A child‘s obligation to honor his parents necessarily infringes on that child’s freedom. If you always want to obey your parents, the mitzvah does not add much. Choosing a spouse is one of the most important decisions of a person’s life. On the one hand, parental input is never needed more than in such life-altering decisions. On the other hand, you have to balance your obligation to your parents with your obligation to yourself.
Three Reasons for the Child
Rav Yosef Kolon (Maharik; Responsa 166:3) offers three reasons why you do not need to listen to your parents about choosing a spouse:
1. You do not have to spend your own money to honor your parents. Here, your pain is even greater than losing money, so you certainly do not have to honor your parents over this.
2. You do not have to listen to your parents when it comes to violating a mitzvah. It is a mitzvah to marry a person who finds favor in your eyes.
3. Honoring your parents only applies to doing things that directly affects them. Choosing your spouse does not directly affect them.
Rav Moshe Isserles (Rema; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 240:10) rules like the Maharik, quoting the second reason. Rav Daniel Z. Feldman, in the new volume in his Binah Ba-Sefarim series on the mitzvah of honoring your parents quotes a debate over the Rema’s citation of just the second reason. Does that mean that he rejects the third reason and a son must honor his father even in matters that do not directly affect the father? Rav Pinchas Horowitz (Sefer Ha-Miknah, Kiddushin 31b s.v. t”r eizehu) suggests that the Rema rejects the third reason. Rav Yekusiel Halberstam (Divrei Yatziv, Yoreh De’ah 125) argues that the Rema’s comments in his Darchei Moshe demonstrate that he accepts the third reason.
Rav Shmuel de Modena (Responsa Maharshdam, Yoreh De’ah 95) similarly rules that a man may marry a religious woman who finds favor in his eyes, even against his father’s wishes. If a man marries a woman whom he does not desire, their children will suffer. Rather, it is a very great mitzvah to marry someone right for you.
Rav Yechezkel Landau (Noda Bi-Yehudah 2:EH:45) was asked whether a woman should listen to her deceased father, who opposed marriage to her uncle, or her living mother who supports it. On the one hand, the Gemara (Kiddushin 31a) says that if your father and mother tell you to do different things, you should obey your father because both you and your mother are obligated to honor him. On the other hand, the father is no longer alive.
Rav Landau responds that the mother is no longer married to the father. Therefore, she is no longer obligated to honor him. Even though a person must still honor his deceased’s parents (Kiddushin 31b), the primary honor is while they are alive. The Gemara (ibid.) tells the story of Rav Asi who was unsure whether he could leave Israel to greet his mother. He agonized over it, and his rabbinic advisors convinced him to go. By the time he left Israel to meet her, he heard that she died and her coffin was coming to Israel. He lamented that if he had known, he would not have left Israel. Rav Landau deduces from here that for a living parent, you may leave Israel. But for a deceased parent, your lower obligation to honor them does not justify leaving Israel. Rav Landau concludes that the young woman should follow her mother’s wish and marry her uncle.
Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (Netziv; Meishiv Davar 2:50) adds a complication. There is a mitzvah to honor your parents, and there is a separate prohibition against insulting your parents. The Maharik’s three considerations only set aside a parent’s honor, not his insult. Therefore, someone who wants to marry a person who will bring shame onto the family may not do so against his parents’ wishes. Rav Daniel Z. Feldman (ibid.) points out that the Netziv does not address the case of parents who think the bride is a bad fit for the groom (or vice versa). His case is limited to when the intended spouse will bring disgrace to the parents.
Rav Feldman quotes Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer 15:34) who disagrees with the Netziv. Marrying a person may bring disgrace on the parents but only indirectly. The son himself does not insult the father. Rav Waldenberg quotes the Chazon Ish (Yoreh De’ah 149:8) as saying that the Maharik’s point is that a father must defer to his son’s decision on a spouse.
Rav Feldman closes with an admonition that peaceful family doesn’t come from forcing major decisions based on rulings in books. It takes patience, dialogue, and understanding. He quotes the Pesakim U-Teshuvos (p. 99) that Rav Shmuel Wosner, whenever such questions came to him, would always allow time for the family to discuss and reach a consensus before ruling in favor of the son. But in the end, if need be, he upheld a person’s right to choose his spouse.