In Deuteronomy chapter 21, verses 18-21 we read:
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 and at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Thereupon 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.
Rabbi Kamins did have a point. What's so funny about that passage? We're laughing when we should be utterly horrified. My children are not yet teenagers, and no offense to teenagers intended, but teenagers can become surly and obnoxious from time to time. But suggesting that a child of any age, or a person, whose life is supposed to be sacred, should be brought out into the town square and stoned to death for disobedience is nothing short of an abomination, and certainly nothing for us to laugh at. And the fact that these words are right here in our Torah portion, our people's most sacred text, should raise some eyebrows.
Can you imagine? Someone of another faith attends a Bar Mitzvah, or a Jew is visiting a new congregation for the first time, and after the service, their friends ask them, "How was the service? What did the rabbi talk about?"
"Oh, um, I think it had something to do with stoning disobedient children."
"Stoning disobedient children? What kind of religious community would do such a thing?" the friend wonders.
"That's why I don't believe in organized religion," says another friend. "I can't believe the kind of stuff those 'religious leaders' pour down people's throats!"
But yes, there it is, just a few verses into this week's Torah portion, Ki Teitzei. So the question remains. It is in the Torah, it is a part of our people's tradition, so what do we do with it? How do we wrestle with it, if at all? Where do we draw the fine line between the religion that we practice and profess, and the religion that we cast aside?
A number of ancient rabbis asked these very questions long ago in the laws of the 3rd century Mishnah, and expanded the discussion with further commentary in the Talmud, between the 5th and 6th century. With interpretive acrobatics, the rabbis succeed in writing our passage out of Jewish tradition. "Glutton and drunkard," the text says? Then the child in question had to have eaten a certain amount of meat and a certain amount of wine. Only meat but not wine, only wine but not meat, sorry, doesn't fit the criteria for stoning. The father and the mother have to come forward to acknowledge that they want this punishment carried out, the father and the mother have to have raised their child with exactly the same set of values, and the father and the mother have to speak in the same voice, with the same pitch and the same intonation, to demonstrate that they are completely unified in pursuing this form of discipline. Rabbi Danny Rich, Chief Executive of Liberal Judaism in the United Kingdom has written:
Can you imagine a father saying, “We must take our child for judgment before the residents,” and the mother not responding, “You’re a little harsh with him. He’ll grow out of it?” Or if a mother were to say, “Enough is enough! It is time our child was punished by stoning” would not the father reply, “You’re overreacting. It is youthful boisterousness?” Indeed some teenagers predicate much of their lives on the fact that a mother and a father rarely agree how to deal with their children – there is always one good cop and one bad cop!
In other words, given the extended criteria, there is no chance that this punishment was ever carried out.
But what kind of culture creates a law like this one anyone? What does this law say about ancient Israelite culture in general? And why couldn't the rabbis just eliminate this law from the pages of Jewish tradition?
For the ancient rabbis, the text of Torah was sacred, as they believed that God had entrusted these texts in their care. While the modern mind reads a text like this and goes the other way, the ancient Jewish approach was to be critical, and to use a healthy amount of mental creativity, to preserve the ancient words, while yielding a clever interpretation that advanced a gentler, kinder, more thoughtful and compassionate cause within Jewish tradition.
In essence, we might say that the rabbis, through their processes, rewrote the text because they were as horrified as we are. Or, if one subscribes to an Orthodox perspective, one reads the Torah and one reads the rabbis to understand how Torah ought to be interpreted. No text stands on its own without commentary, criticism, or without inviting question and thought-provoking discussion. Last night, a congregant who needed to say Kaddish asked me to help him find a local minyan. We caught the end of a lesson on this week's parashah, where an Orthodox rabbi explained to a group of twenty people in attendance, "The rabbis knew that even though this text came from God, this passage could not be taken literally."
Very little discourse, very little opportunity for civil discussion, for interpretation seems to remain in our society. We are bombarded on the television, on the radio, on the Internet with loud and bombastic commentary, vicious and virulent debate, or by people who even refuse to debate and discuss, because they're right, and no other perspective matters. Our tradition is a pageantry of debate, discussion, argument, consideration, reconsideration, thoughtful analysis, interpretation, and most especially, of provocative questions. We Jews are at our best when we invite conversation about what our texts may have meant, and about what they may continue to mean. The challenge we derive from this week's parasha is an invitation to respond to the literalists in our midst. Rabbi Donniel Hartman has written:
The question that religiously committed people must face is which collection of verses to quote, emphasize, and weave into the tapestry of religion’s essence. Which narrative will ultimately prevail? Which passages will nurture and comprise the beating heart of faith, and which will be relegated to the ideological dumping ground of verses that, according to the Talmudic adage, “never were nor were ever meant to be implemented, but were written only as objects of theoretical study.”
God doesn't tell us to go and stone children to death. God presents us instead with the gift of interpretation, and the gift of critical thinking. God challenges us to use our minds and our hearts to figure out how to create a more just and more compassionate society, to figure out a better way forward for ourselves, and for others.
 Deuteronomy 21:18-21.
 Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin Chapter 8, Folio 71.
 Rabbi Danny Rich, in writing for Limmud.
 Rabbi Donniel Hartman, Putting God Second, p. 41.