The Talmudic Case of the “Wayward and Rebellious Son”

October 9, 2017 | Adam Kirsch
About the author: Adam Kirsch, a poet and literary critic, is the author of, among other books, Benjamin Disraeli and The People and The Books: Eighteen Classics of Jewish Literature.

A brief passage in the book of Deuteronomy presents the law of the “wayward and rebellious son,” whose parents may bring him before the elders of the city and testify to his bad behavior; after which the elders can sentence him to death by stoning. In the Talmud’s view, this punishment is justified because it prevents this child from growing into an adult who will commit truly heinous crimes; if executed now, “he will die innocent rather than die guilty.” The talmudic sages then go on to impose restrictions on who qualifies for this punishment: there is only a three-month age range during which the child is liable; he must demonstrate that he is, in the Torah’s words, “a glutton and a drunkard” by eating raw (or very rare) meat and drinking Italian wine; he must buy these foods with money stolen from his parents. But, writes Adam Kirsch, the rabbis don’t stop there:

[T]he clearest sign of the rabbis’ intention in introducing all of these qualifications comes in Tractate Sanhedrin 71a, where Rabbi Yehudah says: “If his mother is not suited for his father, he does not become a wayward and rebellious son.” According to the [later talmudic sages], what this means is that “if his mother was not identical to his father in voice, appearance, and height, he does not become a wayward and rebellious son.” Since no two people are ever identical, much less a husband and wife, it is apparent that the rabbis actually want to make the Torah law unenforceable. Finally, the [text] says so explicitly: “There has never been a wayward and rebellious son and there never will be one in the future.”

Here we come to the core of the issue. The Talmud has essentially canceled a provision of the Torah. But if the Torah is God’s word, by what right can the rabbis do this? The answer is that they do not believe, or admit, they are introducing any novelties into the law. Rather, they are explicating what the law always meant, and so there is no actual change in Jewish practice. No wayward and rebellious son ever existed in the past, which is why none will ever exist in the future.

But if that is so, then why did God put this law in the Torah in the first place? “Why was it written?” the Talmud asks, and gives a wonderful reply: “So that you may expound and receive reward.” Living by the law is one thing, and it is required of every Jew; but studying and analyzing the law is the real glory of Judaism. Indeed, God makes unenforceable laws simply so that scholars can analyze why they are unenforceable! If someone asked me for a talmudic passage that encapsulates the ethos of rabbinic Judaism, I think I would choose this one, in all its mercifulness, ingenuity, and love of thinking for its own sake.

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