Walk This Way

For most Jews, halakha, Jewish law, is associated with incomprehensible and rule-bound behavior that largely resides in the care and under the watchful eyes of Orthodox Jews. Some Jews worry about the extent to which they have (they believe), abandoned halakha. Some of those selfsame Jews worry about the way Orthodox Jews purport to preserve it.

The gentile world has been inclined to believe that Jews engage in picky and legalistic discussions about everything under the sun. The Jews, they say, care only for the form of things. They forget the heart in a desperate and fruitless search for Right Behavior.

Jews and gentiles are missing an opportunity: Halakha is the intelligent, compassionate, heart-filled search for the most ethical interpretation we can find to any question before us. Really good halakhists aim to uncover the humane, the kind, the giving answer.

The word “halakha” comes from the Hebrew root that means “to go, walk.” Let’s follow just one halakhic
pathway, the one about the wayward and rebellious son.

Biblical prohibitions against dishonoring parents are to be found in both Exodus and Deuteronomy. Exodus 21:17 reads: “He who insults his father or his mother shall be put to death.” Deuteronomy 21:18-21 adds: “If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or 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 the town, ‘This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed our voice. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Thereupon all 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.”

Everyone raise their hand if they have ever witnessed a son acting rebelliously.

The rabbis believed, rightly so, that there was something in these passages that deserved close attention and careful interpretation. Confronted with a biblical law that was unreasonably harsh by any measure, they set to work to find the best possible reading of those self-same laws.

Step 1: Define a “son.” First, the rabbis decided that a minor could not be liable to the penalty of the stubborn and rebellious son. (I imagine they knew what the terrible twos are like.) Then the rabbis got to work on defining the exact period after a boy ceases to be a minor and before he becomes a man. Torah implies that a son is a son until his parents die, but biblical texts leave room for rabbinical texts to decide otherwise.

A halakhic conclusion: There is about a three-month period between the growth of two hairs on the chin and the growth of a beard (among other things) which clearly designates the man. It turns out that you can be culpable to the law of the rebellious and stubborn son for only 120 days.

Step 2: Take a really close look at the text. According to Deuteronomy, father and mother are to say: “He does not heed us.” A more literal translation would be: “He does not hearken to our voice.”
Koleynu, “our voice,” is critical textual evidence for the rabbis: Father and mother must speak with one voice.

The rabbis mean this quite literally, and the text does not need to be bent out of shape to come to such a conclusion.
Kol, “voice” is a singular noun. The pronominal suffix for “us” is plural. Two people, one voice.

But no two people on this earth are able to speak with exactly the same voice. Thus, the rabbis agree: The likelihood that any rebellious son will ever be stoned is nil.

Just to drive home the point, the rabbis bring up the matter of the idolatrous city. Such cities, according to Deuteronomy 13:13-17, should be destroyed. But where can you find a city without a Jewish family somewhere in it? And where can you find a Jewish home without a mezuzah?

You may not destroy the name of God, after all, which is part of the
Shema which is written on the parchment which is contained in the mezuzah which is hung on the doorway of a Jewish home. No city, however idolatrous, may be destroyed because every city, somewhere, will contain the name of God.

You get the idea, I am sure. Read an ancient text that is beloved and precious, understanding that there must be a way to interpret it in a way that offers the best possible conclusion for the human beings who claim it as theirs.

Let’s face it: There are verses in Torah that would be heartless and incomprehensible and impossible to accept otherwise; we cannot, and will not conceive of putting to death a misbehaving child, and for all we know, those who wrote such verses found themselves subject to immediate reinterpretation in their very own time. After all, is there any evidence that a rebellious son was actually stoned to death for dishonoring his parents anywhere in Tanakh?

Halakha is a source of ongoing revelation. It has the power to define and redefine Jewish thinking, Jewish practice, Jewish purpose. Because we know that halakha itself invites change for the better, we have, in recent decades, invited women, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Jews to the bimah. We were able to reconsider what was presented to us as the law and to reread the texts in a way that offered new pathways, new halakha.

Halakha is, literally, the path that one walks. It turns and bends and rises and falls. It takes us to new country, offers new vistas.

Walk this way…


5 Replies to “Walk This Way”

  1. Barbara,
    I especially love the ending to your piece. Jewish law producing new pathways to understanding. What a wonderful thing to contemplate. I was also amused at your thought that gentiles seem to view Jewish law as picky and legalistic . . . you mean of course in contrast to Christian Taliban laws of course . . .
    Thanks for this added insight. I always enjoy your thinking and your writings.

  2. It is always enlightening for me to read your blogs and come to a new understanding of religious interpretation. This particular look at how a different path may be taken to reach in interpretation of something in the Bible always is so refreshing as opposed to the never changing religious rules set down by many Christian groups today. Thank you for a very thoughtful one today.


    1. Sometimes I think Judaism should pitch its normative approaches more. We’ve let extremists in our own camp claim to be the protectors of tradition long enough. This is an especially odd fact, given that Jewish tradition is to reassess and reevaluate rather than set stuff in stone and protect it against all newfangled challenges!

  3. I too especially love your ending, and your essential description of what Halakha actually means. It is so Zen-like.
    But as I read your note, I kept thinking of myself and my brother. I wonder what has been said of sons who should, but fail to rebel against a father, a father who refuses to fulfill his fatherly duties to his wife and to his children. Should sons, like my brother and I, even when young, not rebel in an attempt to put the wayward father on a righteous path??? And is there something decreed for sons who do not rebel, when perhaps they should?? I wonder.

    1. There are lots of things in Tanakh about when you are required to speak; I imagine these passages applied to the sons who need to correct their fathers.


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