God Squad Rabbi Marc Gellman

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.

QUESTION: Despite our very best parenting and excellent, intense professional psychological treatment since age 5, our son continues to lie, steal, manipulate, cheat and have no empathy for those he hurts. He knows right from wrong, but has no conscience. He's now 44. The diagnosis is sociopathy. As he's grown older, prison and continued treatment programs have not helped, either. Because of the diagnosis, is he responsible to others for his behavior? To God?

-- Heartbroken parents, via email


ANSWER: May God comfort you both. The theological and moral consequences of your son's illness and the behavior it produces are intriguing but not the main issues here, which are: 1) Are you finding a way to have empathy for a son who has none for others? and 2) Can your son find a way out of his brokenness to a life with some measure of wholeness and hope? Let me first urge you to get a clearer read on your son's diagnosis. The two related pathologies are that your son is either a sociopath or a psychopath. The differences between the two are subtle because the behavior is the same, but the origins of the mental illness differ.

The hardest part of parenting is realizing that you can love your children, but you cannot make them loving. You can have empathy for your children, but you cannot make them empathetic. There comes a time for all parents when they must face the reality that their children must live their own lives and be held accountable for the choices they make.

You might understandably think that the Bible has nothing to say about your situation, but the word of God touches us in deep and enduring ways. There's a biblical image of all this that still lives in my soul, taught to me by my mentor, Rabbi Nelson Glueck, a brilliant biblical archaeologist.

We were studying the passage from Exodus (19:4): "Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself." The same imagery is also seen in this beautiful passage from Deuteronomy (32:10-11): "He found him in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness; he led him about, he instructed him, he kept him as the apple of his eye. As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings."

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Nelson asked me if I understood these passages, and I said I didn't know much about eagles. He did. Nelson spent a lot of time in the desert and explained to me that eagles build their nests on rocky escarpments to protect them from predators.

However, when it comes time for their young to fly, there's no safe place for them to learn on the edges of high cliffs. So what the eagle parents (mostly the mothers) do is throw one of the fledglings out of the nest.

The young bird will flap its wings, trying to fly on its own, but mostly just falls straight down. The mother eagle swoops down and catches the fledgling on the large pinions of her huge wings and swats it back up in the air so it can try again and again. I understood him immediately.

What eagles do for their young, God does for us. God catches us with hope and love, which gives us the courage to try again to be better and fly higher . . . to God.

What eagles do, Nelson did for me. He was my mentor at a time in my life when I was falling -- desperately seeking some direction. He made me a rabbi and I can fly now because he caught me then.

What eagles do, you have done for your son. You've tried to teach him how to fly by catching him and trying to direct him upward into a life of moral virtue and empathy. As to whether he's responsible or accountable for his genetically coerced cruelty, let that be God's decision.

You've done your best. May God catch him now.