Monday, August 24, 2009

Rebellious Children and Re-Reading Text

“If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, that will not listen to the voice of his father and the voice of his mother and though they chasten him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall lay hold of him and bring him out unto the elders of his city…

They shall say unto the elders “Our son is stubborn and rebellious, he does not listen to our voice, he is a glutton and a drunkard.” And all the men of his city shall stone him that he die… (Deut. 21:18–21).

I always smile when we read the section on the rebellious son.

I know it’s a tad geeky to have a favourite Torah portion.

But I just can’t help it.

It’s not that I dig infanticide, or support the murder of teenage delinquents as a means to maintain public order.

It’s what the Rabbis did with (or to) the story, rather than the story itself that enthrals me.
First, they limited the case to that of a 12½ year old boy (“son not daughter; son not mature man”)

Next, they insisted the law only applied when a specific type of meat and wine was consumed – excluding the beer festival or any over-indulging at KFC from the prohibition.

Finally, in a pilpulistic twist of grandiose proportions, the Rabbis announced that the command only applied when the child’s mother was similar in appearance, height and voice to his father. (“He does not hearken to our voice – this shows that their voices must be alike”).

[As an aside, I always wondered how any child whose mum looked exactly like their dad could become anything other than rebellious – but maybe that’s because my father has had a thick beard for the last 30 years…]

In short, the Rabbis took a Torah text with a specific command and completely changed its meaning.

They didn’t argue that God knew best, or that human morality was inherently subjective (or Christian).

They didn’t answer those starry eyed liberals that we don’t have a choice – that ‘that’s was the Torah says and who are we to argue?’

When faced with a conflict between text and moral intuition, the Talmudic Rabbis went with the latter.

They understood that an authentic religiosity engages with text rather than unquestioningly subjugating itself to it in the name of serving God;

They realised that leaving our morals at the entrance of the Bet Midrash is not what learning Torah is about, that – to paraphrase the Kotzker – serving the Shulchan Arukh (or dry text) is not always the same as serving God.

But with my smile often comes a frown.

Because surely there is no midrashic re-reading of homosexuality or divorce laws which could possibly stray from the text more palpably than that of the rebellious son.

So why is our generation still stuck with the Shulchan Arukh worshippers?

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