"If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or his 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 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. 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." (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
Can it be that God truly wants us to execute disobedient children? Modern Jews aren't the only ones who find this law extreme. In the Talmud, in Sanhedrin, the rabbis dealt with the law of the rebellious son with care and deliberation.
First, the Torah says "ben," a word that means son but is frequently understood to mean child. But not here; the Mishnah says a son, but not a daughter. Then we learn that this law cannot apply to a minor, one who is not yet Bar Mitzvah, because he has not yet reached the age of responsibility for the mitzvot and is not subject to punishment.
But because the Torah says "ben," it cannot be referring to a full-grown man who is no longer under his parents' authority. Therefore, the rabbis limit the period during which a child may be declared rebellious to a maximum of three months from the time he becomes Bar Mitzvah.
This still leaves a window during which parents might bring their son to be executed, so the Mishnah continues: The Torah says, "his father and mother," so both parents must be living and both must agree to bring him to the elders; his parents "shall take hold of him," so neither can be missing a hand or a finger; "and bring him," so neither can be an amputee, lame or limping; "They shall say," so neither can be mute; "this son of ours," so neither can be blind; "he does not heed us," so neither can be deaf.
The Mishnah also says that "if his mother is not fit for his father," the boy cannot be declared rebellious. In the Gemara, Rabbi Yehudah explains that this last statement means that the parents must match up physically — they must sound alike, look alike, be the same height.
By this point, it's hard to imagine that any parents could meet the criteria required. But, just in case someone were to try, the Gemara concludes, "a case of a rebellious son never was and never will be. So why was it written? Study [it] and receive a reward."
Still, if the law of the rebellious son is hypothetical, never intended to be applied, why is it in the Torah? With 612 other mitzvot, we don't need hypothetical laws to promote Torah study. So this law must serve an important purpose. I believe it does.
Even with the best kids in the world, parenting is sometimes incredibly difficult and stressful. And so, at some point, every parent — perhaps when dealing with an infant who won't stop crying, or a toddler who has just discovered the word "no," or a teenager who will only communicate by shrugging and rolling his eyes — every parent has said, "I'm gonna kill that kid," and, at least for a moment, has meant it.
The Torah says, okay, it's normal to feel that way sometimes; that momentary impulse doesn't make you a monster or a horrible parent — and so it lays out a legal procedure to prevent parents from acting on that feeling in the heat of the moment.
The Torah doesn't say, "You must not feel that way." After all, you can't control what pops into your head. But momentary thoughts and feelings have no force. The thought, the desire to do something wrong, isn't a sin — as long as you don't act on it.
The Torah never commands us not to have negative or immoral thoughts or feelings. What it does command us to do is to control them. We don't sin with our feelings, because these are beyond our control. We sin by acting on them, because our actions are within our control. This is the crucial — and comforting — message of the law of the rebellious son.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark has led congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.