Parashat Hashavua for Ki Tetze
Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky
Beit Shalom Synagogue, Adelaide, SA
The Mystery of the Wayward and Defiant Son
"If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Thereupon the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid." Deuteronomy 21:18-21
Reading this passage at Shabbat services always makes people gasp and squirm. How could the Torah possibly countenance the idea of punishing a rebellious young man in such a horrible way?! Where is the compassion?!
The answer is found in the way that the rabbis respond, writing many hundreds of years after the original text appeared. Starting with Mishnah Sanhedrin, the rabbis systematically pick away at the law until there is nothing left. As tradition teaches, every word in the Torah matters, and the rabbis look at each word in this brief text to guide them as to how to write the law out of existence. So, for example, it says that his father and mother must take hold of him. So clearly if only one parent marches the son to the public place, the law does not hold in this situation. If either parent is unable to physically lay hold of the son because they have had a hand amputated, then the son must be freed. If he ignores one parent but obeys the other one, he cannot be convicted. The Talmud takes up the theme and expands on the protections for the son: since the parents say that he fails to listen to “our voice,” the rabbis speculate that the parents’ voices must sound identical.
What's more, he can only be considered a "son" if he has not yet reached full puberty. Once he is a mature young person, he is no longer in the legal category of a son and so can no longer be convicted of this crime. But of course, if he is under the age of 13, his parents are still responsible for his actions and not he himself, so he cannot be convicted of rebelliousness. And it goes on and on. In the end, there is a vanishingly small chance that any son will ever be found guilty of being a wayward son and put to death. Which is exactly as it should be.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 71a) quotes an earlier text: “There has never been a stubborn and rebellious son, and there will never be one in the future.” In other words, the circumstances will never align to allow for a conviction of a rebellious son. Then why, the rabbis ask, was the law included in the Torah? The answer was that God wanted to give the rabbis a challenge: could they explain the law out of existence, or would they fail and leave open the possibility that some future son might be put to death? Clearly the rabbis rose to the challenge!
For me as a Progressive Jew, it's refreshing to see the rabbis meticulously dismantling a law they found troubling. It suggests that even the Torah, our most sacred of books, is open to radical interpretation. Here, the hope is that by finding ways to spare the life of this young man, he will eventually come to his senses, repent, and become a better person. The emphasis is on choosing life. So may we all embrace life and good as we move towards the High Holy Days. May we all be inscribed and sealed for a year of life and joy, peace and good health.