Anna Batler blogs about faith and feminism at http://sotah.net/. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Anna Batler.
The rebellious son first appears in Shemot and then again in the last book of the torah, Deuteronomy. In both texts he is stoned.
One who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death…One who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death. (Exodus 21:15-17).
“If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, that will not hearken to the voice of his father or the voice of his mother and though they chasten him, will not hearken unto them, then shall his father and his mother lay hold of him and bring him out unto the elders of his city… They shall say unto the elders of his city: This son is stubborn and rebellious, he doth not hearken to our voice, he is a glutton and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones that he die; so shalt thou put away the evil from the midst of thee; and all Israel shall hear, and fear” (Deut. 21:18–21).
His stoning is remarkable because the crimes of which he is convicted are not otherwise capital offenses. Assault and even manslaughter are punished with compensatory damages and exile to safe cities respectively. Exodus 21: 12-19. The general rule changes if the victim or the accuser are either the father in Shemot or both the mother and the father in Deuteronomy.
Long before modernity, Jewish tradition rejected this practice and even the spirit of this practice. Over several pages, the Talmud severely limits the application of this law – it could only apply in the small window between Bar Mitvah (onset of legal liability) and physical maturation (growth of body hair), a window that is estimated in the Talmud to be about three month, and there are further limitations on top of that. For example, if the rebellious son flees from his trial and then becomes an “adult” he is no longer liable. There are no records of this punishment actually occurring. Parents are prohibited from hitting their adult children.
The offensive law and ethos that give rise to it is effectively erased. Its presence in the torah exists as testimony to what is possible in the sands of time and the light of day. In the Jewish future, I imagine men and women will sit down to write Dvar Torah’s on how our generation effectively erased the prohibition on same-sex relationships and overarching gender inequality from the text. They will look at those prohibitions as we look upon the stoning of the rebellious son – as a testimony to Judaism’s capacity to remain, after thousands of years, a religion in the process of becoming.