Crime and Punishment

June 24, 2009

4 min read


Ki Tetzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19 )

Rabbi Paul Seiger, former chaplain at a Missouri prison,
tells the tragic but true story of a homicide that might have been prevented.
It seems the victim had received a phone call from a tormentor who said that a "contract had been put out on his life." Having no doubt about the seriousness of the threat, the man went to the police. They said they were unable to offer him protection. Exactly one week later he was murdered.

Up until the recent passage of laws against "stalking," there was relatively little a person could do to protect himself against such threats. Even today, there are still great limitations to the law. Civil law does not allow for "pre-emptive punishments." In fact, in making stalking a crime, legislators upheld the principle that you cannot punish someone before he has committed a crime; they simply defined stalking as a "crime."

But let's imagine that it were possible to know in advance that someone was going to commit a crime. Would it be right to lock such a person up?

This question stands at the heart of the "rebellious son," a topic featured prominently in this week's Torah portion. The rebellious son is a child who - despite discipline from his parents - chooses to follow an evil path. He abandons all semblance of moral rectitude and even steals money from his parents to spend on gluttonous behavior. Past actions have brought him to punishment by the court ... yet he refuses to change his ways.

Despairing of all hope of rehabilitation, the parents come
before the court to declare their child to be a "ben sorrer u'morre" - a
rebellious son. If, after investigation, the court finds that he is indeed a rebellious son, the child is put to death.

The seemingly incredible harshness of this punishment is discussed by the Torah commentaries. To begin with, it should be made clear that the entire issue of the rebellious son is a theoretical one. The Talmud makes this point by saying that "there never was nor will there ever be" a child put to death based on this law. There are, in fact, such detailed specifications for implementing this law that it is virtually impossible for there to ever
be a rebellious son.

If so, why does the Torah dedicate an entire section to
this topic? The commentaries explain it is to teach us a number of important lessons.

On a basic level, the Torah is emphasizing the deep
responsibility parents have in raising their children. The Torah is warning
that if a child is not disciplined properly, he can eventually fall into criminal activities. Though there are obviously a multitude of factors, the
truth is that a child who goes astray was most probably lacking some key element in his early childhood education.

Rashi, quoting the Talmud, explains this topic in a deeper way: The harsh punishment is not for crimes already committed - but to prevent future more serious criminal acts. Continuing in his evil ways, the rebellious son will eventually become a highwayman, stealing and assaulting people. Rather than allowing him to die as an older man with the blood of his victims on his hands, the Torah says that he should die now before he victimizes others and casts terrible evil on his own soul.

On a practical level, human beings do not have the
foreordained knowledge to know with certainty that a person is going to commit
a crime. Thus for us, preemptory punishments are inappropriate. But, the Zohar says, it is different with God Who has ultimate knowledge. Oftentimes God
brings hardships upon a person, not as punishment for a past crime, but as a preventive measure against future wrongdoing. Both our past and potential future is revealed before God.

As the High Holidays approach, this is an important lesson to keep in mind.

Next Steps