I am planning a wedding that will just be a few friends and some immediate family members—basically, the Jewish equivalent of eloping. I come from a physically abusive home (with my mother), and I have not spoken to my mother in years (my parents divorced when I was very young, My father and I have a good relationship, and he also does not speak with my mother). My mother and I have intermittent contact sometimes about obtaining paperwork, but that’s the limit of our interactions. While I do not want to invite this person to my wedding, I worry about the long term consequences of such a choice. What are the Jewish considerations and obligations when making such a decision?
This is a very painful situation, and I am sorry you had to go through it, and to some extent still do. On a technical level, even though there is a mitzvah to honor your mother, and a prohibition to dishonor her, not inviting an estranged and abusive mother to a wedding is not a “dishonor.” In addition to the fact that she is likely expecting not to be invited and understands exactly why, there are other more technical halakhic reasons for why this does not violate the laws of kibud av ve-em (respecting one’s father and mother):
R. Moshe Isserles (Rema) says that we are not required to show respect to our parents when they are wicked (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 240.18). Although it is difficult to characterize a person simplistically as good or bad, in your case, your mother acted wickedly.
The Talmud (b. Ketubot 50a) says that action done out of respect for parents should not be prohibitively costly, and inviting an estranged mother who was abusive would certainly be that, both emotionally and perhaps even financially, if therapy is involved. (This point was suggested by the contemporary Orthodox poseq, R. David Cohen.)
The Shulchan Arukh writes (Yoreh Deah 240.10) that if a parent has become mentally incapacitated broadly defined (dementia, etc.), and the parent needs the child to take care of them, but the child simply cannot handle the parent’s behavior (perhaps they are being abusive, which happens), they can avoid their parents and hire someone. In your case, your mother doesn’t need you, so you can certainly avoid her.
For a more detailed discussion of these halakhot, I suggest, Mark Dratch, “Honoring Abusive Parents,” Hakirah 12 (2011): 105-119.
To take a broader lens – you mention long term consequences. The question is what kind of consequences are you speaking of? If you merely mean religiously, insofar as Jewish values, I think you have little to be concerned about. But perhaps you mean something more, namely that you want to reconcile with your mother, or at least, to come to terms with what happened to you with her, face to face.
Doing so is entirely your choice, but I wonder if the wedding is really the place to start. You have your life, and your happy place with your future spouse. You have your father and some other family members and your friends – and these are the people you want around you to celebrate the wedding. I think that if this is what you want, go with it. Your reconciliation or not with your mother can happen on a different track.
And if you are worried about whether this will hurt her feelings, I suggest that as you are already estranged from her, she knows your feelings; an artificial invitation would only confuse the issue. In the end, she abused you when you were a child and brought this on herself. If anything, perhaps she can console herself with the fact that you were strong enough to come out from under her abusive behavior, even if she was not herself strong enough to control it. As the consequences of the abuse could have been worse (suicide, drug addiction, etc.), perhaps your independence from her really is the best she could have hoped for under the circumstances.
Deuteronomy 5:16 teaches, “Honor your father and honor your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may long endure, and that you may fare well in the land that the Lord your God is assigning to you.
Talmud Brachot 6b teaches, “One should gladden both the groom and the bride.”
It is necessary for us to respect and grant dignity to our parents but that does not mean we need to capitulate to their demands or even to what we perceive to be their desires. In fact, I think this Commandment is about what it means for each of us to be role models in our lives. How do we treat others? And can we look ourselves in the mirror and be comfortable with our decisions?
Your marriage is about establishing you and your fiancé as a unit in this world and how your family (you and fiancé) will connect to the rest of the world. Have you discussed this issue with your finance? How does he answer this question?
After you have both discussed this question, what example do you wish to set for yourself and for those around? By inviting your mother, you leave the door open for potential reconciliation in the future, as remote or as unlikely as it might be at this moment.
The wedding is a one-day event, marriage is for life. There will be awkwardness during the wedding day, but will all parties make it possible to celebrate your wedding with joy and happiness? Is it a worry that your mother may create a scene and make you and your guests uncomfortable? In that uncomfortable moment, will she ruin the marriage or just the day? If you know for a fact that she will cause a scene, you may wish to discuss with her what might happen if she disrupts the day?
Without knowing more, I make the following suggestions to you: I believe you are obligated to honor your parents, but you do not need be insulted or abused by them, if that will happen on that day, do not invite her. However, I would strong urge you to invite your mother and leave open the potential for a future reconciliation. I would also make it clear to your mother that the wedding day is about you and your fiancé publicly demonstrating your love for one another, her obligation is to ensure your happiness on that day.
Good luck and may your wedding day be beautiful and joyous. May your marriage be strong and filled with blessings.
Thank you for asking this question. It is indeed a painful situation, and I applaud you for thinking through the Jewish obligations inherent in such a decision. I had the fortune of reading Rabbi Zev Farber’s response to this question, and I think he nailed it on the head. His insight from the Jewish legal tradition is spot-on and I thank him for his answer.
Yes, we are commanded to honor our parents, but our parents are also required to behave in a manner that is honor-worthy. In situations like yours, you are reasonably released from the obligation to tend to your mother's concerns. For this reason, there is a clear Jewish voice that allows you to not invite your mother to the wedding.
However, putting legal obligations aside and focusing on the emotional and pastoral part of this question, let me share with you that I recognize that you are hurting. As you prepare for your wedding - one of the most joyous days of your life - there is a cloud of disconnect from your mother that hangs over the ceremony. That is indeed painful. But this is not something that you brought on yourself - it was your mother's obligation to tend to the relationship.
I will reference a wonderful idea from Rabbi Sam Stahl of San Antonio who said that we often carry around with us “spiritual bacteria.” These are little germs of bad feelings that live inside of us that seem to eat us alive. And if we do not tend to those bacteria, they will impede our ability to live a full life. So how do you get rid of these bacteria? At some point, you will have to make peace with your estrangement from your mother, or offer a path toward reconciliation. But your own personal happiness comes first. To love your mother - and to be estranged from her - is one of those complex experiences that human beings sometimes have to encounter. As holy individuals, we are capable of both extremes.
I believe your chief concern is to move forward with your wedding as planned - while not inviting your mother. You should surround yourself on that day with those who love and respect you and serve as your source of uplift and inspiration. It is unfortunate that your mother will not be there, but I pray that in the future she will gain a heart of wisdom and the two of you may be able to move toward some level of normalcy.
We also use these moments to plan our own futures. We recognize that which is broken from the past, and we must vow to make it whole in the future. Sometimes, people take parental estrangement and then foist it upon their own children - thus continuing a cycle of dysfunction. As you move forward from your wedding, you have an opportunity to build a new family tradition of love and empathy and holiness and joy. I wish you Mazel Tov on your wedding, and I pray you find peace soon.
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