This week’s portion, Ki Teitze, is a succinct list of basic ethical laws all seemingly focused on “rooting the evil out from Israel.” Much of the legislation found here is actually quite progressive for the time and place of its composition, but as always, we’ve got a few laws laid out that would be quite problematic for us today. In fact, they were even problematic for the rabbis who composed the Mishna.
One law states that a son who is rebellious, drunken, and gluttonous should be taken out of the city gates and stoned to death by the whole community. The rabbis of the Talmud interpret this very plainly written text as being a mere warning, and state that no such rebellious son has ever existed, or ever will. Similarly, this chapter of Deuteronomy gives a very plain and flat limitation of 40 lashes as a maximum corporal punishment. The rabbis, though, legislate 39, and even less for those who show signs of not being able to handle the beating (BT Makkot 22a).
Even earlier than the rabbis we have an inherent contradiction of one of the laws here. A very clear stricture against Moabites joining the people of Israel is laid out in Deut 23:4. With a little bit of close reading of our Jewish sources, we can see that the eponymous heroine of the book of Ruth is a Moabite who becomes an Israelite, and then goes on to be an ancestor of King David!
What we see here in the development of the Jewish tradition is a progressive humanization of relatively harsh law. This is a great trend to investigate and take into account when interpreting similar passages today. If we look at Judaism and the study and interpretation of Torah as a living, breathing, and continually developing tradition we must see this humanizing impulse as important and central to our own understanding of the laws.
On the other hand, the psychology behind some of these laws would be considered overly ethical today. Although upon first glance the law focused on one’s responsibility to one’s brother’s livestock seems very obvious and straightforward, if one actually considers the implication of the law, individual moral responsibility is being legislated to a very high degree. It is a fairly common practice today to look at moral and ethical standards, acknowledge that they exist in theory, and then continue acting as though they didn’t actually apply to real life. The lesson behind these very specific cases cited in Deuteronomy that often make people assume that they are either prehistoric nonsense or are not applicable due to their specificity, is that moral and communal ideals underly the cases, and were expected to be practiced by everyone.
In the case of the livestock a very high level moral principle is displayed. Not only are neighbors not allowed to merely ignore a lost, wandering animal, they are also required to safely secure it in their own home until that neighbor can come and get it. In this day and age of people at the highest level of society being unwilling to take responsibility for their own actions, this responsibility for a neighbor’s belonging could be considered almost revolutionary. How often do each and every one of us simply pretend not to see something happening with our neighbors? How often do we take the steps towards both acknowledging something happening and then doing something about it? As the rabbis of the Talmud did with the harsher laws of this passage, we should now do with the kindest.
The principle of communal responsibility for each other needs to gain new roots in this age of cultural atomization. If the writers of the book of Ruth could forgive the Moabites, can’t we hold ourselves to the ethical standards of communal living? If the rabbis living in Babylonia could find it in their hearts to withhold traditional forms of punishment, should we not find it in our hearts to practice traditional forms of community and personal responsibility?