Sparing the Rod?
04/22/11
Special to the Jewish Week
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

 Q - I was shocked to read recently that corporal punishment is still legal in 20 states. I also know the famous quote from Proverbs, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” But on Passover we are taught to answer a child’s questions with patience. Is it ever acceptable for a parent or teacher to hit a child?

A - It is never appropriate to hit a child, at school or at home. Period.

As a youth, I was spanked from time to time. I learned nothing about being a better person from it, and certainly nothing about being a better parent. Effective punishment can be meted out in other ways and the line separating discipline from abuse has gotten too easy to cross. I’ve long felt, in fact, that responsibility to circumcise is placed on the father precisely so that he will inflict upon his child a ritualized blow so intense as to make him recoil, yet so controlled that no damage is really done, to signify that this will be the worst the child will ever know from his parent's hand.

This month, New Mexico became the 31st state to ban corporal punishment in schools , though it is still allowed in American homes . Dozens of other nations, including Israel, have abolished corporal punishment in the family. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently said: "We want (children) to learn every day in school, but to do that, they must feel safe first. You cannot do your best or concentrate academically if you are scared."

OK, so let’s begin by banning hitting American children, anytime, anywhere.

Even the author of Proverbs itself seems somewhat uncomfortable with that infamous “spare the rod” quote. Elsewhere in the book he says, “Train a child according to his way.”

Did you notice as you sat around the Seder table that nowhere does the Haggadah speak about whapping the Wicked Child into submission? On the contrary, the sages were supremely uneasy about hitting kids, and the Talmud counters “Spare the rod” with gems such as: “Anger in a home is like rottenness in fruit”; “Never threaten children. Either punish them or forgive them”; and,” If you must strike a child, do so only with a shoelace.”

Remember the notorious commandment in Deuteronomy to stone to death a stubborn and rebellious son? According to the Talmud, it was never carried out, as the rabbis went to almost absurd lengths to legislate it out of existence.

So we’ve evolved since biblical times, but we still have a long way to go. Rabbi Mark Dratch points out that many Jewish children, like children everywhere, are the victims of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Our chief problem is no longer in how we mete out punishment, but how we abuse children even when reprimand isn’t on the agenda. In the Abraham story, the Torah sent a strong moral message opposing the prevailing practice of child sacrifice. Now, parents have found far more subtle ways to humiliate and torture their kids.

Where there was once "the strap," now we have the college admissions process.

Last month my synagogue screened “Race to Nowhere,” a devastating indictment of our achievement culture that has spawned a movement to transform education and safeguard the health of young people. As I watched this sobering film, the troubling questions kept coming, and they’ve been gnawing at me for weeks.

What are we doing to our kids? Are we literally killing them by piling on the homework and constantly demanding more, forcing them to poison their bodies with stress, stimulants and sleep deprivation? Are we killing their souls by giving them no choice but to cheat in order to keep up and by viewing their accomplishments solely from the prism of a college resume or GPA? Are we denying them a real childhood or preparing them for the pressures of the real world? And is all this "teaching to the test" actually robbing them of the ability to think, to intuit and to explore? Are we robbing them of curiosity and creativity - and in doing so, are we robbing this nation of what it says it wants, a generation of young adults who know how to innovate and think for themselves?

We are grinding our children through numbers machines, turning them into little walking computers, squeezing the humanity out of them, willingly sacrificing quality at the altar of quantity, always asking them for more (or as one girl in the film said, she hates the word "and" because no matter how many accomplishments she can rattle off, the response is always "and???")

The Talmud suggests that parents are obligated to teach their children basic survival skills, like how to swim. Instead, too many of us are throwing them to the sharks. So, while your question is well taken, the problem is far deeper than corporal punishment. The moral issue of the moment is not about whether it’s OK to use the paddle on kids in classrooms. It’s that we are forcing them to row upstream without one.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Read more Hammerman on Ethics here.  Read his blog here

Last Update:

11/09/2011 - 17:37

Comments

The problem with translations is that languages don't always offer exact equivalents -- or a word which in one language might be ambiguous or offer multiple meanings, often determined by context and cultural understanding might in another language be more finite. I've read that the word that is translated as "rod" in English in the original can mean such things as "rod" "shepherd's crook," or "scepter" (which in itself could be a metaphorical shepherd's crook. I know of sheepherding and a shepherd never uses his staff or crook to beat the sheep. It is interesting, however, that English-language culture sees the word "rod" and immediately thinks of something with which to beat smaller, defenseless people.

The story in the Hagadah about the wicked son is always mistranslated as "Hitting him in the teeth." It is not. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel the famous Rabbi taught that it means we must make him CHEW on the meaning of what it is to be a Jew -- A commitment to Godly Justice as we read in the Hagadah. That the Almighty seeks Justice as exemplified by the Exodous of the Jewish People from the bitter slavery and cruelty of the evil Egyptians and their evil society. Let us all take a moment and think about this. How can we advance Justice for children. Let us teach them to be thoughtful and loving men and women. Then the child who appears to be wicked will change and become rightous. Let us all work towards this goal.

I am not sure which haggada the good rabbi is using but it clearly says to knock out the wicked's son's TEETH. Hakei es shinav. now you can translate set teeth on edge or knock out the letter shin so only the word ra-evil is left so we distinguish between the person or the actions. However honesty is a good thing in Judaism and it does say those those words in the haggada which do sound harsh and need explanation. I think rabbi hammermans parents did a great job raising him and the whacks did not hinder him becoming the caring person he is today:)

The word "rod" in Hebrew can be interpreted in a couple of ways. For ex. in the 23rd psalm "Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me" refers to the rod not being used to beat a sheep but instead point the way or show the direction. I believe also in a haftorah (maybe Isaiah) he talks about " the rod of my lips"
In other words "rod" can refer to providing guidance or direction or verbal scolding.

Rabbi,

I very much enjoyed this piece. I work at the National Youth Rights Association and corporal punishment is one of our major issues. I'm also a member of the Jewish community sitting on the boards of Interfaithfamily.com and The Slingshot Fund. I have spent a lot of time balancing my Jewish values with my professional work.

I very much believe that my Judaism requires me to do the work I do. As Jews we do not strike our children for failing math tests. We support and raise our children and encourage them to succeed on their own as adults - which leads to better scores on math tests. It was very refreshing for me to read a Rabbi echo my own thoughts on the matter.

Thanks for all you do,

David Moss
Director of Development and Operations
National Youth Rights Association

School employees Hitting students under the guise of "Discipline" is unacceptable. Corporal/Physical Pain as Punishment or Paddling done by taxpayer funded school employees hitting children with wooden boards to deliberately inflict pain as punishment if done in view of the public would result in the paddle wielder being arrested and imprisoned for criminal felony assault, as would any other person, be they a Police Officer, Lawmaker or U.S. Supreme Court Justice!

Corporal Punishment is already Illegal in Schools in 31 U.S. States and Prohibited by Federal Law for use against Convicted Felons in U.S. Prisons. Paddling injuries to children put school districts at risk of lawsuits. Several "School Paddling States" have "Teacher Immunity Laws" to protect school employees from criminal/civil action. Some "School Paddling States" such as Tennessee, North and South Carolina do not require parental consent or notification for children to be hit by their teachers/coaches/administrators at school to deliberately inflict pain as punishment for minor infractions such as not turning in homework or horsing around.

Search 'A Violent Education' and 'School Is Not Suppossed To Hurt' to see what legally passes as 'Discipline' in 21st Century Classrooms in 19 U.S. States. Non-violent discipline resources are available at sparethekids dot com and dontbeatblackkids dot com.

Please add your voice at Unlimited Justice dot com Nationwide Campaign to End School Paddling of Children.

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