The Stubborn and Rebellious Son
This week's parsha lists a group of laws that often makes us feel uncomfortable; none more so than that of the " ben sorer umoreh " – the stubborn and rebellious son. We are told that "all the men of his city shall pelt him to death with stones, and he shall die" (Devarim 21:21). Such actions "shall clear out the evil from among you, and all Israel will listen and fear" (ibid).
The Rabbis appear to also find this law uncomfortable. They write in one place (Sanhedrin 68b) that the child is judged "al shem sofo" - in anticipation of how he will transgress when he matures, i.e. even though he at presents has not done a crime that is deserving of punishment, it is better for him to die now without sin – well that doesn't make me feel any better about this law.
Later they say that the case of a ben sorer umoreh never happened and never will (ibid 71a). They seem to be saying that we shouldn't worry about this rule, after all it never actually happened – yes, we're still a moral people. This doesn't make me feel any better either.
Perhaps we can solve this problem by trying to understand ancient Near Eastern culture and the subject of honor killings – something that still exits today amongst Middle Eastern cultures.
Essentially, when a child (often the daughter) brings dishonor to a family, the culture allows, and even expects the father to restore the family's honor, by killing the child.
This sad and horrible culture existed amongst the culture of ancient Israel. How did the Torah deal with it – simply! Firstly it said "His father and his mother shall take hold of him" (Devarim 21:19). Generally, mothers are not involved in honor killings. It is often done behind their backs and when they know of it, they do their outmost to stop it. This requirement that the mother be involved in the process is likely to reduce the frequency of the honor killing.
The second and more important thing that the Torah did was that it required the parents to "bring him out to the elders of his city, and to the gate of his place" (ibid). The Torah took honor killings out of the realm of extra judicial practice and put it into the realm of judicial law.
This means that no longer were parents allowed to summarily execute their children if they had shamed their family's honor. They must bring the child to court. It is then the court's right to decide if the child is guilty or not. In this context we can be proud of the Talmudic statement that there never was case of the stubborn and rebellious child – the Bet Din would ensure that no child would be found guilty and thereby, it exorcised this ugly phenomenon from ancient Israel's culture.
Rather than being ashamed of the law of the ben sorer umoreh, we can proud of the efforts our ancient ancestors made to remove immoral practice from our culture.
Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat entiled: "The Impaled Criminal" appears at http://parshablog.blogspot.com/2006_08_01_archive.html.