Maimonides counts 72 laws in this parshah, for it reads as a law code without narrative elements. Instruction after instruction is given, but embedded in each rule/law can we find cultural values. The first is that the “rebellious son” should be stoned to death. This is a textual moment that betrays absolute intolerance to difference within the community. If one’s son worships another God, he is to be stoned. The Talmud takes this passage and nullifies it, explaining that there are so many specifications necessary for the son to be deemed “rebellious,” that such a stoning would be impossible. The Jewish intellectual tradition had to always attempt to hold in balance the idea of divine writing of the Torah (thus nothing therein can be wrong) and the human values that sometimes conflict with it.
It seems unthinkable that someone would watch their own child die for any act of rebelliousness, yet this passage reminds me of those who sit shiva for their own children who intermarry. Like the prohibition against “idolatry” (worshipping Gods other than Yahweh), banning intermarriage is about keeping Judaism a closed and fixed group. It is a step up that contemporary Jews only imagine their children are dead (in sitting shiva), as opposed to actually killing them, but there is a long way to go in terms of how we find real humanity in Judaism. We, like the early rabbis dealing with this passage, must reconcile how we find meaning in the text, but also (and more importantly), how we find values that are extant to the text but more meaningful for our lives.
One of the other rules given in the passage prohibits cross-dressing. There is no textual explanation for why cross-dressing should be banned; Rashi’s theory is that for women the only reason one would cross-dress is to commit adultery (disguising oneself to be able to have the freedom to be alone with a man), and the only reason a man would cross-dress is if he were homosexual. As both adultery and homosexuality are banned, Rashi reasons, cross-dressing should be banned as means to these things. Of course, there can be many reasons why people cross-dress (in fact, there is strong evidence that most cross-dressers are not gay. Presumably, there is no causal link between cross-dressing and adultery either). What is fascinating is that the biblical prohibition of cross-dressing shows that some people were doing it. In recent decades, queer rights movements have made it much safer for Jews to be “out” in many communities. There is much more work to be done in terms of equal recognition of marriage across the movements, the place for transgendered Jews in segregated seating, etc. But both of these (marriage and mechitza) in orthodox communities are inextricable with patriarchal Judaism – something that has never been friendly to sexual diversity. As Humanistic Jews, it is interesting that our biblical roots encode the fact that such diversity has been germane to Jewish culture. Jewish communities are and should always be at the forefront of the struggle for rights for queer and trans people, and should especially be welcoming of these and all people in our spaces.
There are some astonishing laws given pertaining to women. A woman's parents must prove she was a virgin by holding up a bloody sheet after consummation, if a question arises. There are shocking rules about rape and how it may be proven. Women are, in general, seen as property and have few rights, as is made clear in the rules detailed for Levirate marriage (a man must marry his brother's widow).
So far we have seen many laws and rules in the parshah that are distasteful for Humanistic Jews (and humanistic individuals in general). But there are also laws which show a real consideration of how to live fairly. The parshah says that slaves should be protected from harm (we are, of course, opposed to having slaves, but in favour of the idea that the weak/powerless should be protected). The parshah also says that one can eat from a neighbour’s vineyard or field as one passes, but one should not take anything away. Here we see an interesting approach to the balance between feeding the hungry and discouraging theft. Similarly, there is a prohibition against gleaning (the JPS text says “do not pick over”) the vines of fields after harvesting. Leave the leftovers for the “stranger, the fatherless, and the widow” (24.20-21). Thus the non-Jew, the orphan, the widow – all of those without a structure of familial and community support, should be provided for. There is an emphasis on hospitality and care-taking here that is laudable. There are, indeed, many rules relating to avoiding economic exploitation of others. It is clear that the text is very concerned with avoiding a cycle of poverty being passed down through generations, and very concerned with providing for the basic needs of all. This is something to celebrate.
We have another rule which is special because it becomes important for a particular set of midrashim relating to Elisha ben Avuyah. The rule is that if one takes eggs from a nest, one should shoo away the mother (so that, presumably, she can lay eggs again and there is no permanent cost/damage). There is a midrash of a boy whose father tells him to take eggs from a nest. He obliges, climbs a tree where the nest is, and, remembering the rule, shoos away the mother. Elisha ben Avuyah sees the boy and thinks that he is fulfilling not one but two commandments: to honour one’s parents and to protect the mother bird. Elisha ben Avuyah knows that those who follow commandments are promised a long life. He thinks that the boy, in fulfilling two commandments, will be given a long life and – at just that moment – the boy falls from the tree and dies.
After this, Elisha ben Avuyah can no longer believe in the truth of what he has been taught; he questions the link between Torah and justice, and he essentially renounces his faith. Rabbinic texts refer to Elisha ben Avuyah as “Acher” (other), for his status as an apostate separates him from his community. Many of us who find Humanistic Judaism have had the experience of feeling “other” in our families, synagogues, and Jewish communities because we too reject the idea of a good and moral God who, despite being all powerful, creates suffering. Whether through the horrific experience of the Holocaust, or the more quotidian yet still highly painful witnessing of poverty, oppression, and injustice in our world, we cannot accept that our world is the result of an omniscient, omnipotent, God. While we all struggle to find the line between our truth and our place in our family and community (we do not have to have the “existence of God” argument at every Shabbat dinner), we are delighted that, unlike Elisha ben Avuyah, we have access to communities that are welcoming of our views. We need not remain “Acher,” and our questioning attitudes can be the basis for strong intellectual and emotional ties in community.