Friday, August 31, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: The Stubborn and Rebellious Son

Deuteronomy 21:18-21, towards the beginning of this week's Parasha Ki Tetze, contains what is known as the "Law of the Stubborn and Rebellious Son." According to this law, if a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his parents, they can have him executed. Now if truth be told, I was a pretty good kid, but nevertheless I did go through a rebellious phase during my teenage years. I suspect that if this law were to be literally followed, few of us would survive adolescence.

It is not clear whether this law was ever implemented in Biblical times, but the rabbis placed so many conditions on it as to make it unenforceable. Among other things, the rabbis emphasized that the biblical verse has the parents tell the judge "this our son does not listen to our voice." Our voice, not our voices. So they reasoned that in order to enforce the law, the parents had to have the identical voice, not only metaphorically but literally. Unless the two parents' voices sounded identical, the law could not be enforced. And since our voice is influenced by, among other things, our body, both parents had to be the same height and weight to enforce this law. The Talmud, in Chapter 8 of Tractate Sanhedrin, tells us that a case which met the requirements of this law "never existed and never will exist." Why then was the law given? So that we could receive the merit of learning and properly interpreting it.

This abbreviated discussion of a complicated subject raises some questions. Is the rabbinic interpretation faithful to the biblical intent? Personally, I think not, but as my teacher Rabbi Michael Cook told us in Bible I, "Judaism is not what the Bible says; Judaism is what the Rabbis said the Bible means." It does point out the fact that one does not understand Judaism if one knows only the plain text of the Torah. The rabbis strove constantly to interpret difficult Torah texts in the most humane way possible and made the death penalty nearly impossible to implement.

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