Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Vilna Gaon's Letter to his wife: Mussar, beatings & sensitivity

Vilna Gaon
[...] [translation is copyrighted] I also ask of you a very important request. You should guide our daughters very carefully so that they should never utter a curse, an oath, a falsehood or words of strife. Rather everything that they do should be done peacefully and gently from love and affection. You will find amongst my books a number of Yiddish mussar books. The children should read them constantly especially on Shabbos, the special holy day, when mussar books are the only thing that they should read. In fact you should constantly guide them with mussar books. For cursing, oaths or lies, you must beat them and not show them any mercy. That is because, G‑d forbid!, for the corruption of the children - the parents are severely punished and they will suffer shame in the World-to Come. As it is written (Vayikra 21:9), She profanes her father. In a case where the child is wicked even the son of a righteous man is called “a wicked person the son of a wicked person.” (Sanhedrin 52a). this is true in other matters such a lashon harah. [...] However the most impotant thing is that they should not simply leave the house and go outside – G-d forbid! When they do go out they should be careful to honor your and my mother and all those who are older  then them. In addition they must fulfil all that is written in the mussar books. Also your children – they should live – it is important to raise them in the straight path with gentleness. [...] I have also left books for them. For the sake of G‑d guide them with good and gently. You should also carefully watch their health and make sure they have enough food so they don’t feel they are deprived. You should first have them learn the entire Chumash to the degree that they know it almost entirely by heart. Be careful that the learning should not be through pressure but with gentleness. That is because learning is not absorbed properly except with calmness and gentleness. As motivation you should give them money or other rewards. It is important that you are always conscious of these matters which I have mentioned and everything else is trivial [...] Amongst my books is a copy of Mishlei in Yiddish. For the sake of G‑d they should read it everyday. It is better than all the mussar books.  They should also read Koheles constantly before you. That is because it clearly explains the insignificance of this world as do other books. Nonetheless, G‑d forbid! – that they should view reading books as their goal because it doesn’t necessarily motivate a person to act. In fact there are many who read mussar but do not act differently as a result. That is because of what we mentioned before - as well as going out into the world without purpose – causes everything to be lost. It is like one who plants seeds without first preparing the ground through plowing. Therefore the wind and the birds carry away the seeds because they are not properly fenced off and protected. Some plant on stone. This is referring to the heart of stone that nothing can penetrate. It is first necessary to hit the stone until it shatters. That is why I wrote to you that you should hit your children if they don’t obey as Mishlei  (22:6) states,  “Train the youth in the way he should go.”  This is an important principle of chinuch.

Update: Rav Dessler correctly notes that the Gra is describing two aspects of hitting. One is a punishment - and that seems to be limited either as a last resort or only for certain things that he specifies. However there is a second aspect where hitting serves to teach the child proper midos of humility and submission to authority - which enable him to listen properly and thus learn properly. This is clearly the view from Makkos 8a

This is from volume 3 page 361
עי' היטב באגרת הגר"א ז"ל (נדפס בסוף המסילת ישרים) ז"ל שם :,.ויש שזורע על האבן, והוא לב האבן שאינו נכבס בו כלל, וצריך להכות את האבן עד שתתפוצץ, לכן כתבתי לך שתכה את בנינו אם לא ישמעו לך"' כו'.

- הרי מכאן ענין אחר לגמרי בהכאה, דהיינו לעשות לבן לב נשבר ונדכה. ועי' היטב בדרך עץ החיים להרמח"ל זצ"ל, בד"ה :ועתה נחזור לשורש הענין ,וד"ה :הנה התורה היא הנקארת עוז. קשה להעתיק כל אורך לשונו, אבל הדברים עמיקים מאד, ומבט אחר להם לגמרי, דהיי' שהכאת הבנים היא בבחינת הפרדת ערלת הלב ובבחינת חבוט הקבר.

13 comments:

  1. The letter also emphasizes gentleness. Those who know how to be gentle can perhaps afford the luxury of beating their kids.

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  2. I wish we knew which Yiddish mussar seforim he was referring to. I wonder if any are still being printed today. We know the Gra was enthusiastic about Ramchal's writings, but at that time I believe there were also many Yiddish religious books written specifically for women.

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    1. He may have been referring to the Orchos Tzadikim which was originally published in Yiddish. It was very popular in Ashkenaz.

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  3. Spare the ChildMay 8, 2013 at 1:29 AM

    Am I unique if I read here that the Gaon referred to hitting only as a last resort? As I reread the posuk in Mishlei, it also sounds like חושך שבטו is not the command to hit, but that it is only that the option should never be completely excluded. For those who wish to challenge, go to the posuk in Mishlei, and check out the end of the posuk. ואוהבו שחרו מוסר. If hitting were such a cherished tool, one would expect the lover of the talmid to use major force to inflict massive pain. Halacha is quite clear about the use of the strap - a shoelace, not a whip. (Check out זריעה ובנין בחינוך from Rav Wolbe ZT"L)

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    1. Sounds to me like the Gaon's only qualification was that hitting is for "cursing, oaths or lies." I make the diyuk, and consider it a pretty open shut case for the diyuk, that hitting is not for other things in his opinion.

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    2. Rav Dessler correctly notes that the Gra is describing two aspects of hitting. One is a punishment - and that seems to be limited either as a last resort or only for certain things as you have noted. However there is a second aspect where hitting serves to teach the child proper midos of humility of submission to authority which enable him to listen properly and thus learn properly. this is clearly the view from Makkos 8a

      This is from volume 3 page 361

      עי' היטב באגרת הגר"א ז"ל (נדפס בסוף המסילת ישרים) ז"ל שם :,.ויש שזורע על האבן, והוא לב האבן שאינו נכבס בו כלל, וצריך להכות את האבן עד שתתפוצץ, לכן כתבתי לך שתכה את בנינו אם לא ישמעו לך"' כו'.
      - הרי מכאן ענין אחר לגמרי בהכאה, דהיינו לעשות לבן לב נשבר ונדכה. ועי' היטב בדרך עץ החיים להרמח"ל זצ"ל, בד"ה :ועתה נחזור לשורש הענין ,וד"ה :הנה התורה היא הנקארת עוז. קשה להעתיק כל אורך לשונו, אבל הדברים עמיקים מאד, ומבט אחר להם לגמרי, דהיי' שהכאת הבנים היא בבחינת הפרדת ערלת הלב ובבחינת חבוט הקבר.

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    3. Ok. But where does the Gra say this?

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  4. Recipients and PublicityMay 8, 2013 at 8:36 AM

    With all due respect to the Heilige GAON ZTK"L, reading it one sees how dated and even outdated this advice is for us today. Like reading about "malkus" and "arba misos bais din" it is just not nogeiah (applicable) -- leave it to the Divine hashgocha to do it on its own through some acts of "nature" 'cause as fallible weak humans we will mess up if you try this today!

    Corporal punishment is a rarity that few can administer and get away with it. It can wreck homes and kill marriages as wives and husbands often cannot see eye to eye on these things. What parents want their kids smacked in schools or yeshivas today? and to do it at home is taking huge risks with the safety of the child not to mention the risk of the intervention of the child welfare authorities.

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    1. Spare the ChildMay 8, 2013 at 3:29 PM

      The type of corporal punishment that would justly involve the child welfare authorities is not included in the posuk of חושך שבטו. There was never a posuk, or any other Torah or rabbinical directive to assault a child. It is clear that any form of discipline is focused on the goal to bring about avodas Hashem, not rebellion. For one thing, it must occur within the context of a caring relationship - otherwise it is not different from street mugging. Secondly, the child must be receiving direction from it, not injuries.

      Indeed, there is an aspect to which the initially apparent message of the Gaon ZTK"L seems outdated, since children are less likely to get the message. It is critical to teach children boundaries and authority. In this, hitting may have its place, though I struggle to see how it can be implemented today with the requisite results to be helpful. The Gaon's message is obsolete, not because Torah becomes outdated, but because such interventions must be effective to be part of the mitzvah of chinuch, which is rare today.

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    2. Hitting by teachers and parents is outdated, hurtful and will accomplish zero goals. Have you ever seen a REbbe or parent hit with a shoelace?

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    3. aside from your assertion - do you have evidence?

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    4. Spare the ChildMay 8, 2013 at 5:08 PM

      If hitting is intended to be "chinuch", how can one accomplish this by inflicting injury? It is clear that any use of physical force is to give over the message that a behavior (or attitude) is negative and to be associated with negativity. The reference to the shoelace is precisely to convey that the hitting is symbolic, not with the intent to cause pain or injury. This discussion is detailed in the sefer from Rav Wolbe ZT"L זריעה ובנין בחינוך, as well as in many other seforim. I believe it is anti-Torah to view corporal punishment, as stated in Chazal, is with intent to injure. Abusiveness is not Torah sanctioned.

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    5. Check it out within the writings and lectures of Dr. BenTzion Sorotzkin.

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