by Rabbi Mark Dratch
Canadian Jewish News - March 30, 1995
Is it permissible to hit children? Section 43 of the Criminal Code of Canada states, "Every school teacher, parent or person standing in the place of a parent is justified in using physical force by way of correction toward a pupil or child, as the case may be, who is under his care, if the force does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances." In, Campeau v. The King (1951) 103 C.C.C. 355, the Quebec Court of Appeal ruled that "the mere fact that the children disciplined suffered contusions and bruises is not in itself proof of exercise of undue force." This ruling presupposes that use of physical punishment is beneficial for the discipline. and education of children.
Many contemporary psychologists and child rearing experts disagree and the policy of Toronto's Jewish Family and Children's Services is to consider all physical striking a form of abuse.
Is hitting children permitted according to Jewish law?
Jewish law bans aggressive, hostile acts intended to harm or embarrass human being (Rambam, Hil. Hovel uMazik-5:1). Thus, maliciously injuring, hitting, abusing or even raising a hand against another is prohibited. However, when those blows are intended for a productive purpose, such aggression may not only be tolerated, but may also be mandatory. Thus, therapeutic procedures like surgery, court administered lashes and striking someone to prevent him from sinning were considered legitimate pretexts for assaulting another person. And biblical verses like "He that spareth the rod hateth his child, but he that loveth him chaseneth him betimes" (Proverbs 13:24) have been understood to condone hitting a child as an effective tool in his education and discipline. (The more popular "Spare the rod and spoil the child" actually is from Samuel Butler's Hudibras.)
Despite what appears to be unrestricted license to hit children, rabbinic authorities placed severe limits on the use of physical force. To mention just two examples: The Talmudic sage Rav forewarned Shmuel b. Shilat that when he hit a student he was not to use a stick, but a shoelace (Baba Batra 21a). The rabbis admonished parents not to strike older children for fear that they might strike back and violate the biblical injunction against such behavior (Kiddushin 30a).
In rejecting the findings of current experts which contradict the traditional practice of "patching" children, one contemporary religious authority warned, "We must be careful in every novel matter. Of the modern researchers concerning psychology and education. It is necessary to evaluate, and scrutinize [their theories] in order to ensure that they do not contradict the words of the Sages, of blessed memory, and the early Authorities, or the customs of Israel which are themselves Torah. If there is any contradiction, you must cast away their filthy innovations, and not accept anything from them before you conduct keen study and research in Torah, [in the writings of] the Sages, of blessed memory."
While not at all disputing the primacy of Torah principles in directing Jewish behavior even when contemporary mores contradict them, one may question this conclusion. The biblical verse, "Instruct a child according to his way" (Proverbs 22:6) suggests, in fact, that there is no one correct way to raise all children, and the biblical plea "Do not hurt my anointed" (II Chronicles 15:22) is an appeal for the protection and pampering of our youth (Shabbat 199a).
One can even put forth a halachic argument. In essence, it is forbidden to strike one's child just as it is forbidden to hit one's neighbor. Special dispensation is granted only when hitting serves the cause of education and discipline; it is considered a mitzvah only when administered properly.
Jewish law limits the force used demanding that it not be administered in a cruel manner or motivated by anger animosity (Rambam, Hil. Talmud Torah 2:2). But if parents and teachers do not execute punishment in an objective and unemotional way, or if they hit too hard or too often to have any positive disciplinary effect, then such blows are forbidden. And if contemporary psychologists reveal information that was previously unknown i.e., that physical discipline is not educationally effective, or if human behavior and psychology today ,in a society with different communal values and a culture with different presumptions, differs from what it was in previous ages, (this is a significant halachic principle that is known rabbinic language as "nishtanu hativi'im", that nature has changed), then hitting children is Halachically prohibited.
What, then, is the halachically prescribed form of discipline? There is none! Our tradition does not prescribe the methods of discipline, but, rather, directs parents and teachers to raise properly educated and behaved children. The Proverbial rod may be a metaphor for proper education and discipline and not a literal tool for meting out corporal punishment. Whatever methods are psychologically sound and educationally effective are halachically mandated.
And whatever means are ineffective or, worse yet, detrimental to the physical and emotional safety and spiritual stability of children, are prohibited. Raising children is not an easy task, but we must not let our inexperience, personal anxieties or personal inadequacies enable us to treat our children in ways that are harmful to their physical well being, their self-esteem and their spiritual integrity.