This week’s reading from the Torah presents us with a challenging law that seems to be completely out of place in the Hebrew Bible. It is found amidst a number of miscellaneous laws in the Book of Deuteronomy. It is known in Jewish tradition as the law about the ‘stubborn and rebellious son’.
The text reads as follows: ‘If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and though they chastise him, he will not give heed to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones; so you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel shall hear, and fear. (Deut 21:18-21)
This hardly accords with current views on child-rearing. Moreover it provides plenty of ammunition for those who think of the Old Testament God as cruel or as the Biblical world as primitive and uncivilised. The fact that there is no recorded incident in the Bible of such an event ever happening does not really help. The argument from silence is never very persuasive. Moreover, the law is there as part of holy scripture and cannot simply be ignored.
There is one redeeming feature in the law itself. In the Biblical period it would seem that the father did have the power of life and death over his children. The Bible records the ongoing struggle against the prevailing custom of child sacrifice. But in this case the power of the parents is actually severely limited. They have to bring the matter before the elders and it is the elders who are the ones to sit in judgment, not the parents themselves. In this way the potential arbitrariness and the possible abuse of power by the parents are controlled.
In the Ancient Near East disobedience to the father was a very serious offence as it undermined the entire authority structure of the tribal society. But if we are to judge the law by modern standards we can only condemn it. So how was it seen in earlier periods? This is an important question because the way that the early rabbis treated it helps us understand their values. It also offers an insight into the way they managed to deal with difficult laws that they themselves found unacceptable. Such laws were given by God, so they could not simply be ignored or set aside. But precisely because they were the word of God every detail had to be scrutinised to see what God was trying to teach us through them. And here was the paradox. However problematic the law might appear to be, in their understanding God could only be acting according to the highest moral values. So if this was not obvious at first glance, then it was up to the rabbis to dig deeper into the text and interpret it in line with such moral values. Indeed this law became a classic example of how the art of interpretation could radically change something that the rabbis found to be morally unacceptable. Their way of dealing with it can be found in the earliest strand of rabbinic writings, in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 8:1-5), the collection of oral traditions edited by the rabbis in the second century CE.
The biblical text refers to a ‘stubborn and rebellious son’, so, the rabbis taught, this clearly excludes a daughter. Moreover since it refers to a son, the rabbis try to define this term. It cannot refer to a minor, someone under the age of thirteen, since he cannot be held responsible under the law. Moreover once the boy has shown signs of puberty he is no longer considered a boy, so the law could not apply to him either. This dramatically reduces the number of people who could be affected by the law.
The son is accused of being a glutton and drunkard, so the rabbis set about defining how much food or drink he must have consumed so as to qualify as a glutton or drunkard. Moreover they set limits on the kinds of food that can he might have eaten and the circumstances in which he might have eaten them. In addition the law only comes into effect if he eats the food in his parent’s home.
Since both parents are mentioned in the law, both have to be alive at the time, and if only one of them is prepared to accuse him, then the law cannot apply. Since it also says that his mother and father shall ‘lay hold of him’, then neither of them should be physically handicapped. They are to speak to the elders, so if either has a speech defect, once again the law does not apply. In the same way the rabbis found other elements in the text that would disqualify the parents.
If these limitations were not enough to make the law impossible to apply, the rabbis also established the series of courts that would have to decide on such a case. It had to be tried the first time in a court of three judges, and twenty-three judges had to preside at the court that finally condemned him! In short the rabbis did absolutely everything to make sure that the death penalty could never be invoked. In fact they seem to have treated this law as a textbook example of how to exercise their ingenuity for finding ways of abolishing an impossible law. Nevertheless all of this was achieved by strictly adhering to the methods of legal interpretation they had developed as part of their religious tradition.
However odd this example may be, it points to a deeper issue that faces all religious communities that have to live with a revealed scripture. For whatever the commandment may be that comes from God, it can only be applied in the way that those who have authority to interpret it wish it to be applied. Whatever the scripture may say, it is still human interpreters who have the responsibility of understanding it and applying it. They may feel themselves partly bound by the decisions of previous generations, but ultimately real power lies in their hands.
There are any number of biblical laws that have been amended or made to disappear because rabbinic authorities of a later period felt them to be too problematic. For example, the Bible forbids adultery in no uncertain terms and provides a penalty of death by stoning for both the man and woman. Though the rabbis condemned adultery, nevertheless they hedged this law in with so many conditions that the death penalty could never be applied. (For example the adulterous act has to take place in the presence of two witnesses who have formally warned the man in advance of the penalty he will incur. This is guaranteed to prevent an effective performance.)
This kind of human flexibility is in stark contrast to another kind of attitude that is so often sold in the name of religion. Religious fanaticism, often in the service of political goals, has become one of the scourges of our time. Once again we are in a period when people are appealing to ‘the word of God’ to justify actions that by any humane or moral standard are totally unacceptable. Yet there is always a scriptural verse available to justify such actions. This narrow approach has been labelled by Father Gordian Marshall as ‘selective literalism’. It focuses on one idea or text and ignores the enormous diversity of teachings to be found in the same religious tradition. This deliberately limited view may be used to justify a kind of wilful insensitivity that makes human life secondary to the particular ideology or cause. Whenever people assert that only one meaning of scripture is possible, that which happens to fit their own religious or political agenda, then it is important to remember the law of ‘stubborn and rebellious son’. We should consider how the rabbis in the name of God struggled with the word of God so as to save a human life. They had the courage to insist that Scripture can yield many meanings and not only one. They saw it as our responsibility to seek out and apply those interpretations that do not harm life or diminish life, but rather those that enhance life and celebrate life.
Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.