Why do the Sages say there never was nor will there ever be a truly rebellious child?
Table for Five: Ki Teitzei
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
And they shall say to the elders of his city, “This son of ours is wayward and rebellious; he does not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.”
Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Beis Knesses of Los Angeles
The rebellious son is put to death. The Talmud (amidst an extensive treatment of this subject in Tractate Sanhedrin) explains that God is letting us know that if a youngster acts this way, there is no hope but that he will eventually take the lives of others in acts of banditry. Should the boy exhibit certain very specific signs of rebellion, better that he should die now whilst innocent than later after committing capital crimes. Yet strikingly, the Talmud then tells us that there never was a rebellious son, and lets us know that there never ever will be one.
The Torah only wrote this to us to give us the opportunity to benefit from learning lessons from this subject, but it’s not really something that will happen. Now what could be the message of that? Is there not already plenty of Torah to learn? What lesson are we to gain from discussion of putting to death theoretical at-risk youth? But in fact, I think that the Talmud is telling us something crucial to anyone raising children. You can never ever give up on them.
You see, there will never ever be a child who is definitely going to be wicked. There has never been such a child, nor will there ever be. Every single person has the chance to change. No behavior that you are seeing in your teen is reason to write them off. There is hope for all of our children. We may never give up.
Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Thirtysix.org
The Talmud says that a wise person is one who can see what is being born (Tamid 32a). Not just born, but how it will “grow up,” meaning to what it will probably lead. The commandment of killing the “rebellious son” teaches a similar message (even if it was never carried out).
A ben sorrer umoreh is not killed because he has already done something that warrants the death penalty. He is killed because he has done things that seem to indicate that he will do such things in the future. The Beis Din kills him now while he is still “meritorious,” before he becomes guilty of the death penalty. But what if the boy grows up and matures nicely? What if he leaves behind his troubling ways, as so many other “rebellious” children have done over the ages? If saving one soul is like saving an entire world, isn’t it worth the risk to see how this one turns out too? What if the concern does not apply to this son?
The Torah says assume that it does and go with the signs. And not just in the case of the rebellious son, but in life in general. Many bad things have happened because people have disregarded the signs of where they were going. They suffered from cognitive dissonance, psychological conflict that results from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously. As they say, “All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
Rabbi Gershon Schusterman, Mashpia, writer, businessman
The “Wayward and Rebellious Son” precept is so outlandish that some Talmudic rabbis say (Sanhedrin 71b), “This commandment never occurred, nor will it ever occur in the future! If so, why is it in the Torah at all? Expound on the Torah’s passages and receive the reward.”
Is this just a scholarly pursuit? What is to be learned from something that can’t happen? Underlying this law are lessons for parents to be gleaned regarding their critical role in raising their children. Each child is a tabula rasa, a clean slate. Parents need to introspect into their role in their child’s rebelliousness.
“They shall say, our son is wayward and rebellious, he does not listen to our voice (exact translation); he is a glutton and a drunkard.” (21:20) The precept of the “rebellious son” applies only if his father and mother speak in the same voice. This means both parents must take an active role in educating their child and must relate to their child with an equal sense of seriousness, and most importantly, both parents must convey to him the same message and the same value system.
Only if parents have met these criteria are they blameless if their child becomes rebellious. But if the parents have not worked together harmoniously in bringing up their child, then the fact that the child has become unruly may not reflect his innate depravity, but rather a dysfunctional upbringing. Change these factors and the child might well improve.
Rabbi Rebecca Schatz, Assistant Rabbi, Temple Beth Am, LA
Both parents must willingly present him to the community for what will result in punishment. But we’re not told what anyone might have done to prevent the development of such a person, or what was tried privately before going public.
The 20th century Rebbe of Piaseczna wrote in his singular work, Chovat HaTalmidim, “It is not enough to just teach the lad that he is obligated to listen to the educator, and nothing more. The main point is to bring this opinion into his heart: To know that he – the child himself – is the main educator. Rather, he is the sprout of God’s planting in the garden of Israel.” Though the quote continues to say the responsibility is on the father and rabbi to teach the child, the child must own his progress and success, as well as his failing. Our job as parents, teachers and community is to make the child feel supported and safe when questioning, exploring, and sharing new learning. Public shaming will ostracize and brand the child, dooming him.
Proverbs 22:6 reminds us to teach children individualistically, connecting with their abilities and interests, so that they will not grow disloyal to the Teaching. The same Hebrew word is used for “disloyal” in Proverbs and our Torah verse, reminding us of the lofty obligations of raising our community’s children. We must prepare our family to sprout in God’s garden. We must offer an attentive and loving first chance and then a second chance!
Lori Shapiro, Rabbi, Artistic Director/Open Temple
Today’s social media influencer is tomorrow’s tossed aside child unpacking a public display of thoughtless behavior. Torah’s strident proscription for the rebellious and wayward child bears wisdom for today’s parenting. The rabbis seek to justify his actions as being aberrant and problematic; Rabbi Bachya admonishes: “Parents’ love of God must supersede their love of their children; if the Torah commands it, they must be ready even to hand their son over to the court.” Parenting styles encouraging “your child to find his own interests and pursue them” seemingly present as anathema to Torah wisdom. But are they?
The rabbinic stridency towards the “wayward and rebellious child” serve as a cautionary tale reminding us of our parenting responsibility. Lao Tzu, the author of the Tao Te Ching (Taoism), is credited for stating: “Watch your thoughts, for they become words, watch your words, for they become actions, watch your actions, for they become habits, watch your habits, for they become character, watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”
Parents are the gatekeepers, planting the seeds of thought, nurturing the value of words, seasonally modeling habits, harvesting character in community and walking a destiny that becomes our children’s inheritance. As adult children, parents must embody both the self-discipline of our seasoned relationship with our own inner-rebellion as we serve as cultivators of awareness for our children, guiding their curiosity towards godliness, lest their social media handles lead them into acts of rebellion and intemperance and into the contemporary court of public scrutiny.
With thanks to Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Rabbi Gershon Schusterman, Rabbi Rebecca Schatz, and Lori Shapiro.
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