Arachin 22

Arachin 22a ~ The Psychological Impact of Corporal Punishment

ערכין כב, א

הכי אמר רב חסדא מאבימי קולפי טאבי בלעי עלה דהא שמעתא

Rav Chisda said “I was hit a lot by Avimi because of this halacha”

During a rather minor dispute (over how long before the sale of an orphan’s property must public notice be given,) the Babylonian sage Rav Chisda (died ~ 320CE) let slip a painful memory. His teacher Avimi had severely beaten him in a warped attempt to teach him the correct answer. (In case you are wondering, it is thirty consecutive days or sixty days if the announcement is made only on Mondays and Thursdays). Chisda the student was, in a way, lucky. His teacher might have killed him. In the tractate Makkot, a Mishna teaches that a parent or a teacher who kills a child in the process of administering corporal punishment is not liable to any punishment:

מכות ח,א

אבא שאול אומר מה חטבת עצים רשות אף כל רשות יצא האב המכה את בנו והרב הרודה את תלמידו

Abba Shaul taught…[there is no penalty for] a father who killed his son while hitting him or for a teacher who strikes his student…

Cartoon from 1888 depicting J.S.Kerr, an Australian proponent of corporal punishment.

Cartoon from 1888 depicting J.S.Kerr, an Australian proponent of corporal punishment.

Punishing by physical humiliation

In describing the procedure for administering corporal punishment, the Mishnah (Makkot 22b) teaches the following: 

If the criminal soiled himself [because of his fear of being lashed] with his own urine or feces, he is exempt from lashing. Rabbi Yehudah, a man is only exempted if he soils himself with his own excrement; and a woman is exempt even if she only soils herself with urine.

The Talmud makes it clear that in using corporal punishment, the goal is humiliation. That objective may be realized when the criminal is flogged; there the humiliation is the flogging itself. But it may also be realized if the criminal soils himself out of fear, immediately before being flogged.  That too is humiliating, and so no flogging is required. Humiliation is not something we usually associate with the goals of punishment: they are most commonly thought of as 

  1. Deterrence - the threat of punishment will deter people from committing the act.

  2. Retribution - the criminal inflicted harm on others. So we may now inflict harm on him.

  3. Rehabilitation - through punishment (typically, but not only prison,) the criminal learns how to become a better citizen

  4. Incapacitation - the criminal is removed from society, and which is made safer as a result.

  5. Restitution - the criminal repays the victim for his crime

Humiliation does not feature as a goal of punishment in any theory of justice I could find. Of course there is shame and humiliation that results from being caught and punishment, but this is a secondary outcome. The Talmud understands that the primary goal of corporal punishment is humiliation.  

where is the corporal punishment of children still legal?

Some believe that there is a distinction to be made between corporal punishment and child abuse. For example, Murray A. Straus, a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, suggests that  corporal punishment is the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience pain but not injury for the purposes of correction or control of the child’s behavior. In the US, most states have banned the corporal punishment of children. However it is still legal in 19 states including, Florida and Texas. Since 1998  corporal punishment of children has been  banned in England. In Israel, it has been banned since 2000.

Elizabeth Thompson Gershoff has studied how corporal punishment affects children. In a paper published in 2002, she identified all the articles that examined the associations between parental corporal punishment and child behaviors and experiences. This exhaustive review included over 300 relevant works, as well as 63 dissertations and 88 studies. She concluded that:

Parental corporal punishment is associated significantly with a range of child behaviors and experiences, including both short- and long-term, individual- and relationship-level, and direct (physical abuse) and indirect (e.g., delinquency and antisocial behavior) constructs...parental corporal punishment is associated with the following undesirable behaviors and experiences: decreased moral internalization, increased child aggression, increased child delinquent and antisocial behavior, decreased quality of relationship between parent and child, decreased child mental health, increased risk of being a victim of physical abuse, increased adult aggression, increased adult criminal and antisocial behavior, decreased adult mental health, and increased risk of abusing own child or spouse. Corporal punishment was associated with only one desirable behavior, namely, increased immediate compliance...

In another paper Gershoff notes that corporal punishment persists because it is a practice with strong ties to religion, particularly to Christianity.

Religious leaders and religiously inspired parenting experts in our twenty-first century, like their eighteenth-century compatriots, make connections between firm discipline and a child's spiritual well-being, and encourage parents to use corporal punishment as an important part of their discipline repertoire. Parents with conservative Protestant affiliations in particular are more supportive of corporal punishment and use it more frequently than do parents of other Christian and non-Christian religious affiliations.

Judicial corporal punishment is still legal in over thirty countries, including Afghanistan, Indonesia, Pakistan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Fortunately, most urban Israeli Jews do not endorse corporal punishment for children.

Whatever became of Rav Chisda?

As a child, Rav Chisda quite literally had Jewish law beaten into him. In some respects perhaps he managed to overcome this child abuse; he rose to become the head of the Yeshiva at Sura and lived to the ripe old age of 92. His many statements are found all over the Talmud. Despite this, it is clear that his abuse had a profound effect on his teachings, many of which address issues of the respect owed to a teacher. For example:

  • As a result of a dispute over precisely this issue, Rav Chisda and Rav Huna ignored each other for forty years.

  • In Kiddushin (32a) he taught that while a father may forgo the honor due to him from his son, a teacher may never do so (האב שמחל על כבודו כבודו מחול הרב שמחל על כבודו אין כבודו מחול).

  • And in Sanhedrin (110a) he made this startling comparison: “Anyone who disagrees with his teacher is like one who disagrees with the Divine Presence.” 

From today’s page of Talmud, it becomes clear why issues of authority were of such importance to Rav Chisda. How fortunate we are to be able to teach our children to respect their teachers without resorting to violence.

The results from these meta-analyses do not imply that all children who experience corporal punishment turn out to be aggressive or delinquent; a variety of parent, child, and situational factors not examined here have the potential to moderate the associations between corporal punishment and child behaviors. ... The presence of corporal punishment may make certain behaviors more likely but clearly not inevitable.
— Gershoff E.T. Corporal Punishment by Parents and Associated Child Behaviors and Experiences: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review. Psychological Review 2002. 128 ( 4); 539–579.

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