Parenting Secrets of the Ben Sorer u-Moreh
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In Parshat Ki Tetze we read the lamentable case of the ben sorer u-moreh, the rebellious son, whose parents must turn him over to the authorities for execution on account of the sins he will inevitably commit in the future. He is judged (according to the Mishna in Sanhedrin, 8:5) “based on his end – he should die innocent rather than dieing [later] with guilt”:
If a man has a wayward and rebellious son, who does not listen to 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 listen to our voice; [he is] a glutton and a 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 (Devarim 21: 18-21).
The Oral Tradition (see primarily the mishnayot in Sanhedrin 8:1-4), so uncomfortable with the very idea of the institution of ben sorer u-moreh, interprets these verses in such a way to both raise the bar of what constitutes an executable case, as well as provide so many mitigating possibilities, that in the end the Gemara (71a) posits that there never was nor ever will be an actual ben sorer u-moreh (similar to the hypothetical case of an ir ha-nidachat, the wholly idolatrous city which must be utterly destroyed; note that in our case R. Yonatan disagrees, convinced that there was at least one ben sorer u-moreh upon whose grave he sat).
Perhaps the most perplexing exegetical mitigation is based on the word in verse 20, in which the parents declare that the child does not listen to “our voice” (in Hebrew: b’koleinu). From the odd noun declension, in which the parents refer to “our [plural] voice [singular]“, R. Yehuda determines that the parents must be of “equal voice”, so that if one of them called on the phone, for example, the ben sorer u-moreh wouldn’t be able to tell from the sound on the other end if it was mom or dad. Since they must be of equal voice, he adds the requirement that the two parents must be equal in height and in appearance (just imagine their family album!). Without these highly unlikely conditions being met, even the most rebellious child in the world would not meet the conditions to be susceptible to the death penalty.
What is the meaning of R. Yehuda’s odd requirements? Perhaps he is telegraphing to us the precursors of what becomes a ben sorer u-moreh most. Without entering the “nature vs. nurture” thicket, it is clear that the harmony of message the child receives from both parents greatly influence the path he will choose as he begins to mature and individuate (as the psychologists tell us). When two parents sound literally identical, the message becomes muted – like two sounds of equal wavelength which cancel each other out (as the physicists tell us). Parents must act in tandem, and surely their world views and values are best communicated when there is harmony – but rigid ideological lockstep so that the child cannot differentiate between mother and father (or perhaps Mussar Avikha and Torat Imekha) is the path the rebellion. This may be related to the fact that these two parents are precisely the same height, causing them to literally see everything from exactly the same perspective. If this converts to a figurative carbon copy of how to view and interpret the world, it robs the child of the complimentary way to look at things that he might receive if his parents weren’t clones of each other. Just as too much overlap in the gene pool can lead to serious birth defects, so too we need a certain amount of parental variety – within an obvious framework of consensus – to avoid the dangers and defects of the ben sorer u-moreh. R. Yehuda’s principles point to parental harmony as a middle path between discord and the sounds of silence produced by two parents attempting to educate with only one voice.