I want to bless you with continued growth in that direction.

I apologize for failing to explain myself clearly enough, and hope that the following will better clarify my thoughts.  Honoring and respecting one’s parents does not necessarily call for total, absolute, blind, obedience.  The Hebrew word that is used in the original text – KABED – does not have obedience in its meaning.  Obeying and acting upon someone’s demand without any self-judgement counters the Free Will we all have and must exercise.  Even God can be challenged – and our ancestors, Avraham and Moshe as examples, did that.  Yes, with respect, with KAVOD (same Hebrew Root as the verb honor, respect), and yet assertively. 

I would even dare saying that after carefully exerting your judgement and deciding NOT to obey to your parents, you are actually respecting them.  You save them from doing evil.  And I do encourage you, in the spirit of what I have added and said before, to continue and grow your ability to “see things from other perspectives and trying to see the good in people.”  Yes, this is the way to go in life!

That leads me to yet another question you raise and your thought about it. 

“…What determines if someone is good or bad.  Can a murderer still be considered “good”?  I am not sure if I accept the whole concept of categorizing people as “good” or “bad”.   After all, human beings are not so black or white in that sense but rather being on a gray scale.”

The answer is Yes.  I full heatedly agree with your personal opinion.  Instead of cataloging people as good or bad (or any other behavioral qualifier) I would rather qualify and evaluate deeds.  This was a good deed, that was a bad response.  Judge the action, not the person.  A premeditated murder is the worst action a person can do.  Is that person ALL bad? Not sure about it. 

Let’s take Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi responsible to murdering millions of Jews during the Holocaust, as an example.  Israeli court sentenced him to death for his actions.  This sentence was the only execution that took place in Israel since its establishment.  Are those actions for which he was tried and convicted by the court bad? Absolutely.  Was Eichmann a good person? his deeds towards his family would classify him as a good and caring person. 

According to the ancient Hebrew Law that was practiced 2000 years ago, that is exactly what allowed the court to execute such a person.  I need to elaborate and explain this statement. 

At those times, the capital punishment according to Torah was mandatory for many transgressions and crimes.  There were no lawyers then, no prosecutors nor defense attorneys.  An accuser, or witnesses, would bring a case to the court.  The minimum quorum required for a verdict was 23 judges that would scrutinize the witnesses, trying to unveil the truth. 

If the court unanimously decided to acquit the accused, he/she was free to go.  On the other hand, if there was a unanimous decision to convict the accused, the sentence could not be executed.  There must be something wrong in a situation that no one can see something in the defense of the accused.  The Mishnah describes it (Makkot 1:10): A Sanhedrin (court) that executes once in seven years, is called murderous.  Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah Says: once in seventy years (once in seventy years already makes a court murderous).

And finally, you asked about how literally should we take the Ten Commandments, and in extension, other commandments in Torah.  And the answer is, as you can expect by now from me, Yes and No.  Yes, at least in the sense that we cannot ignore them. There is no “DELETE” function in Jewish Thought.  We cannot ignore a text, no matter how harsh and difficult it is to deal with. 

The No part of the answer, is that we have the right and obligation to interpret it.  We must understand the text and see how it applies to our days and to the specific circumstances at hand.  Your thought about the “do not lie” is absolutely correct.  Another Halakha (Jewish Law) that says: “anyone that shames a fellow in public is considered as s/he murdered that person”.  Your example, “If someone asks me if I like their shirt, I will probably say yes even if I don’t like it.  I do that so as not to hurt one’s feelings” is a perfect example of following that logic.  Kudos to you for your kindness and your decision-making process!

There are so many stories and teachings that encourage and justify the interpretation and re-interpretation of the words of Torah.  And so much more so for rulings that are set by rabbis.  The scope of our conversation doesn’t allow adding those references, and I hope that you trust me, regardless their lack.

You seem as a very fine man with solid good values, and curious mind to ask and doubt, to learn and implement.  Your soul is compassionate and gracious, yet respectful to those around you and to yourself.  I bless you with continued growth in the path you are walking on. 

Warm Blessings,

Rabbi Emanuel Ben-David

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