Parenting: A View from Jewish Sources

Rabbinic readings of biblical stories suggest some pitfalls to be avoided in raising children.

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To demonstrate this, Samson Raphael Hirsch (in his commentary to Genesis 25:27) asks a simple but difficult question. We can understand why one of Abraham's children, Yishmael, went off the proper path, since although he had Abraham for a father, his genes and environment were somewhat tainted by having the maidservant Hagar for a mother. However, how is it possible to understand why one of Isaac's sons, Esau, went off the proper path? After all, both parents, Rebecca and Isaac, were righteous, and the home environment was a proper Jewish one?

Hirsch answers that a clue is provided by the verse (Genesis 25:27) that says that the brothers Esau and Jacob grew up, and only then it indicates that Esau was a hunter while Jacob dwelt in the tent (of study [according to a rabbinic story]). It is clear, according to Hirsch, based on this verse, that both Esau and Jacob, born as twins, were raised in precisely the same environment and with the same methodology.

Rebecca and Isaac raised both of their children identically, and that was their mistake. They did not take into account that Esau possessed a different personality from Jacob and needed his own special environment in order to be raised to become a righteous human being. Esau rebelled against this upbringing, which did not suit his personality and temperament and turned to the evil path. Had Isaac and Rebecca realized Esau's unique personality traits early on, they could have raised him differently and he could also have become righteous like Jacob.

Fulfill Your Responsibilities to Your Children

Finally, the Talmud (BT Kiddushin 29a) indicates that there are certain obligatory responsibilities that a father must provide for a child in order to be considered a proper Jewish father. Among these are giving a son a ritual circumcision, redeeming a firstborn (where applicable), teaching a child Torah, marrying off a child (which indicates once again that the parental responsibility continues after bar [or bat] mitzvah), [and] teaching a child a trade by which the child can eventually earn an income. According to some opinions, a parent must also teach a child how to swim.

With these skills and the proper educational environment using the principles outlined here, a Jewish parent can reasonably hope that such a child will grow up to be the kind of Jew every parent will be proud of.

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Rabbi Nachum Amsel earned his rabbinical ordination and a doctorate in education from Yeshiva University. He is Director of Education for Hillel in the Former Soviet Union.