There never was a rebellious son.

This commentary is on last week’s Torah portion, but owing to the gross incompetency of one of GTJ’s staff members (the redheaded one), the commentary is only being posted now.  Apologies.

Anna Batler blogs about faith and feminism at  http://sotah.net/.  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Anna Batler.

The rebellious son first appears in Shemot and then again in the last book of the torah, Deuteronomy.  In both texts he is stoned.

One who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death…One who curses his          father or his mother shall surely be put to death.  (Exodus 21:15-17).

“If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, that will not hearken to the voice of his      father  or the voice of his mother and though they chasten him, will not hearken unto         them, then shall his father and his mother lay hold of him and bring him out unto         the        elders of his city… They shall say unto the elders of his city: This son is stubborn and             rebellious, he doth not hearken to our voice, he is a glutton and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones that he die; so shalt thou put away the evil          from the midst of thee; and all Israel shall hear, and fear” (Deut. 21:18–21).

His stoning is remarkable because the crimes of which he is convicted are not otherwise capital offenses.  Assault and even manslaughter are punished with compensatory damages and exile to safe cities respectively.  Exodus 21: 12-19.  The general rule changes if the victim or the accuser are either the father in Shemot or both the mother and the father in Deuteronomy.

Long before modernity, Jewish tradition rejected this practice and even the spirit of this practice.  Over several pages, the Talmud severely limits the application of this law – it could only apply in the small window between Bar Mitvah (onset of legal liability) and physical maturation (growth of body hair), a window that is estimated in the Talmud to be about three month, and there are further limitations on top of that. For example, if the rebellious son flees from his trial and then becomes an “adult” he is no longer liable.   There are no records of this punishment actually occurring.  Parents are prohibited from hitting their adult children.

The offensive law and ethos that give rise to it is effectively erased.  Its presence in the torah exists as testimony to what is possible in the sands of time and the light of day.  In the Jewish future, I imagine men and women will sit down to write Dvar Torah’s on how our generation effectively erased the prohibition on same-sex relationships and overarching gender inequality from the text.  They will look at those prohibitions as we look upon the stoning of the rebellious son – as a testimony to Judaism’s capacity to remain, after thousands of years, a religion in the process of becoming.

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18 replies
  1. Andrés Harris
    Andrés Harris says:

    Stephen, your comment is hilarious. I appreciate your willingness to challenge foundational elements of your belief system, as I’m sure the wealthy white men who founded this country would as well. 😉

    It is always a challenge when one is to treat a millenia old text, a mythology of a people, as factual truth. I imagine many people would say that to call the Torah imperfect is blasphemous and challenges the very core of Judaism. It is inspiring to me that a new generation like Anne and yourself can reconcile the spirit and wisdom of your cultural traditions with the reality of the beliefs of a modern and diverse society.

    This is happening not only in Judaism but in many modern sects of the world’s religions. Anne, I too hope that one day religious youth will no longer have to feel like there is a terrible enemy inside them as they come of age. Hopefully, no young people will have to feel like feelings they cannot control make them an abomination to God and a shame to your family. People like you speaking up for justice in the face of discriminatory traditions can make that day possible.

    Reply
  2. Will
    Will says:

    The ignorance of the comments on this website astounds me.

    The dogma of ‘there is nothing outside the text’ is rediculous, reductionist garbage. Even in much of literature this is not the case and this type of thinking represents but one school of thought.

    There are numerous proofs and evidence for there being an oral tradition and one need not even believe the Torah divine or infalliable to see that there must have been some sort of oral tradition. The laws could not possibly have been put into effect in any actual society without some explanation and elaboration.

    I know it’s in vogue to develop opinions without doing any prior research and to comment on things one on which one has insufficient knowledge, but this is just pathetic. More Torah observant Jews who go on this website need to speak out!

    Reply
  3. Will
    Will says:

    Stephen, you’re hilarious.

    You know absolutely nothing of the evolution of Jewish law or scholarship and how it relates to the biblical text. Obviously that doesn’t stop you or many others who know nothing about the Jewish tradition from commenting on it.

    Reply
  4. Will
    Will says:

    And people who have studied both the Jewish tradition and depth and formal logic in depth seem to disagree with you.

    I’m sure that Judaism as you believe it to be does in fact fly in the face of logic.

    However, you don’t even know enough about Judaism to be able to make such a judgement call.

    Reply
  5. Will
    Will says:

    Sadly these men – so brilliant in some areas – also have a very superficial and biased understanding of Judaism so it doesn’t impress me.

    I appreciate that you can debate in a cogent, civilized manner and I completely understand where you’re coming from. I can even understand why you and many others think the way they do about Judaism.

    But unfortunately I doubt that commenting on a blog is going to significantly change things. The only way to improve the world is one mitzvah and act of kindness at a time.

    Shalom

    Reply
  6. Stephen Richer
    Stephen Richer says:

    Also. If the torah doesn’t really want us to stone homosexuals and obnoxious kids, then why would it say so in the torah only to have to explain itself in the oral law and commentary. Why didn’t it just say what it wanted in the first place…?

    Oh wait… because it was written thousands of years ago and things have changed a bit, and this is not the document that spans all time. And there is no Article V.

    Reply
  7. Will
    Will says:

    You have asked me two questions which I will now answer in 2 comments.

    1) What makes you the arbiter of who has a superficial and biased understanding of Judaism? I daresay that claim could be leveled against the rabbinate as well…

    When one levels unfounded charges against or makes false claims about Judaism it displays a superficial and biased understanding of Judaism. Many public ‘intellectuals’ such as the ones you mention frequently attack and criticize Judaism about things that are not actually Judaism at all. Much of what such people say reflects their hasty judgment and misunderstanding of the Jewish religion. Many pundits who claim to be experts on religion take aspects of Jewish law, thought, and scripture out of context, misconstrue the meaning, intentionally or accidentally leave out information that hurts their case and then precede to make to make Judaism look ridiculous. Few outside the orthodox world even know anything beyond the tip of the iceberg about traditional Judaism or its side of the story. Studying a dumbed-down version of Judaism as presented in many disingenuous academic courses does not qualify anyone as knowledgeable about tradition, halachic Judaism (termed orthodox by its detractors).
    Oh, and if you think the rabbinate has a superficial and biased view of Judaism I suggest you actually study rabbinic thought and the history of the oral law and Jewish scholarship before you make such claims.

    Reply
  8. Will
    Will says:

    2) If the Torah didn’t want us stoning gays and rebellious kids, why didn’t it just say so?

    A: Good question. I’ll ask you another question. Why does the Torah tell us to do and not do a lot of things without providing directions as to how we must carry out these laws? If I’m going to get something as serious as the death penalty for doing something wrong, then at the very least there must be specific criteria for what is considered wrong and therefore deserving of a penalty. This is why the written Torah and the oral Torah are inseparable. The oral explanations are lengthy and technical and they are the mechanics behind the general laws stipulated in the written text. The Torah was meant purposely worded in a concise manner that would enable people learned in the oral law to recall information not explicitly in the text. However, in many places it does hint at things in the oral law and we have very specific criteria as to how to identify these hints.

    Now, your premise is in need of correction. The Torah does actually proscribe penalties for homosexuality (the sexual act, not the orientation as made clear even in the written text alone) and for rebellious children. However, the criteria stipulating what defines a rebellious child e.g. the child must strike the parent and draw blood etc. is found in the oral tradition and the factors that must be involved in order to receive capital punishment is also found in the oral tradition and writings of the Talmud and its commentaries. It might surprise you that under the Jewish legal system it is very difficult to do something that is actually worthy of the death penalty. For example, two witnesses must have witnessed the crime and provide matching testimonies. They also had to have warned the perpetrator that their behavior is against the Torah and the perpetrator must have made it clear that they know this is the case and go ahead with the illegal act despite having been warned. The Talmud says that if the Jewish court gave out more than one execution in 7 or 70 years (there’s a dispute) it is a brutal court. Either way we can conclude the death penalty was quite rare in ancient Israel.

    Reply
  9. Will
    Will says:

    Finally – and I can’t spend much more time on this today as I’m in an intense, 10+ hour-day yeshiva schedule – I know you and others may think that the Torah is very black-and-white and did not require so much proof to put one to death. Some may think that those crafty, inventive rabbis – over 2,000 years ahead of their time with regard to their modern concerns for the sanctity of human life – purposely reinterpretted the intended meaning of the written Torah text in order to make it extra hard for one to receive capital punnishment.

    I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy that. Most people living in the times of the writing down of the oral law – especially most of the Jewish people’s neighbors – did not give a rat’s tail about human rights. Unfortunately, even today in many parts of the world respecting human rights and life has not become the norm. I don’t think the rabbis would have been any better on their own without the light of Torah. They were human beings.

    There are of course ‘rabbis’ who are very influenced by the values and opinions of the wider non-Jewish world and base their understanding of Judaism on such things. Welcome to the various ‘reform’ Judaism movements e.g. Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist etc. They were founded in order to accomodate and move with the current trends that arise in modern, secular society. I would call most of their interpretations of the Torah ‘post-facto bullshit’ – a term you used so eloquently in an earlier comment.

    The orthodox rabbis of today (with exception to some on the far left in the Modern- Orthodox movement) and of yesteryear (Mishna, Gemara, rishonim, achronim) do not/did not let Jewish law be influnenced by outside cultural trends (at least not to such a great extent). They believed the Torah to be divine, infalliable, and holy and would be far too fearful to play around with its meaning and start arbitrarily changing things.
    In many other religions where they also think their texts divine believers were careful to interpret it in a way that stayed true to their holy text e.g. Islam. In many Islamic countries today one can still incure the death penalty (often by hanging or stoning) for such ‘crimes’ as homosexuality and based on the frequency of such punnishments I seriously doubt it is as difficult to receive execution under their judicial systems as it was under the Jewish kingdoms in 1st and 2nd Temple times.

    Rabbinic Judaism has stayed true to the Torah – both written and oral.

    Reply
  10. Anna Batler
    Anna Batler says:

    The Oral Law is the “amendment” process for the Torah. It is just another process of jurisprudence. Not only that, but even though we do have an amendment process for the constitution, the Supreme Court often acts in the same manner as the oral law.

    Ever here of the privacy amendment? There isn’t one, the court reads privacy into the spirit of the constitution in order to accommodate the ever changing ideas of justice – ideas that include our right to birthcontrol and abortion.

    Orthodox Judaism wants to deny Oral law’s origin – this is a new development. All Jewish movements around today are modern movements, resulting form modern political and social reality. http://www.patheos.com/Library/Orthodox-Judaism.html

    The claim that its is only a failure of knowledge that leads someone to question the law is insulting and untrue. Religion is surely the kind of thing that good people will disagree about.

    Reply
    • Will
      Will says:

      Yes, the label ‘orthodox’ as a term for Jews keeping traditional halacha is a modern invention that was largely used by traditional Judaism’s detractors.

      For sure, many groups within ‘orthodoxy’ reacted to the emancipation by more actively seperating themselves from the non-Jewish world, but the theology, practice, and system of study of Rabbinic Judaism has not changed among the so-called ‘orthodox.’

      Reply
  11. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    Suggested reading: http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1114845/jewish/Why-Not-Just-Follow-the-Book.htm

    “…But then you’ll probably have a bigger question: Who says we got the interpretation right? And anyways, how could human beings, no matter how wise, have the right to interpret G?d’s Torah?

    Well, that would be a problem if we accept the Joe Smith version of the Five Books of Moses. That’s the version in which Moses goes up the mountain, finds five books, brings them back down and tells the people, “Look here what I found! We better keep what’s written in these five books or else!”

    In other words, if we believed the text has no context other than that G?d said to do it, then we would be stuck with just what the text says and that’s it. But the truth is, there is no text without context. Context is to text what water is to fish, roads are to cars and the internet is to web browsers: The text is still text without context, but it’s totally meaningless and irrelevant. Context is the breath of life. Because context is what tells you the purpose of the text, how to read it and what to do with it.

    Political parodies, such as Gulliver’s Travels and Animal Farm, are good examples of books that take on new meanings when you know their context. A personal diary or a biography written for family members might be another example. The insider reads a totally different story than an outsider who just snuck a peek…”

    Reply
  12. Rob
    Rob says:

    I am not sure that Anna Batler’s argument is on point. The fact that Halacha has limited the application of a penalty does not address whether Halacha has reversed its prohibition of the underlying conduct. I doubt that Anna would argue that disobedience or disrespect to parents is morally correct simply because we do not apply the prescribed penalty – execution.

    The Torah’s penalty for male same-sex intimate conduct is also death. This is also not a penalty which Halacha realistically allows to be implemented. Just as with the rebellious son, we (thankfully) have no record of anyone actually being executed for same-sex intimacy.

    To make the conclusion that non-application of a penalty results in a change in morality would logically require a rethinking of a plethora of Jewish moral viewpoints. Adultery, idolatry and the practice of sorcery are among those offenses for which the Torah prescribes a death sentence, but for which a Sanhedrin seldom, if ever applied the punishment. If brought to its logical conclusion, Anna’s thesis would seriously alter the Jewish moral landscape.

    Reply
  13. Anna Batler
    Anna Batler says:

    Rob,
    Though I admit the analogy is not perfect (same-sex relationships deserve absolutely no condemnation), the punishment a society chooses for a particular crime is a direct reflection on the amount of condemnation a society is willing to lend to that offense. Justice would hardly be served if adultery, idolatry or sorcery were to be punished by death.

    Translated to US law, your claim suggests that our feelings regarding the seriousness of adultery have not changed even though it is largely decriminalized. Of course they have.

    Inversely, the criminalization of marital rape certainly suggests a belief that it is a very serious offense, a belief that hardly existed in the past, even if people thought it was generally not a good thing to do.

    Similarly, when the Rabbi’s change the consequences of certain behavior, the change implies a change in the level of condemnation for that behavior. Assaulting your parents bad, but not bad enough to warrant stoning.

    Reply
  14. Will
    Will says:

    1) The written law and oral tradition cannot be disembodied from each other. Numerous things have been written on this. The rabbinic, halachic understanding of what the Torah means is not arbitrary.

    2) Capital punnishments can only be carried out when we have a Sanhedrin (Jewish court) and Temple is standing, which it’s not.

    3) When we will have another Temple, may it be soon, there will still be none of these punnishments, b/c people will no longer sin (study about Moshiach).

    4) Whether something in the Torah is just from our own subjective standpoint is irrelevant. Without G-d there is no arbiter of right or wrong. Morality is not just a subjective, relativistic thing from the standpoint of Judaism.

    Reply
  15. Joshua
    Joshua says:

    The text of the written Torah is solid, “You shall neither add anything that I command to you or take anything away from it.” (4:2)

    Following your line of reasoning Stephen, then essentially you are articulating that there should only be literal interpretations of the text, with strict adherence to the words themselves. This would put us in a world that is devoid of the needed nuance in order to make the text a relevant aspect one’s personal life.

    Have you ever read, “The Year of Living Biblically”? This is a book of a man’s pursuit to follow all of the commandments possible (there are many that he couldn’t because of the loss of the temple…i.e. animal sacrifices) and doing so according to literal interpretations. Through his story, you can understand that strict interpretations were not meant to be its force of operation. See his speech on TED: http://www.ted.com/talks/a_j_jacobs_year_of_living_biblically.html

    I highly recommend the whole thing, however, for those of you with short time I will articulate his FIRST takeaway from this whole experience: 1. “Thou Shall not Take it Literally.” I think his story rings most true when he discusses how he stoned a 70 year old adulterer. It’s much funnier when he tells it.

    I found his commentary highly appropriate given the course of our discussion. In it, he demonstrates the increased difficulty one has in following the written word to the fullest extent. However, he still articulates the benefits that he had in following the letter of the law.

    But, let us not forget, the letter of the law is only one part. There is also the spirit of the law. This is a concept that is not only found in religion, but even Supreme Court cases that recognize this idea: In Holy Trinity vs. United States it stated, “A thing may be in the letter of the statute and yet not within the statute, because not within its spirit, nor within the intention of its makers.” For more info see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_the_Holy_Trinity_v._United_States

    This is Supreme Court Precedent. This is law. And yet, this also articulates the something called the ‘Spirit’. Who is given the opportunity to interpret the Spirit of laws? Lawmakers, advocates, and judges…people.

    There is no doubt that an Oral tradition is part and parcel of human invention, jurisprudence, business…it extends throughout everything.

    I would also like to note that according to the mythology/beliefs/history (whichever one ascribes to), that Moses was articulated to be a part of the penning process.

    Why?

    Why would the story articulate the need for a man to be involved in the actual writing process. G.D is G.D. “Ehia asher Ehia” = I shall be who I shall be. Well, G.D could have easily made himself author, publisher, and printer of the Torah. And wouldn’t this pathway make the most sense if we wanted to promote the history of a ultimately divine text?

    And yet, that is not the story. The story is that Moses was charged to pen the letters of the Torah. This symbolizes man’s participation in the writing process. If man, Moses, was at the writing table using his ink and pen on Mt. Sinai under God’s supervision, is also reasonable to conclude that mean should stay out of the interpretation process as well?

    Could this not be an invitation through the myth/history/story to teach us that we are a part of this document, inextricably tied, and that we are meant to wrestle with its words and meanings. The hebrew name for the Jewish People is “Israel”…in hebrew this breaks up into Esher/Al..and this interpret into “Struggle with God”. The lesson is that we are meant to struggle with these words through every generation (L’Dor v’Dor), and that each generation must put energy and effort into burgeoning life and essence into it. Without us questioning it, commenting on it, working with it, even if there was an amendment process, it would still be subject to oral debate.

    Reading, writing, and speaking are bound like fibers of a rope. The moment you cut one strand, you make the entire rope vulnerable.

    Further, the act of reading is the act of interpretation. Even as you read my words, your personal perspectives, experiences, and attitudes shift and shape the manner in which these words will penetrate your heart and mind. And we cannot forget that texts only possess life when an individual or a community give it life. This means that its purpose, meaning, and interpretation are all subject to variation.

    To question the validity of the Oral tradition is to question the validity of civilization, history (as we know it written by people through time, through their visions), and life.

    Your frustrations of the Oral Torah are understandable.

    But the Oral law is a discourse through time.

    I agree, that we deserve and ought to make flexible that which is flexible, and stay firm that which is firm.

    Though the written Torah does not have Article V amendment powers, it gives more discretion.

    Remember, there have been only 17 amendments to the constitution since its inception. Each of these were not easily one, but rather were born on the backs of peaceful social movements (women’s suffrage), wars (civil war), and lessons learned.

    I suggest that we take these commentaries and add it to our vision of commentaries. This whole blog represents exactly what the Talmud reflects: people engaging the torah and sharing their perspectives. The talmud is the reflection of the oral tradition that existed, and yes, exists. Though some in modern orthodoxy may believe that everything is settled and shall not move, they represent only one faction or part of the story.

    It states, “Shivim Panim al Ha’Torah”…there are seventy faces to Torah. These faces represent the multitude of personalities and paths that one can or does take in Judaism. If the voices of commentary are shunned, then the faces of the Torah are muted and denied the core of their expression.

    Let commentators comment. Let Rabbis discuss. And let people yearn for their changes. Only as people, advocating, speaking, and discussing, do we work within the bounds of the system.

    Be in peace.

    Reply
  16. Stephen Richer
    Stephen Richer says:

    I 100% agree with your suggestion that open discourse is the best way of achieving understanding.

    And I also agree that the spirit of the law is immensely important. And that is where I think the Torah shines — especially when people like Rabbi T talk about the book being a guide to being a better giver and improving your relations with others.

    I just think it is … bothersome … that people writing well after the Torah was handed down supposedly have the inside track on what was supposed to be said in the document. I guess this bothers me a lot because I hate how it manifested itself in deconstructionist literary analysis and in Constitutional analysis.

    I think the Torah meant what it said. I think it meant all the good things. And I think that when it said stone sons who break the 5th commandment, I think it meant that.

    I think the amendment process — the commentaries and the oral law — has served a highly valuable function in addressing some of these points. But I think they should be seen as such: amendments.

    Reply
  17. Rob
    Rob says:

    Stephen, your comments I think miss the point. It is precisely BECAUSE Torah is perfect that these seeming loopholes exists. Ha-shem is perfect. His Law is perfect. Rather than diminishing the perfection of Torah, the nuance of the Oral Law enhances it. It is precisely BECAUSE the author of the Law, Ha-Shem, intended for the Oral Law not only to exist, but to explain. The fact that there is nuance is not error – it is design.

    An analogy to Supreme Court “right to privacy” decisions is perhaps appropriate to this situation. There is no textual support whatever in the constitution for a constitutional right to an abortion, let alone the nonsencial trimester system onto which the Court stumbled. Rather, the Supreme Court decided that the personal opinions of its justices concerning their policy desires were superior to the written text of the constitution, contained in the 10th amendment, which reserves all matters not specifically delegated to the Federal government to the states or the people (it says “the people,” by the way, not “the individual.”) The Supreme Court grabbed authority that was not its own.

    Similarly, none of us has the authority to wholesale delete portions of Torah with which we disagree – not even the rabbis, through the oral law. Anna is certainly entitled to her personal opinion, I do not believe that however well-intentioned she may be, her personal opinions present a superior form of morality to that of Torah.

    Reply

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