August 26th, 2020

One of the strangest mitzvot in the Torah is the commandment to execute a “wayward son”. Found at the beginning of Parshat Ki Teitzei (Deut. 21), this mitzva instructs that if someone’s son is a glutton and a drunkard, he must be reported to the authorities, and after a public trial, the authorities will take care of the problem by sentencing the young lad to death by stoning.

It all seems quite out of proportion and out of tune with everything we know about justice in Judaism. The Talmudic sages suggest that this draconian law was established on the basis of preventing such a child developing from a delinquent into a hardened criminal.

But this is also troubling — surely the Torah believes in free-will and the opportunity for a person, even a Ben Sorer Umoreh, to do teshuva? As if this is not confounding enough, the Talmud asserts that no case of Ben Sorer Umoreh ever happened, nor will it ever happen. In which case, why does the Torah bother mentioning it at all?

Using classical commentaries and modern interpretations, Rabbi Dunner unravels this mystery and offers a broad understanding of what is surely the most mystifying mitzva in the whole Torah.


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