Tradition Today: A child’s right to life

It is difficult to imagine anything more horrifying than the murder of children by their parent.

A child leans out the window of a moving car 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
A child leans out the window of a moving car 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It is difficult to imagine anything more horrifying than the murder of children by their parent. Two such terrible events occurred in Israel within a few days of one another, during the recent holiday period.
In each case, two small children were murdered cruelly by a parent – in one, it was the mother; in the other, the father – but in neither event was it an accident. I cannot comment further on these specific cases since I do not know all of the details of these tragic stories, but they have caused me to think about the way the treatment of children and the rights of children are discussed in our Jewish sources.
It is a well-known fact that in ancient days, in many civilizations parents had the right not only to punish, but even to slay their children. In some cases this required a legal procedure; in others, not. One such case is mentioned in Judges 11:30-40, where Jeptha makes a vow which requires him to kill his own daughter and offer her as a sacrifice to the Lord. He does so and there is no hint of any disapproval. This story is a close parallel to the story of Iphigenia in Greek mythology, who is sacrificed to the goddess Artemis by her father Agamemnon so that he can proceed to make war on Troy. The story of Jeptha must represent a very early stage of popular religion in Israel and seems to be the exception rather than the rule, as the great mourning for her makes clear.
The great Israeli biblical scholar E. Kaufmann saw this as an early popular belief that was later rejected on the basis of biblical religion’s “new moral sense.” The well-known story of Abraham and Isaac, although complicated and problematic, clearly represents a change, in which it is made clear that the God of Israel does not desire the death of children but will accept the offering of animals in its place.
At an even later time, the slaughter of children by their parents as part of worship is strongly denounced by the prophets of Israel. The prophet Micah says specifically, “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for my sins” (6:7). Jeremiah similarly denounced Israelite worship of Baal, in which they “put their children to the fire as burnt offerings to Baal – which I never commanded, never decreed, and which never came to My mind” (19:5).
Regarding parents’ rights over the lives of their children, the Torah contains a rule concerning the rebellious son. Such a son may be put to death under very specific conditions. He must be a drunkard and a glutton, and must have defied the parents even after they disciplined him (Deut. 21:18-21). The law makes it clear, however, that the parents cannot simply kill the child and cannot command that the child be executed. Rather, they must present the case to the elders of the town who will make the final decision.
Rabbinic law was troubled even by this and, at a time when the courts no longer put anyone to death, made many restrictions on the right of a parent to even bring the child to a court. The Mishna (Sanhedrin 8:1-4) placed so many restrictions as to the age of the son and his specific actions that it is clear it would have been next to impossible to find such a case. In Talmudic discussions at least one sage, Rabbi Simeon, said that this law was purely theoretical and was never put into practice, although Rabbi Jonathan contended that he had seen the grave of such a son (Sanhedrin 71a). In a sense, what the sages were saying was that the child must be legally protected from the parent. If the child is to be punished, it must be through the legal authority of the courts, and no parent has the right to do this based on his or her own decision.
Certainly the Torah never envisaged the possibility that a parent could simply take a young child and murder that child because of a marital dispute, for revenge or for any other reason. The Torah and the prophets clearly outlaw child sacrifice as a part of worship and remove from a parent the right to slay a child for any reason whatsoever. That a parent would use children in any way in cases of a marital dispute or to somehow punish the other spouse is so abhorrent that it is outside the boundaries of proper human behavior. An adult who descends to that level has left the realm of proper human conduct.
Any parent who even threatens a child’s life is unfit to be in contact with a child, and it is the elders’ duty – today that means society, the police and the courts – to protect the child, a life created in the image of God.
It is time that Israeli law and society took that duty seriously. The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).