Commentary on Parashat Ki Teitzei

Bettijane Eisenpreis

By Bettijane Eisenpreis

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 the 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 shall hear and be afraid.”

Deuteronomy 21: 18-21

“All Israel shall hear and be afraid.”

I’ll tell you who else is afraid – me! If we believe that the Bible is the word of God, then I have to say that I think God is making a mistake here. There are many things in this short paragraph that bother me.

Let’s look at the problems one at a time:

  1. Both mother and father are giving up on their wayward son. Okay, I can understand Daddy cutting off his allowance. But Mommy? As a mother, I can’t imagine that any of the son’s crimes are bad enough for her to go along with handing her child over to be killed. If he had committed murder, maybe – but even being a glutton and a drunkard wouldn’t merit a mother condemning her own child to death.
  2. What discipline did they use before giving up completely? When he was growing up, my son was not always an angel. We had some pretty heated discussions at various times during his adolescence. But that’s all in the past. When I was sick earlier this year, he came to the hospital every day and was an immense comfort to me. What if I had given up as soon as these parents did? The Bible doesn’t say here how many different approaches the parents tried and for what period of time. The son is disobedient – sure; aren’t they all?
  3. The son had no warning: The parents must have known what punishment the elders would inflict on their son. But did the son know? Did the parents say, “Listen, son, if you don’t clean up your act, we are going to hand you over to the authorities to be killed by stoning”? Or did they just grab him by the ear and hand him over to the elders? It doesn’t seem fair to deny the son a chance to see the error of his ways and repent.
  4. Finally, the passage states: “Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst; all Israel shall hear and be afraid.” Thousands of years later, we are still debating whether capital punishment reduces crime. Many criminals believe that they are not going to be caught or that they can beat the system. Just because John got hanged/shot/gassed doesn’t mean that Joe, who committed the same crime, thinks he will suffer the same punishment.

I hate to say that I think the other fellows got it right and we got it wrong, but in this case, I do. Remember the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-20)? If you don’t read the New Testament, that’s okay: you can see the ballet at Lincoln Center. Anyhow, it’s the story of a man who has two sons, one a good guy and one a sinner. The sinner squanders his inheritance in a foreign country, but he eventually returns, repents and is forgiven by his father. I’m not sure I would throw a banquet for the kid, and I am sure I’d tell the good son how much I appreciated him. But a son is a son, and as long as he’s alive, there is a chance for repentance and forgiveness.

In later years, the sages defended the story in Deuteronomy by saying “It never happens.” Really? If it never happened, then why mention it? The Bible is a valuable history of our people, but some parts of it are easier to deal with than others. One advantage of being liberal Jews is that we can incorporate into our lives those lessons from the Bible that we find valuable and leave behind those we don’t.