Parashat Ki Tetze

Synthesizing The Influences Of Our Parents

The legal limits placed on the case of the rebellious child reflect the Torah's understanding of the complexity of parental influences on children.

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Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.

One of the most difficult and troubling of all the laws in the Torah appears in this week's parashah--the law of the 'ben sorer u'moreh'--the wayward and rebellious son.

This is what it says in the 21st chapter of Deuteronomy:

"When a man has a son who is wayward and rebellious, who does not listen to the voice of his father and the voice of his mother, and they warn him, but he does not listen to them. His father and mother shall seize him and bring him to the elders of his town, to the gate of his place. Then they are to say to the elders of his town: 'This son of ours is wayward and rebellious, he does not listen to our voice, he is a glutton and a drunkard.' Then all the men of the town are to stone him, so that dies. So shall you burn out the evil from your midst, and all of Israel shall hear and be in awe."

The punishment of death for a son who has apparently committed no real crime, other than failing to listen to his parents and having eaten and drunk too much, is strange. The rabbis sensed this, of course, and explain that, uniquely, the ben sorer u'moreh is not killed for what he has done, but for what the Torah knows he will do; his current behavior clearly indicates to us that he will end up as a thief and killer. Better he should die now, before he commits capital crimes, than allow him to live and cause others to suffer.

What's the Rationale?

Although they do supply this rationale for this strange law, the Rabbis are still far from comfortable with it. They therefore adopt a strategy, as they do with a few other difficult to accept laws in the Torah, of reading the Biblical text in such a way as to generate a series of rules pertaining to the wayward and rebellious son which effectively guarantee that, legally, there never will be one. Among the legal details they generate, through a careful reading of the text, is the necessity for the son to steal and drink a specific amount of wine and eat a specific amount of food. Only then may he be stoned to death. They also limit the period during which the law is applicable to the three months after his Bar Mitzvah.

Perhaps the most radical strategy for rendering this case impossible to actually prosecute is this one: Relating to the phrase "he does not listen to our voice," Rabbi Yehuda, in tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud (page 71a), says that the wayward son may not be killed unless and until his parents speak with the same voice, look the same, and are the same height! If they do not meet these criteria, he cannot be killed! The Talmud then tells us that this ridiculous, unachievable demand is in agreement with the position that there never was and never will be a case of a wayward and rebellious son, and that it is written in the Torah only to give us the opportunity to benefit by learning it.

If this is the case, let's see what we might be able to learn from this inapplicable law.

I would like to take a careful look at Rabbi Yehuda's "same voice, same look, same height" rule. Obviously, no two parents look and sound exactly alike. In order for parents to be able to accuse their son in court, and for us to consider him guilty, his parents must be, in effect, the same person, and speak with one voice.

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Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.