The vast majority of people were raised with the ideal of unquestioning obedience to their parents. “Don’t argue with your father (or mother),” “Don’t talk back” and “You’ll do as I tell you” have been universal mottos of child rearing.
A lifetime of studying and teaching the Bible, specifically its first five books, the Torah, has led me to a different conclusion. We are wrong when we tell our children that they cannot argue with us. In fact, because I try to formulate my views on life from the Bible, especially the Torah, I have been raising my children far differently than I otherwise would have.
My original inclination, as it is of most parents, was to regard arguing as a form of disrespect and insubordination.
But early in my life as a father, something powerful struck me as I taught the Bible: I realized that Abraham and Moses both have prolonged arguments with God, and not only doesn’t God mind, He seems to welcome them. In fact, the name He gives Jacob and His Chosen People is “Israel,” which literally means “Struggle with God.” God looks favorably on our arguing with Him (with certain conditions to be noted).
When God tells Abraham that He will destroy the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham engages in lengthy argument. “Will the judge of all the earth not judge righteously?” Abraham asks, and then goes on asking God if He will spare the cities if there are 50, 45, 40, 30, 20, or even 10 good people living in those cities.
After God tells Moses to return to Egypt to lead the Jews out of slavery, Moses relentlessly argues with God. And when God decides to destroy the Israelites after they worship a golden calf, Moses presents three arguments to God for sparing the Jews.
God respectfully responds to all these arguments, and in the third case, actually accedes to Moses’ arguments.
Now, if our Father in heaven allows his children to argue with Him, why would we fathers on earth not allow our children to argue with us? After all, unlike God, every parent makes mistakes.
The answer that many parents give is that allowing their children to argue with them will undermine parental authority. But, returning to the biblical example, does anyone read the stories of Abraham and Moses arguing with God and assume that God loses His authority? Of course not.
Parents who allow their child to argue with them retain (and even enhance) their authority, are more likely to be loved, and even more important, guarantee that the child will continue to talk to them. A child who is always forbidden to argue with a parent will eventually stop communicating.
Of course, there are conditions that must be set up in order to allow arguing. One is that the child argues respectfully — just as Abraham and Moses did. The other is that the parent has the final say (indeed, by arguing with the parent, the child is acknowledging that fact).
At the same time, parents must actually listen to their child’s arguments. It has been a humbling experience for this man of strong convictions to realize how often my children were right when they argued against a decision I had made.
The belief that arguing with God and with parents is good has some profound lessons to teach.
First, while it is true that those who derive their social values from the Bible will usually end up taking conservative positions — which is why those most opposed to conservatism are so active in trying to remove the Judeo-Christian moral bases of American society — it is not always true. Those who claim to derive their values from the Bible need to derive their values from the Bible, not design the Bible around their values.
Second, religions that teach that God welcomes arguments are less likely to produce evil in God’s name. It is worth asking whether the fact that “Islam” means “surrender to God” has in some way helped produce those Muslims who do not question when taught that God wants innocents blown up. Likewise, parents who welcome arguments are less likely to produce adults who unquestioningly obey evil leaders. One suspects that most German children in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were not encouraged to argue with their parents.
And third, learning that we should allow our children to argue with us is a good example of the relevance of the Bible to our lives. Studied properly, there is no guide more relevant and nothing as positively life transforming. “Torah” means “teacher,” and it is mine now more than ever. Ask my children.