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Torah Commentary
Ki Teitzei (September 1, 2012)

Dr. Mark Weisstuch, Administrative Vice President

THIS TORAH PORTION exemplifies what I like most about Judaism.

Many laws are discussed in this portion, the most that appear in any one Torah portion (74 out of 613). They range from returning lost property to protecting your neighbor against potential physical harm, even the requirement for extraordinary sensitivity to animals by sending the mother bird away before taking an egg from her nest.

But as you have read the portion, you will say to me, “Wait a minute, what’s so good about a Judaism that demands the brutal stoning of a stubbornly rebellious son who eats and drinks too much? After all, overeating, drinking a surfeit of warm beer and defying parental authority characterize any normal adolescent college freshman. Are these criminal offenses that require the death penalty?”

The brilliance of the Jewish sensibility is precisely in how it understands such strictures and its struggle to reconcile an ostensibly unfeeling, callous commandment with humanity and insight.

The Torah’s pronouncement of capital punishment for the son who disobeys his parents elicits great discomfort among the Rabbis. In an effort to rationalize the verdict, Rashi tells us that the lad who is implacably insubordinate to his parents will end up standing at the crossroads robbing travelers. Therefore, the Mishnah Sanhedrin (71b) concludes, “Let him die innocent and let him not die guilty.” In other words, the son is not killed for what he has done but for what the Torah knows, based on the behavior patterns of youth, he will do!

Yet, this explication appears even stranger then the law itself and more “un-Jewish.” Is one to be found guilty even before committing a crime? Never mind questions of intention: Are the behavior patterns of youth certain and absolute predictors of future actions? Can we condemn a person to death solely on the basis of a youthful, untamed spirit? And what about choice, change and t’shuvah? Are these life-options forever foreclosed upon?

The Rabbis, remaining dissatisfied with this explanation, embark on a different approach to the text. They adopt, ironically, the “Portia strategy.” Portia, Shakespeare’s advocate of mercy, is the disguised legal counsel for Antonio, the eponymous merchant of Venice, who upends Shylock’s scheme for exacting revenge on the merchant. The argument that defeats Shylock is that he must take only the pound of flesh — no more, no less — and only the flesh, no blood, as prescribed by the bond.

In like manner, the Rabbis scrutinize the text. When it says the son “does not heed his father and mother,” Rabbi Yehudah affirms (Sanhedrin 41a) that an insubordinate son may not be killed unless his parents speak with the same voice, look the same and are the same height! Failing that absolute congruence, no such punishment can be administered. Further limiting the applicability of the law, the Rabbis stipulate the specific quantity of wine and food that must be consumed. They also define the time period during which the law is applicable to the three-month period after a boy’s bar mitzvah! As a result, no stoning ever could occur. It is virtually impossible for such a punishment ever to be realized. The Talmud concludes: “There never has been a ‘stubborn and rebellious son’ and never will be.” The Rabbis have deployed literalism to defeat the literal requirements of the commandment.

Having asserted the law’s impossibility in practice, the Talmud inquires rhetorically, “Why then was the law written?” and answers, “That you may study it and receive reward.” So what do we learn from the passage about the ben sorer u’moreh — the wayward and rebellious son? There are several possible lessons:

1) The law reinforces the exhortation of the fifth commandment to honor one’s parents, and it underscores the severity of the consequences that result from incorrigible disobedience.

2) It points to the limitation of parental discipline. In some instances, parents may not be able to effectively restrain their children, nor should they resort to extreme measures.

3) It suggests that the community — “the elders of the town” — has a role in training children, particularly when a child’s behavior potentially may rend the social fabric.

4) It implies that the small, seemingly inconsequential infractions of youth can, if ignored and unchecked, become malignant manifestations in the community.

What appears at first reading to be a primitive, merciless law with a brutal punishment becomes instead a cautionary verdict. The case is hypothetical, however. Its implications and the lessons it provokes urge the necessity for curbing youthful disobedience. This is an enterprise where parents and community share responsibility.

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