Ask the Rabbi: May a teacher strike a student?

By SHLOMO BRODY
September 9, 2011 15:11

Is a teacher allowed to strike a student or seize his property?

4 minute read.



empty classroom

empty classroom school_311. (photo credit:Thinkstock/Imagebank)

The beginning of the school year inevitably revives debates over appropriate measures to maintain discipline within the classroom. Educators struggle to use their limited resources to find the appropriate reaction that will help students learn from their mistakes.

One common scenario of misbehavior is the use of personal objects during inappropriate times or for improper activities (e.g., texting in class). While many teachers feel entitled to seize the property, it remains disputable whether Halacha permits confiscating others’ property, even on a temporary basis. If the object is dangerous (such as a knife), Halacha mandates removing it for the sake of public safety (CM 427:8). Yet taking more innocuous objects of entertainment (like an MP3 player) seemingly falls under the rules of thievery.

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The Talmud strictly prohibits any theft for the exclusive purpose of inflicting anguish or discomfort upon the victim (BM 61b). Many commentators understood this statement to ban appropriating property under any circumstances, even if done in jest, for a temporary amount of time, or with the genuine intent to provide restitution (Torah Temima Leviticus 19:11). Maimonides explained that even though no monetary damage would be incurred, the Torah nonetheless desired to prevent people from growing accustomed to taking other people’s property (Geneiva 1:2).

Some authorities, however, have justified confiscating property on various grounds. They noted that a few commentators understood the Talmud to prohibit only long-term thievery for non-monetary motivations, but not temporary confiscations (Shita Mekubetzet BM 61b). This might be particularly true if it remains on the teacher’s desk or other places within the victim’s sight (Tehumin 8). Rabbi Yaakov Yeshaya Blau further cited opinions that permit temporary confiscations when the theft is done for the sake of fulfilling a mitzva, such as education (Pit’hei Hoshen Vol. 4). Some have further argued that once schools establish rules of punishment, students (and their parents) accept those restrictions upon entering the premises (Tehumin 19).

A different defense draws from an a fortiori argument which contends that temporary confiscations are permissible since the Talmud was willing to sanction the more severe physical punishment by teachers or parents to chastise misbehavior (Mishna Halachot 4:284). While the analogy between monetary law and battery remains disputable, it highlights the historically controversial dispensation to strike children for educational purposes.

The notion of corporal punishment for educational purposes finds it roots in the book of Proverbs, which warns, “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to chastise him” (13:24). Numerous ethical treatises, including the 15th-century Orhot Tzadikim (Seventh Sha’ar), admonish parents to display this “tough love” to properly educate their children.

The Talmud goes so far as to exempt a father or teacher from liability to tort damages should they accidentally cause harm to the child (Makot 8b).

Yet as Prof. Benjamin Shmueli has documented, classic rabbinic sources imposed many qualifications to this practice. First, the objective must be exclusively educational, with any other form of beating considered strictly forbidden child abuse.

Consequently such punishment is only allowed to preempt or immediately punish misbehavior, when it might have a deterrent effect to prevent recurrence. It may not be used as retribution for previous misdeeds (Even Shlomo 6:4). Toddlers who will not understand such punishment may not be struck (Ralbag Proverbs 19:18), nor should older children who might rebel or react negatively to such chastisement (Moed Katan 17a). In fact, excommunications were imposed on those who struck their children at inappropriate ages (R.

Akiva Eiger YD 240:20), while teachers who struck their pupils too often or too harshly were removed from their positions (Makot 16b). Maimonides, furthermore, demanded that one may not strike in anger, and prohibited using harsh instruments like whips or rods (Talmud Torah 2:2).

Despite these restrictions, it remains clear that historically, Jewish legal and ethical sources allowed for the educational striking of children, a sentiment that continued to receive support in the 20th century (Michtav Me-Eliyahu 3:360-1).

Yet most significantly, punishments were understood to be dependent on the child and his or her temperament (Kitzur Shulhan Aruch 143:18).

In the modern era, many scholars deemed corporal punishment undesirable or a method of last resort. Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch, for example, asserted that the use of corporal punishment would weaken the moral training of a child (Yesodot Hahinuch 2 p. 65). Rabbi Eliezer Papo asserted that in eras in which youth rebel against imposition of authority, corporal punishment is likely to be counterproductive (Pele Yoetz, Haka’a). Similar reservations were expressed by rabbis Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe YD 4:30) and Hayim David Halevi (Kitzur SA Makor Hayim 6:126:14). Perhaps the greatest contemporary opponent to corporal punishment was Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, who contended that in our era, pleasant rebuke and patience are the best way to educate children – a position I strongly support.

The writer, online editor of Tradition and its blog, Text & Texture (text.rcarabbis.org), teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.

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