This is unfortunately a question that many parents are faced with today. In Israel, this is becoming more and more of a problem, because students are encouraged to believe that a person should love the enemies who come to kill us day after day, instead of battling against them. This causes a powder keg of frustration that often erupts in violence in schools. Instead of directing natural reactions of self-defense against the Arabs, these powerful, pent-up emotions are often misdirected against classmates.
We can learn how a child should respond to school bullies from the law that forbids verbally abusing a fellow Jew. After discussing different facets of this prohibition, the Sefer HaHinuch states:
“However, it is not included in this prohibition, that if someone starts verbally abusing another Jew, pestering him with offensive remarks, this doesn’t mean that one is not allowed to answer. For you cannot expect a person to be like a stone which doesn’t answer. Also, by not answering, it will appear that the offended person admits that he is indeed an undesirable person. The Torah does not demand a person to be an unresponding stone to those who abuse him.”
HaRav Shlomo Aviner, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Ateret Cohanim in Jerusalem, says that this insight of the Sefer HaHinuch applies not only to verbal abuse, but to physical abuse as well. A person who is under attack is not supposed to stand passively and turn the other cheek, but he should defend himself by fighting back.
The Torah teaches us that if a person breaks into your home to steal your possessions, you are allowed to kill him. The Torah understands that a person will not stand by idly while his possessions are being stolen. A person like the Chofetz Chaim can run after a robber, yelling, “I disown my possessions, I disown my possessions, so that you won’t be accounted a sinner!” However, the Torah doesn’t expect ordinary people to react in this altruistic way. It teaches that a person should defend himself. Knowing that the owner of the house will fight to keep his possessions, the thief comes prepared to kill. So the Torah allows the owner of the house to strike the first blow.
A similar principle is seen in the relationship between a man and his wife. Generally, a wife is not allowed to curse and denigrate her husband. If this occurs, there is ground for a divorce. However, in the case of a husband who verbally abuses his wife, then the wife is free to respond in like measure without fear of being divorced.
The question whether a child should succumb to the bullies at school or fight back was posed to HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. The noted Torah scholar answered that a child should not let bullies beat him up. Rather, he should fight back in order to make them stop.
We might wonder, won’t this approach lead to more violence in schools? No. It will lessen the violence by preventing it on the spot.
The justification for this reasoning is based on the law that allows a man to come to the aid of a friend whom is being assaulted. While it is forbidden to strike a Jew, in order to prevent a mugging, a bystander can ward off the attacker with blows. In the same way, a person is allowed to punch back to prevent a bully from breaking his nose. Not only is he defending himself, he is actually saving the assailant from continued transgression, and this is a completely commendable act.
Rabbi Auerbach emphasizes that the child can fight back in order to get the bully to stop – but the child should not in his anger add extra blows for the sake of revenge, which is the Torah prohibition of not taking revenge against a fellow Jew. Once a child has fought off his attacker, he must cease fighting back.
Parents should teach their children that it is perfectly healthy and permissible to hit back, but only in self-defense and not in revenge.
As to the sources of frustration and anger that lead to violence in schools, parents should educate their children to hate the enemies of the Jewish people, and to love their fellow Jews.
1. Sefer HaHinuch, Commandment 338.
2. Torat Imecha, Perkei Hinuch, Vol.1, Pg. 142.
3. Exodus, 22:1.
4. Shulchan Oruch, Even HaEzer, 115:4 Also see Tzitz Eliezar, Vol. 17:52.
5. Alehu Lo Yibol, Vol. 2, Pg.53.
6. Hoshen Mishpat, 421:13
7. Leviticus, 19:18
8. Kohelet Rabbah, 7:16. “Someone who is kind to the cruel will, in the end, be cruel to the kind.