Wisdom of our traditions can apply to our lives everywhere

BY RABBI ARI VERNON

It takes no intelligence to say “no,” and it takes wisdom and courage to say “yes.” My teacher’s words echo in my ears when I think about any kind of Jewish law. The real challenge is in knowing when to say yes, and when to say no.

This week’s parasha, Ki Tetze, includes one of the most remarkable examples of this kind of rabbinic decision making. The paragraph known as ben sorer umoreh — the rebellious son — outlines the process through which a parent can bring their child before a town court and have the child put to death for rebelliousness (Deut. 21:18-21).

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Aside from the wonder that any parent would ever enact these three verses, the most remarkable feature of this law is its history. The Talmudic sages scrutinize every word of the paragraph and require them to be applied exactly for the process to be completed. They limit the application to only sons during a roughly two month window after the onset of puberty. They require both parents to be able to speak and hear clearly, and that among other things the child’s rebelliousness literally includes excessive drinking and gluttony. In essence, the sages made the law impossible to enact.

The courage of the sages is most striking. They saw a law in the Torah that went contrary to their sense of morality and made a clearly conscious effort to relegate it. What teenager isn’t rebellious? God forbid some parent should actually bring them up on these charges!

The sages’ approach reflects a legal disposition that is too often absent today. The purpose of our traditions and legal system is to bring structure to community, to enable people to live together, and to guide us in our relationships with each other and our God. Because the law has too often been used to erect immovable boundaries, to keep out undesirables, and to “protect” the community from outside influences and perceived threats, a large portion of our community has abandoned our laws and traditions as antiquated and irrelevant.

The truth is that our Jewish legal tradition is as relevant today as it ever was. We look for guidance on how to observe our rituals, for definition of what it means to be a Jew, a woman, or a man. Because of the way religion is practiced in our country, it is each individual’s responsibility to make meaning of our tradition, to reconstruct the framework of Jewishness in our lives. With a little learning and some creative thinking, our tradition’s richness can be applied to every situation we encounter in life — if only we have the courage to do it.

Ari Vernon is the rabbi of Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community.