Friday, August 31, 2012

“Pelting the Rebellious Son” The Individual, Indulgence, & Submission

Labelled for resuse
From David Westerfield blog

The individual, our rights, needs and even desires are regarded as highly important in the modern western approach. Follow your heart, is a catch cry. There are societies that put much more emphasis on the communal interest, with the individual coming second. I live in both worlds. I sometimes feel indulgent, slack and “soft” in comparison with my mother, for whom the question seems almost never to be “what do I want?” but instead “what is my duty?” I wonder about the merit of sacrificing the needs/wants of the individual for the greater good and the merit of submission to a higher authority. Yet I also worry about the harshness some might employ in controlling the indulgent “inner child”. This is starkly symbolised by the proposition of an execution of the “rebellious son” by his parents handing him over to the community to kill him by pelting him with stones.  

Rebellion, a Capital Offence?
Let us start with the Torah’s text about the “execution of a rebellious son”. The Torah states:
“If a man has a wayward and rebellious son, who does not obey his father or his mother, and they chasten him, and [he still] does not listen to them, his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city, and to the gate of his place.
And they shall say to the elders of his city, "This son of ours is wayward and rebellious; he does not obey us; [he is] a glutton and a (wine) guzzler."
And all the men of his city shall pelt him to death with stones, and he shall die. So shall you clear out the evil from among you, and all Israel will listen and fear” [i] .

This law is generally assumed to be a theoretical one that has never been implemented and will never be acted on[ii]. Even in its theoretical form it is completely at the parents’ discretion, which is one more argument for its impracticability[iii]. Still this law exists on the books as a moral teaching, which I find difficult to live with.  What might this teaching be?

More important than love?
Several possibilities are suggested. One our love of God overriding the “strongest love in the world, that between a father and son, or that of a mother to her son, in spite of this when the parents see their son straying to a bad way, it is forbidden for them to have mercy for him and they must restrain their love (for their son) out of love of God and to bring their son to the house of stoning, their love should be like the love of our father Abraham (Upon him be peace) who held back his love and tied up his son on the altar[iv]. 

This interpretation is disturbing in how far it suggests this should be taken. I wonder about a more general message about transcending our own inner world and “what feels right” to us to, not necessarily to act against our own conscience, but simply to do things that don’t resonate for us out of compliance with “the will of God”, or fall in behind the agendas and priorities of others in our communities. It is frustrating to watch people fixate on their personal vision who are unwilling to “take their eye of the ball” for long enough to give anyone else any assistance.  

Discipline not Indulgence
Other interpretations focus on various aspects of the rebellious son. The word “Moreh” which means rebellious is the same word for teach or show. “He wants to teach his father and mother knowledge, that his way is the right way, and this is the way of youth to imagine that they are the wise ones and they know how to conduct themselves…the son wants to educate his father[v]”. Gluttony is defined as involved theft of money[vi], which is then used to buy wine and meat eaten half raw[vii] in bad company outside the family home. The concern here is with excessive indulgence which is seen as corrupting. It is contrasted with a custom that when one hosts guests one should leave some space empty of plates[viii].  Of course this can be taken too far, we must remember that “stoning the indulgent” child is a threat that is never to be carried out!” There are so many delightful things in the world that God has created for our enjoyment as long as we partake of it in moderation.

There is also the danger that in being overly harsh toward ourselves we become hardened and cruel. A lovely story involves a Rabbi disapproving of a rich man eating very simply, hard bread etc. The Rabbi told him to eat steak and drink fine wine. This way he will recognise that the poor at least deserve bread and other basics, if he only gives himself stale bread, what crumbs will he offer the needy?

Submission to “The Official Position”
In contrast to the “out of control rebellious youth”, there is the case of the rebellious elder[ix]. This is a top level scholar who having arrived at a different conclusion to the majority of the highest religious court called the Sanhedrin, dares to defy the official ruling and guides people to behave in accordance with his own view. This is so that there not be “many Torah’s”, and serves to unify the Jews in their observance of the Torah.

The requirement to submit to the official position played out in the poignant story of Rabbi Joshua who believed that the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, was on a different day to the one decided on by the majority and the president of the Sanhedrin, Rabbi Gamliel. Rabbi Gamliel demanded the Rabbi Joshua publicly demonstrate his acceptance of the ruling by appearing before him with his staff and money bag. This would be violation of the holy day according to Rabbi Joshua’s opinion[x]. This must have been very hard for Rabbi Joshua. This incident and the disrespect to Rabbi Joshua later contributed to Rabbi Gamliel being deposed as president. There is a balance one must find here.

Judging texts and Individual Dignity
This material is also useful when we are tempted to judge the sacred texts of other faiths, not to simply read a text without considering the traditional interpretations. It is also important to consider seemingly unrelated teachings to gain a broader perspective. Reading the examples above could create the impression that the Torah is concerned only with the “greater good” and not with the rights of the individual, or even the obligations we have toward others. This is not true, of course. I am struck by the symbolism of the Torah’s command to a creditor seeking an object as surety for a loan from a poor person, “In the outside, you will stand[xi]”! The creditor has a right to demand an object from the borrower, but he dare not violate the sanctity of the vulnerable man’s home. According to one traditional translation, the lender is actually instructed to stand in the marketplace where the borrower will meet him with an object of surety of his choosing[xii]. Even a court officer is forbidden to enter the home of the borrower[xiii]!

There are several pathways to virtue. One relates to prioritising God and this has led many to do beautiful things. At the same time, there are many atheists who are highly ethical decent people. Another valuable path involves moderation, and still there are highly disciplined, dieting exercising self-centred even cruel people. In contrast there are some “go with the flow”, sensual ice cream eating people who are generous and loving. Jews are now in the month of reflection, Elul, leading up to the Day of Atonement. There is a lot to think about, including how gentle to be or not be with our indulgent inner child.

[i] Deuteronomy 21:19-21
[ii] Talmud Sanhedrin 71a, there is a dissenting view that this law was meant to be implemented
[iii] Maharsha on Sanhedrin, cited in Nachshoni
[iv] Rabbenu Bchaya
[v] Abarbenel (1437-1508)
[vi] Talmud Sanhedrin
[vii] Meam Loez
[viii] Shulchan Aruch 151
[ix] Deuteronomy 17:10-11
[x] Talmud Rosh Hashana 24b-25a
[xi] Deuteronomy 24:11
[xii] Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel
[xiii] Talmud Bava Metziah 113b, this is one opinion, the other opinion is that a court officer is allowed to enter the home.

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