The Trouble with the Rebellious Child

Ki Tetzei By :  Joshua Heller Posted On Aug 17, 2002 / 5762 | Torah Commentary

There are those who think that the world and human nature, are ordered and deterministic, that people can be profiled and categorized, their behavior predicted by psychological or statistical models. Having a child has made me newly appreciative of the role that disorder and unpredictability play in the world. On the day–to–day level, all plans and schedules have taken on a new level of tentativity, and getting through an airport security checkpoint suddenly requires a whole new level of coordination. On a grander scale, I know what my hopes and aspirations are for him, but I recognize that I have only limited influence and that he will have to choose his own path in the world, a path that no one can predict.

In this light, this year, I am newly troubled by the biblical commandment of the “ben sorer u’moreh” – the rebellious son, found in this week’s parashah of Ki Tetse. In the first two verses of this short passage (Deut 21:18–21) the Torah frames the situation: “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 his town at the public place of his community.” In our own day, parents bring their rebellious children on daytime talk shows, and hosts and audience shout out a range of recommendations, from blaming the parents and offering as many hugs as necessary to administering an old–fashioned spanking. The biblical text, however, offers a solution which is completely outside our modern expectations: the unconditional validation, loving but firm admonishment or even what my grandmother would have described as a “potch in tuchis.” Rather, the people of the town must stone the rebellious child to death.

Our sages were also troubled by this passage, and more than four folios of Talmud (Sanhedrin 68a–72a) are devoted to these four verses. As is often the case when the Torah imposes the death penalty, the rabbis went out of their way to interpret the Biblical text so as to impose conditions that make the sentence impossible to carry out. For instance, the parents in the biblical text must come together to bring the child to the elders, and declare “he does not hear our voice” (Deuteronomy 18:20) and so the sages concluded that not only must both parents want to bring the child to judgment — they must also be evenly and properly matched, and they must have similar voices. The verse continues by requiring the parents to declare “our child is a glutton and a drunkard,” and so the sages understand this to mean that the child cannot be considered a “ben sorer u’moreh” until he steals a certain quantity of meat and wine from his parents’ home, and eats it elsewhere.

There are deeper questions, as well. If the child is still a minor, how can he be held responsible for his actions? Conversely it is true that the obligation to honor one’s parents extends throughout life, but once a child is legally an adult, what standing do his parents have to bring him before the court? The sages conclude that there is only a brief period in a boy’s physical development — perhaps not even three months long — when this law might be applied. This age specification sharpens the question: how could such a young child be subjected to such terrible consequences?

There are two intertwined responses to this fundamental question, and both have in common a faith in the power of human prediction. One thread justifies the law, by declaring of the rebellious son “al sofo neherag” — he is to be put to death for what he will certainly eventually do. A child who would steal from his parents at such a young age is destined to exhaust his parents’ resources, break out of their control and become a threat to the larger world, a mugger and a murderer. Better, the argument goes, that he die before taking another innocent life. This thread reflects the belief that we really can determine in advance who should rightly be scrutinized, or even penalized, because of what we anticipate they might do.

The second thread suggests that in fact, the question is moot, because the rebellious child “never was and never will be” (Sanhedrin 71a). The plain sense of the talmudic argument is that the stipulations of age and behavior surrounding this rule are so detailed that no such case could ever be prosecuted successfully. Rather, the thread continues, these four verses were included in the Torah “for the reward of studying them” (drosh v’kabel skhar). One can see this on an intellectual level — that the project of study, and analysis of Torah is of value in and of itself, even when there is seemingly no practical implication. Alternatively, one could see the explanation on a practical level — that each new generation of pre–teens will encounter this passage and be duly chastened to listen to mom and dad and eat their vegetables, lest they suffer a terrible fate.

What both threads have in common is a faith in the power of human prediction. One side would tell us that human behavior is predictable, and that the twenty–three sages of the Sanhedrin, meeting in their semicircle at the gates of the city, had the same crime–predicting ability as the three pre–cogs in the recent film “Minority Report”, floating in their vat of goo. As a result of that faith, there are times when one must protect society at the expense of the individual. The other side puts its faith in the integrity of the law, and its ability to protect the individual from the larger society. It declares that systemic checks and balances must be instituted so that such a law, even though on the books, would never be carried out, because of the great potential for injustice if they were to be applied to even one innocent person.

In the Talmudic discussion, Rabbi Yonatan negates the hope of a purely theoretical resolution of the problem of the ben sorer u’moreh, and declares “I saw him and I sat on his grave.” His declaration has a two–fold resonance: the problem of evil people cannot be ignored, and the checks and balances of a system cannot always be trusted. We live in a generation that has seen the rebellious son grown to adulthood, and we , too, have seen his grave. As a result, we confront the same issues on a practical level, whether at the airport or elsewhere, as we try to predict and control events that feel beyond our grasp. Do we allow people to be profiled, inspected or detained based on what they might do, even the result is harassment and other injustices? Or do we maintain a standard of fairness, even if it means sometimes wasting resources by working blindly and ignoring the odds?

Our sages wrestled with the answer to these questions for generations, and as I watch our societal response, I am not yet convinced that our society is capable of wisdom any greater than that of the Sanhedrin of old. We can at least have the wisdom to know that no system of prediction or prevention is perfect, and to recognize that we all have the ability to drosh v’kabel skhar – gain in strength and wisdom by continuing to struggle with these issues.

Shabbat Shalom

The publication and distribution of Rabbi Heller’s commentary on Parashat Ki Tetse have been made possible by a generous grant from
Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.