Judaism Today is Not Torah Judaism


The following are some examples where the rabbis changed biblical commands. This is from my book “Unusual Bible Interpretations: Five Books of Moses,” which will be published in Israel in about a month.


The stubborn and rebellious son

Deuteronomy 21:18–21 has the baffling law of the stubborn and rebellious son “that will not listen to the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and though they chasten him, will not obey them.” His parents must take him to the elders and tell them that “he does not obey us; he is a glutton and a drunkard.” The boy is then stoned. “So shall you put away evil from your midst, and all Israel will hear and fear.”


The law may seem to have a rational basis. It protects the integrity of the family, which is the basis for society. It restricts parental power, for the parents must bring their case to the elders who adjudicate it. It minimizes the power of the father, for both parents must agree about the son’s behavior. It mentions “elders of his city,” the son’s city, suggesting that they will look after his interest. The wrongs of overeating and overindulgence in drinking may suggest pagan worship where ecstatic overindulgence was practiced and suggest that the son abandoned Israelite worship. Yet, this is a harsh law. Why should a child be killed for not obeying his parents and for overeating and drinking? The Code of Hammurabi of about 1775 BCE that preceded the Torah was more lenient. It allowed parents only to disinherit such a son, but not kill him.


Maimonides tried to justify the death penalty.71 He states that three crimes are punishable by death because it is certain that their act will lead to murder: the rebellious son, a robber who sneaks into a house at night,72 and a kidnapper.73 Abraham ibn Ezra74 suggests that the rebellious son’s improper behavior was that he demonstrated the sensual habits of the pagan philosopher Epicurus. Are these attempts to explain the biblical rule just, logical, and moral? Current American law does not have the death penalty for these crimes.75


Yeshayahu Leibowitz reflects on these questions in his ironically titled commentary on the weekly Torah portions, Accepting the Yoke of Heaven. The title is ironic because Leibowitz states that Judaism today is not Torah Judaism but Rabbinic Judaism because the rabbis changed virtually everything mandated in the Torah.


Leibowitz recognizes, like Maimonides, that the sages say that the boy is “sentenced because of his future,” that “in the future, he will be an armed robber.” But he writes, “This is illogical and is in total contradiction to the conception of punishment . . . a person is never punished for what he is liable to do in the future, as long as he has not done anything yet.” He notes that the Talmud76 concludes: “There never has been a stubborn and rebellious son [who was punished as the Bible requires], and never will be. Why then was the law written? The Talmud states: “That you may study it and receive reward.”77


This Talmudic statement is also applied to the law in Leviticus 14 of “the leprous house,” and in Deuteronomy 13 to the law of “the condemned city.” As with the rebellious son, the punishments in these two instances are also unreasonable, and these situations also never happened and never will be and were only mentioned in the Torah “That you may study it and receive reward.”


Leibowitz notes that rabbinical halakhah “adds so many restrictions [to the biblical law] as to make the implementation of the law an impossibility.” He points out “that the written Torah contains 36 crimes for the violation of which the penalty is death, whereas in the oral Torah [developed by rabbis] all of this is in practice annulled.” It is the same, he continues when the “Torah states ‘as he has done, so will it be done to him . . . eye for eye, tooth for tooth’78 yet the halakhah rules that the compensation is monetary . . . In terms of divine justice,” he continues, “the people deserved to have done to them what they had done to their fellows. But we are not permitted to act in accordance with divine justice.”


Torah Judaism, therefore, tells us what ought or deserves to be, but Rabbinic Judaism, which radically modified the biblical rule, tells us how we should act.


71. Guide of the Perplexed 3:41.

72. Exodus 21:1.

73. Exodus 21:16. See also Midrash Sifrei and Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 71a.

74. In his commentary in this chapter.

75. Although there are states that have the death penalty for kidnapping, the last person killed for kidnapping where there was no murder was in 1960 in California.

76. Sanhedrin 71a.

77. This may mean that people should study and understand how severe such behavior is and develop habits that are proper, and as a result they will live a better life.

78. Leviticus 24:19–20.