One of the most troubling passages in the Torah is found in this week’s parashah. Deuteronomy 21:18-21 reads:
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 and at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of the town, “This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Thereupon the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid.
For many years, meaning no disrespect to the Torah, I would guiltily and somewhat irreverently read this passage and have a quiet laugh to myself. But now, as a parent of a precocious preschooler and toddler approaching the “terrible twos,” I realize that I’m laughing when I really should be crying. Even in the most trying of moments, I cannot fathom that my wife Lisa and I would bring our daughters Hannah or Emily to the bimah at our synagogue to complete such a ritual. I cannot fathom that in the presence of other rabbis and communal elders, Lisa and I would vouch for our daughters’ disloyalty and defiance, and then stand by while she is stoned to death.
I really am crying now. I can’t, I simply can’t imagine, don’t want to imagine, such a horrible scene. I don’t think anyone wants that – not for my children, certainly not for theirs. In the thirteenth century, Nachamindes offers a mitigating remark to suggest that the child referred to by Torah is not a minor, and thus capable of knowing right from wrong, but still I don’t want to imagine such an unspeakable fate for even the most obnoxious and rebellious teenager. I am unable to find God’s presence in a literal reading of this portion of Scripture. I cannot understand how God would sanction, recommend, and command the execution of a child.
I wonder how to accept the validity, the beauty of Torah when I read a passage such as this one. One of the readings in the Reform siddur Mishkan Tefilah of which I am fond acknowledges, “In this scroll is the secret of our people’s life from Sinai until now. Its teaching is love and justice, goodness and hope. Freedom is its gift to all who treasure it” (p. 364). I wonder how the passage from our Torah reading can be indicative of the best that is in us personally, and communally as a people.
For what we see in this section is evidence of a community which has gone astray – parents who have lost their way, elders and members of a community who seem unable to offer guidance and impart their wisdom, and a child who is so complacent and distant as to remain silent and voiceless during these proceedings. The community in this passage is so broken as to believe that stoning a child to death is the answer for removing evil from within its midst. Such activity denotes the absence, not the presence, of God.
But Torah is still explicitly clear regarding the result of such heinous, unthinkable, horrifying behavior. A community acting in this way destroys its future and destroys itself. The community may believe that they have “swept evil out of their midst,” but in consequence, all Israel will learn of this episode and be afraid.
We too are to fear a community that acts in this way. Perhaps we are to even fear a community that takes this “teaching” as the literal word of God, instead of seeing this episode as containing the strictest of warnings – namely, never let a relationship get to this stage. For when we decline to this dreadful level, love and justice, goodness and hope are replaced only by fear. As long as we are able to talk, communicate, share, listen, learn from our mistakes, and seek meaningful counsel, there is still hope for all of our relationships, no matter how difficult they may seem to be. In this way, even when a text creates a visceral reaction, we can still learn, still reflect, and still find God’s presence, offering us guidance which both challenges us and inspires us to find other ways, better ways to effect healing in our daily lives.