Question: Is there an obligation to honor and revere one’s parents if they are non-religious and continue on their path of not keeping Shabbat, Kashrut, family purity, and the other Mitzvot or in this situation, is there no obligation at all to honor them?
Answer: The Rambam (Chapter 6 of Hilchot Mamrim) writes: “Honoring and revering one’s parents is a great Mitzvah indeed; even if one’s father is a wicked individual and a sinner, one must still honor and revere him.” According to the Rambam, even if one’s parents are truly wicked people, one must honor and revere them. This is certainly the case regarding non-religious Jews today who, for the most part, behave the way they do because of a lack of understanding of the beauty and significance of our holy Torah due to the secular education they received in their youth and which plucked them from observing the very religion their ancestors gave up their lives for throughout thousands of years.
Nevertheless, the Tur disagrees with the Rambam and writes: “It seems to me that since the father is a wicked individual, the child is not obligated to honor him.” He continues to bring proofs to his opinion. Several Rishonim indeed ruled in accordance with the Tur’s opinion. Nevertheless, Hagaon Harav Yaakov Berlin (a Rabbi in Fürth, Germany, who lived approximately three hundred years ago) quotes Rabbeinu Yehonatan Eibeschitz who explains the opinion of the Rambam based on the Gemara in Kiddushin (49b) which states, “If one tells a woman, ‘You are betrothed to me on the condition that I am a righteous individual,’ even if he is a wicked person, she is doubtfully betrothed, for he may have repented in his heart.” Based on this, we must say that a son is obligated to honor his father because he may have repented in his heart. Nonetheless, many authorities disagree with Rabbeinu Yehonatan Eibeschitz’s approach, for according to him it would seem that the obligation to honor one’s wicked father is only doubtful, whereas from the words of the Rambam it would seem that it is a definite obligation. There are many other approaches in order to explain the words of the Rambam.
Halachically speaking, Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch rules in accordance with the opinion of the Rambam that one must honor one’s parents even if they are wicked; Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l rules likewise. This is especially true in our times when Hashem’s divine intervention is not as revealed as when open miracles were commonplace, when Heavenly voices rang out, and when the righteous people of the generation were directed by divine providence that was clear for all to see. In our times, unfortunately, the lower elements of our nation have lost this faith in Hashem and Hashem’s divine intervention is hidden; thus, one should treat even one’s wicked parents with respect so that they may come to love and cherish Hashem and His Torah.
Nevertheless, Maran zt”l adds that this applies only when the parents do not bother their children who have merited becoming Torah-observant Jews (Ba’alei Teshuva) and they admire their children’s courage to take such a step or if they are, at the very least, indifferent to their children’s decision. However, if the parents harass their children about their decision to become Torah-observant because of their hatred of religion, they are considered like heretics and apostates who must certainly not be honored and respected. Wherever possible, it is preferable that the children separate themselves completely from such parents by moving to another city so that they will not have to come into contact with them. All this should be done only after much level-headed thinking and consultation with wise and G-d-fearing Torah scholars who will guide them in determining whether disconnecting from one’s parents completely, after they have raised them for so many years, is the correct step to take or perhaps it may be sufficient to retain a situation where the children meet their parents only infrequently.
In any event, according to both the Tur and the Rambam and even regarding parents who accost their children because they have become observant, surely one may not torment or denigrate them, as the holy Zohar states that our matriarch Rachel did not merit raising her son Yosef because she aggravated her father Lavan when she stole his idols.
Similarly, if, G-d forbid, one’s child strays from the proper path of Torah observance, one should not be so hasty to break off all contact with the child, for this is indeed an easy way out but usually is not conducive to producing any positive results. Rather, one should try as much as possible to bring the child closer to the proper path and hope that the child will repent fully. Regarding this matter as well, one must be sure to seek the advice of Torah scholars who are experts in the field of proper Jewish education to guide one along the proper path. May Hashem indeed bring all of the sinners of Israel to repent fully, Amen.