I’m your typical oldest child, fitting many of the characteristics that psychologists love to identify: a natural leader, a people-pleaser, a perfectionist, and so on. As the oldest of four, I have loved watching my siblings make choices in their lives that I would never have considered and behave in ways that I never would have conceived. When I asked my parents for something, they gave me an answer and I accepted it. This was their role and this was how my world worked. I rarely questioned them, and if I didn’t like their answer I just learned to deal with it.
My youngest brother Ricky, however, never took no for an answer. And, to their credit, my parents hated saying no to him, so they often said, “We’ll see.” “Can we go to Chuck E. Cheese for dinner?” “We’ll see.” “Can I get a new Power Ranger toy?” “We’ll see.” Ricky got to the point pretty quickly where he loathed this answer. And, in his little toddler voice, he would answer back: “No ‘We’ll see!’ I hate ‘We’ll see.’ ” Ricky wanted an answer. Admittedly, he wanted to hear, “Yes,” and hated, “We’ll see,” and he let my parents know it. I was appalled by this: I couldn’t imagine talking to my parents this way. And, neither, it would seem, could the Torah imagine children speaking to their parents in this way.
This week we read in Parashat Mishpatim—a Torah portion filled with many rules. Just last week, in Parashat Yitro, we were given the Ten Commandments—arguably, the ten biggest rules we are to follow. This week’s portion continues to lay out the ways we are to behave as a people. The Hebrew word, mishpatim, literally means, “rules.” The root word is shafat, meaning “to judge,” thus the word has an implied legal connotation. However, mishpatim is not the only word used in the Torah to mean “laws” or “rules,” so the Rabbis came to understand that mishpatim referred to the categories of law in the Torah that we could rationally understand and explain through human reasoning. The other major category is chukim. These came to be understood as the laws God gave us that we are unable to understand but must follow just because God said so.
This portion contains many laws that are easy to understand in terms of their purpose, helping us create a safe, law-abiding, sensible community. Yet, there is a fascinating verse that reminded me of my brother, Ricky: “One who insults one’s father or mother shall be put to death” (Exodus 21:17). How many of us have insulted our parents in one way or another? We are all aware that one of the Ten Commandments is to honor your father and your mother, but we may not be sure what that means. I’ll bet the early Israelites weren’t so sure about it either, so it makes sense that the text would attempt to go into more detail.
In the Book of Deuteronomy, we read the case of the ben soreir u’moreh, the “insolent and disobedient child,” also called “the wayward and defiant son.” The text of Deuteronomy 21:18-21 reads, “If a parent 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 his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. His is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Thereupon the residents of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst; all Israel will hear and be afraid.”
Well, I’m certainly afraid! Here is a perfect case of a text that disturbs us. We can, of course, appreciate the spirit of the law to “honor your father and your mother.” We can appreciate why one might be discouraged from insulting one’s father and mother. Yet, this case now describes a ritual that leaves me uncomfortable and unsure what to do with it. Are we, as “good Jews,” really supposed to follow this law?
The law of the wayward and defiant son is so controversial that it is given special attention in the Mishnah and the Talmud, two of our most important texts, written around 200 CE and 500 CE, respectively. The Sages sought a lawful way of preventing the implementation of this decree, which they viewed as cruel and unreasonable.1
Mishnah, Sanhedrin 8:4: If his father were willing [to bring him to the court for judgment], but his mother was not willing, [or] if his father were not willing, but his mother was willing, he does not become a wayward and defiant son unless both were willing. Rabbi Judah says: If his mother was not worthy of his father, he does not become a wayward and defiant son.
Gemara, Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 71a: What is meant by her not being worthy? . . . . [Rabbi Judah] means, not physically like his father. It has been taught likewise: Rabbi Judah said: If his mother is not like to his father in voice, appearance, and stature, he does not become a wayward and defiant son. Why so? Because Scripture says, "he does not heed our voice." Just as they must have the same voice so too they must have the same appearance and height. Whom does this baraitha follow: that there never was and never will be a wayward and defiant son, and there never will be. So why was it [this ordinance] written in Scripture? That you may study it and receive an award [Seek and ye shall find!]. This agrees with Rabbi Judah.
The Sages meant to draw parents’ attention to the fact that the conduct of their son in the present, if he is not stopped in time, is likely to lead to far more serious criminal acts in the future. Therefore it is the parents’ duty to educate their children and to shape their behavior in the proper direction while they still have authority over their children. Thus, “Seek and you shall find!”means that this portion was included in the Torah so one will educate one’s children and the reward will be that they never come to such behavior.
The important lesson is one we Reform Jews must hear and celebrate: there is something worth studying here, but the Rabbis were able to decide that certain laws were never to be followed. If the Sages of the Mishnah and the Talmud could make such decisions, then so can we as Reform Jews. We can look at our traditions, the laws of our people, and when there is one that is abhorrent to us, we can choose to declare that it should not be a part of our lives. Children should be respectful of their parents. But when they are not, they need to be given opportunities to learn and to do better the next time. We are a people of forgiveness and repentance, so I would rather focus on those Jewish values than on the strict application of the law in this week’s portion.
So, my brother hated when my parents said, “We’ll see.” He was only four years old at the time. He’s now twenty-four, a wise, smart, and insightful adult, and I feel so lucky to be his big sister. I like having him around. Thank goodness we don’t have to be a part of a religion that demands horrific acts from parents of children who aren’t always well-behaved. Thank goodness that we are a part of a tradition that allows for growth, mistakes, healing, and learning.
1. The eighth chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin in the Mishnah is devoted primarily to this endeavor, pursuing the approach to its utmost in Mishnah 4 and its further elaboration in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 71a.
Rabbi Marci N. Bellows serves as the rabbi at Temple B'nai Torah in Wantagh, NY. She also writes the “Reform, Really” column featured bimonthly on the New York Jewish Week Web site.
Exodus 21 contains two commandments regarding treatment of parents: "He who strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death" (Exodus 21:15) and "He who insults his father or mother should be put to death" (21:17). These two commandments are best understood together; indeed, they are sequential in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Torah, third century BCE). To understand these mitzvot, we must address a question of translation and also one of context.
First, "insult" does not adequately reflect the force of the Hebrew m'kaleil, meaning "curse," which is often used in apposition to m'vareich, "bless," or m'chabeid, "honor." To treat with utter disrespect or literally to invoke the name of God to bring a curse on someone more accurately communicates the gravity of the acts being proscribed.
Second, the Torah is addressing adult children, not minors, living in a patriarchal social structure in which preserving the integrity of the family hierarchy was not only a matter of moral behavior, but also had consequences for the maintenance of social order. Taken together, verses 15 and 17 prohibit the physical and verbal abuse of one's parents. This is not directed at the disagreements or even the occasional clashes that occur in normal family relationships, but rather at extreme instances in which the emotional and bodily integrity of a human being, made in the divine image, is assaulted by the very people who should be most concerned about its welfare. Had it not been seen as significant problem in antiquity, it is unlikely the Torah would have mentioned it. And while today we rightly eschew the death penalty, the fact that parental abuse and, more broadly, elder abuse are still prevalent underscores the continued relevance of these two commandments.
Rabbi David Sandmel, Ph.D., is the rabbi educator at Temple Sholom of Chicago. He is the Crown Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies at Catholic Theological Union. And, he is a senior advisor on interreligious affairs for the Religion Action Center.
Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 566-592; Revised Edition, pp. 511–538
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 427–450