In a profile published before Michael Brown’s funeral, the New York Times referred to the unarmed 18 year old killed by a Ferguson, MO police officer as “no angel.” The response was fierce and the Times’ Public Editor called the choice of phrasing “a regrettable mistake.” But Michael Brown was in fact “no angel”; he better fits the Torah’s description of the Wayward and Rebellious Son (ben sorer umoreh). But in the Rabbinic view, that makes his death more wrong rather than less.
Deuteronomy (21:18-21) describes a son who refuses to listen to his parents, despite their repeated warnings. They take him to the court and throw up their hands, accusing the son of being “a glutton and drunkard.” Astonishingly, for those seemingly insignificant crimes of vice, the son is then put to death by the court.
To understand the surprising harshness of the punishment, the rabbis of the Talmud add context. In their view, the rule of the Wayward and Rebellious Son is the logical culmination of the two sections of laws that precede it. The first describes the Beautiful Gentile Woman (yifat to’ar) who is taken at war and brought into the household of her captor as a wife. The second describes the laws of inheritance in a polygamous household; the father’s first-born is entitled to a double portion of the estate, even when he is the child of a wife the father dislikes.
Putting these three paragraphs together, the rabbis reconstruct an unfortunate series of events. A married man goes to war and is overcome by his passions, which lead him to abduct a woman and take her home. This naturally creates domestic strife, leading to a situation where one wife is “the loved one” and the other is the “hated one.” It is not hard to forecast that a child born into such a home would grow up to be a criminal. As the rabbis put it, “One sin leads to another (aveirah goreret aveirah),” almost inevitably.
In a separate bit of exposition, the rabbis explain that the sins of drunkenness and gluttony reveal deeply-rooted character flaws that need to be dealt with harshly before they cause real damage. He is judged not for what he actually did, but for what he is likely to do (nidon al shem sofo). After all, a child with such appetites and raised in a home with such little regard for societal norms will eventually come to steal and even kill in order to continue to overindulge.
These two lines of interpretations intersect. Petty juvenile crimes can be trivialities, or they can be harbingers of the much worse things we know are to come. It depends on the background and circumstances of the person committing the crimes. But what if we get it wrong, or worse, what if our projection is self-fulfilling? The Wayward and Rebellious Son is punished more for who he is than for what he did.
For a young man trying to overcome difficult circumstances, it might be frustrating to know that a night on the town may be treated as a serious, even capital crime. It means that to succeed in the face of this particular set of challenges, he needs to meet a much higher standard than anyone else – and might even then fail. That might be reason enough to rebel angrily against a world so stacked against him.
Perhaps this is why the rabbis insist, in a near-consensus, that the law of the Wayward and Rebellious Son was never actually implemented in practice – and they added enough technicalities, exemptions, and loopholes to ensure that would forever be the case.
One Talmudic sage, though, claims to have seen the actual grave of a Wayward and Rebellious son. We, less fortunate, have seen several in recent weeks. Their names include Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Kejeme Powell, and John Crawford. They represent a segment of our society that is chronically over-policed and criminalized, whose young men are automatically suspected of being dangerous and threatening, born into a context of struggle against law enforcement instead of a community protected by it.
Still in the Book and on the books, the law of the Rebellious and Wayward Son challenges us to see how unfair prejudice can develop against society’s most vulnerable, how we can end up collectively condemning those who most desperately need our support and encouragement. The need for us to be concerned about this tendency taking hold is reaffirmed with every press conference discussing surveillance videos of petty theft, every circulated cellphone picture depicting a possible “gang sign,” or every over-analyzed rap lyric.
Perhaps there were some in the days of the Talmudic rabbis who argued for a strong “law and order” policy. They might have claimed that failure to strictly enforce the law of the Rebellious and Wayward Son only encouraged similar behavior, ignored crime where it was most common, and would ultimately leave everyone less safe. They may even have called on the fellow’s family to change their “culture.” The Rabbis, though, were wise enough to legislate these laws out of practice. By doing so, they validated the humanity of someone born into difficult circumstances by giving him the chance to work his way through the challenges he faced, not by punishing him for them. We would be wise to follow their model.