Friday, September 09, 2011

A Secret Chazal Seemingly Didn’t Know

by David A.

….. that the law of the “ben-sorer u’moreh” was not that inexplicable after all.

 If a man will have a wayward and rebellious son, who does not hearken to the voice of his father and the voice of his mother…etc. 19. then his father and mother shall grasp him and take him out to the elders of the city etc. ….. 21. All the men of the his city shall pelt him with stones and etc…[Deut. 21:18]
The law in the Torah pertaining to the rebellious son is among the most difficult to understand. The Torah describes a case where a male child, presumably a minor, who consistently disobeys his parents and acts in a manner defined as “zollel v’sovey”, which is translated as a “glutton and drunkard”. The rebellious child is then brought before the community elders (court) by his parents and if convicted, is sentenced to death.

This law is most strange, primarily on three counts. Nowhere in Torah law, as interpreted by Chazal, is a minor held punishable for his/her crimes or sins, and certainly never to be punished by the death penalty, and secondly the death penalty is given for an actual crime that has been witnessed by at least two proper witnesses, and lastly, the “crime” described certainly can not deserve such a harsh punishment.

Chazal, too were obviously troubled by this law (BT Sanhedrin chap. 8), and therefore sought to mitigate it. Thus, through TSBP (the Oral law), they assigned to its application so many conditions and parameters, that they, in effect, abrogated it. So successfully, that Chazal were able to confidently state that the law of the rebellious son never happened and would not ever happen.

Yet, the question still stands. How could the Torah promulgate such an offensive law, even with all the attached conditions?

The answer lies in the prism that ones views Devarim. If one accepts that, firstly, the Book was written by humans and its law code emerged within the context of ancient mid-east society and its mores. And, second, the author(s) of the Pentateuch was/were disseminating laws that he/they viewed as progressive in the context of being more humane and/or more just and moral than their surrounding societies.

I believe that in the ANE a child was the “property” of the father and the father had a right to discipline his child however he saw fit, presumably including punishment by death. While the law concerning the rebellious son in Devarim did not completely abolish this activity, the Torah may then have been a first step to take away this “right”. This is seen in two aspects. One is that the child’s mother was to be included in any serious disciplinary action (likely a first in the ANE). And second, and more importantly, that this right to discipline was taken from the parents and put into the hands of the community. Hands, that presumably would act in a more rational and just manner.

A progressive step, yet in our eyes still only a tiny one.


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