Parshat Ki Tetse, "Not Rebellious at All" - The portion this week sets out a number of laws governing personal conduct and relationships. We find among these laws that of the ben sorer u’moreh, the “wayward and rebellious son.” Chapter 21:18-21 describe to us how if such a son is born to you and he cannot be controlled, then he is to be stoned to death. It is hard to imagine even the worst of children deserving that fate, so how do we reconcile this law in our Torah with what we feel is right?
We can turn to our rabbis for help. In this instance, the rabbis of the Talmud had just as much trouble with such a terrible punishment as we still do today. They curtail the law’s applicability (Sanhedrin 70a-71a) by making the limits to which the troublesome child would have to go to be worthy of execution impossible to reach. Countless Jewish teenagers no doubt thank them for that.
But this brings up another dilemma for us, even if it does save Jewish children from being executed by their own parents. The Torah seems pretty clear. It says rebellious children are to be executed by the rabbis say that’s not what the Torah says. It’s as if, when we don’t like something in the Torah, we can just explain that it does not mean what it appears to and ignore it. What does that do for the Torah’s authority or ability to guide as a community?
The first answer squaring this circle teaches us to remember that although we venerate the Torah as the record of God’s revelation to us, it is only the outline the Teacher passed out to the class. The class notes that flesh it out are found in how the rabbis over time, and particularly in the Talmud, have explained the Torah. Of course the outline can’t be changed, but in detail and scope an outline is limited and needs further explanation, so too with our Torah.
But even beyond this answer is another. Just like anything important and serious in life, religion is complicated. It doesn’t always have neat, nice, black and white components. It can be hard to understand sometimes, and we must struggle to have its meaning be important to us, but that is how it is supposed to be. That is why we are called Israel, “to wrestle with God.”