On one Rabbi's visit to Torah study, we were discussing Exodus 34:7.
נצר חסד לאלפים, נשא עו ופשע וחטאה; ונקה, לא ינקה--פקד עו אבות על-בנים ועל-בני בנים, על-שלשים ועל-רבעים
"...visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and unto the fourth generation."
The discussion concerned the connotation that G-d punishes for some sins in perpetuity, but that he is eventually appeased. Various attendants were trying to rationalize this behavior against their concept of a loving G-d. In response, I cited a commentary that I had read from the Artscroll edition of the Chumash which led me to the conclusion that children were not punished for their parents' sins, but rather punished more severely for their repeating the same sin that their parent had committed. In short, G-d forgives but he does not necessarily forget.
In reading "A Code of Jewish Ethics Volume 1" (Telushkin, 2006) I found a reference to an interpretation similar to mine of which I was not aware previously. According to Rabbi Telushkin, "the Talmud explains that visiting 'the iniquity of parents upon children' refers only to children who follow their parents' bad example." (ibid, 88)
In support of his statements, Rabbi Telushkin references Sanhedrin 27b which deals mainly with which persons are disqualified from testifying or serving as judges in matters concerning an individual. The sages cited in the gemara rationalize that children are punished for their parents' sins only when they retain their [parents] sinful practices." It implies that they are punished for their sin as well as the same sin committed by the parent. This goes a bit farther than my understanding as well as the one expressed by Rabbi Telushkin. A footnote in the Artscroll edition of the above-referenced tractate refers to Targum Onkelos on Exodus 20:5 as well as Rashi.
I do not have access to the Targum to look up the reference given, but Rashi cites its comments and in agreeing renders this as "I keep in mind the sin of the fathers for their descendants" (Exodus 20:5) but only if they "continue to sin after their fathers." (Rashi to Exodus 20:5) This understanding is explained similarly in Berachot 7a. "This verse which states that sons are punished because of their fathers' sins refers to where [the sons] retain their fathers' sinful practices." Rashi clarifies his understanding in his commentary to Sanhedrin 27b by stating that "the wicked son is punished for the sins of his father as well as for his own."
All of this helps me to see that both positions are correct without compromising the concept of a loving G-d. Punishment is more severe upon one who did not learn the lessons of their parent's mistake. Punishment extends across generational boundaries in such instances. But despite all of this talk of punishment, Rabbi Telushkin is right in taking the position that we should assume that one can overcome the mistakes of their parents and become their own person.
Just as G-d does not hold someone's upbringing against them, we should judge people on their own merits. We are endowed with free will. When we approach obstacles in our lives, it is up to us as to whether we overcome them or succumb to them.
1. A Code of Jewish Ethics Volume 1: You Shall Be Holy; Telushkin, Rabbi Joseph; 2006; Bell Tower, New York
2. Navigating the Bible; Internet; http://bible.ort.org/books/pentd2.asp?ACTION=displaypage&BOOK=2&CHAPTER=20#C1349 accessed on September 27, 2006.
3. The Schottenstein Daf Yomi Edition Talmud Bavli, Tractate Berachos; 2000; Mesorah Publications; New York.
4. The Schottenstein Daf Yomi Edition Talmud Bavli, Tractate Sanhedrin; 2000; Mesorah Publications; New York.
5. The Torah: With Rashi's Commentary Translated, Annotated, and Elucidated; 1995; Mesorah Publications; New York.