Included among the multifarious laws in the last third of the Book of Deuteronomy (21:18) is the law of “ben sorer u-moreh,” what the Jewish Publication Society of America renders “the wayward and defiant son.” While Richard Elliot Friedman offers a somewhat different translation (“stubborn and rebellious son”) and others translate as “disobedient and rebellious son,” what all translation share in common is that they loyally follow the Hebrew that includes two descriptive expressions of the son’s misbehaviour.

 

This led Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno (1475-1550), one of the classical medieval commentators who lived in Italy, to ask: why does the Torah include two synonymous expressions? Whether “wayward and defiant” or “stubborn and rebellious” or “disobedient and rebellious” either one of the elements in the pairs of expressions would have been sufficient to condemn the son. A son who was rebellious or wayward or defiant would still be susceptible to punishment. His explanation bears notice.

 

Seforno understand the expression as “disobedient and rebellious.” Disobeying parents is a punishable offence. That lesson is derived from Exodus 20:12 and Leviticus 19:3, as the sages interpret the text. But disobedience can be rectified through repentance. A penitent is forgiven his misdeeds. So the second element in the expression elucidates the first. Since the son is “rebellious” he would refuse to repent. His rebelliousness “frustrates any hope of repentance.” Hence, his punishment is inevitable since he cannot change his ways.

 

Aside from illuminating the text, Seforno provides an insight into human psychology. Worse than perhaps any other personality flaw is the refusal to accept authority. Sometimes the refusal to accept authority is part of growing up. Aldous Huxley thought it charming that sons wish to be disillusioned by what charmed their fathers. But at some point it is necessary to yield to societal norms. When rebelliousness leads to antinomianism and anarchy, society suffers.