Are you a consistent person? As a whole, our society prizes consistency and considers it to be an attribute allied with maturity, reliability, and rationality. Before you laud yourself for never veering from stated principles and positions, or flay yourself for being changeable, consider what Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote:
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — 'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.
Emerson was on to something. We speak from present knowledge—what we know today. When tomorrow arrives and we learn more and think further, if our minds and hearts are open, we view yesterday’s certainty from a new perspective and less assurance. Put another way, in the words of art historian Bernard Berenson, “Consistency requires you to be as ignorant today as you were a year ago.” This naturally makes people who contend that Torah is completely consistent because it is entirely “the word of God” uneasy.
How could God be inconsistent? How, indeed? Here’s how: Parshat Ki Teitzei provides two stunning instances of Torah’s inconsistency: First, we are told (Deuteronomy 23:4) that Ammonites and Moabites may never, “even in the tenth generation,” be admitted to the k’hal Adonai (Assembly of Israel), which is to say, the Jewish people. Yet Moses’ wife, Tzipporah, is the daughter of the priest of Moab, Jethro (Exodus 2:16; 3:1). Second the parashah closes with an admonition to, blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven, and without missing a beat, in the very next breath, Do not forget! (Deuteronomy 25:19). Put another way: Remember to forget Amalek! The mind spins.
A friend recently told me that Rabbi BenZion Gold (he was for many years the director of Hillel at Harvard University) would say, “Consistency is not the first mitzvah in the Torah.”
The Rabbis carried on the long, proud chain of inconsistency, understanding that, as Oscar Wilde expressed it, “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” The Rabbis were very imaginative. Among their brilliant solutions to deeply troubling problems is their halakhic conversation about the Ben Sorer u’Moreh (“The Rebellious Son”), found in this week’s parashah, Ki Teitzei:
כִּי-יִהְיֶה לְאִישׁ, בֵּן סוֹרֵר וּמוֹרֶה--אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ, בְּקוֹל אָבִיו וּבְקוֹל אִמּוֹ; וְיִסְּרוּ אֹתוֹ, וְלֹא יִשְׁמַע אֲלֵיהֶם. וְתָפְשׂוּ בוֹ, אָבִיו וְאִמּוֹ; וְהוֹצִיאוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל-זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ, וְאֶל-שַׁעַר מְקֹמוֹ. וְאָמְרוּ אֶל-זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ, בְּנֵנוּ זֶה סוֹרֵר וּמֹרֶה--אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ, בְּקֹלֵנוּ; זוֹלֵל, וְסֹבֵא. וּרְגָמֻהוּ כָּל-אַנְשֵׁי עִירוֹ בָאֲבָנִים, וָמֵת, וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע, מִקִּרְבֶּךָ; וְכָל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, יִשְׁמְעוּ וְיִרָאוּ.
"If a man has a wayward son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town: “This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Thereupon the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus shall you sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid. (Deuteronomy 21:18–21)
The Rabbis, in discussing the Rebellious Son in tractate Sanhedrin of the Talmud, notice that the “son” must be a child in his parents’ care. Who executes a child? What is more, his crimes—defiant behavior, excessive eating and drinking—hardly seem commensurate with the punishment of stoning. At the same time, the Rabbis conclude that something far more nefarious must be going on here to explain Torah’s harsh judgment about the Rebellious Son, and also render the punishment inapplicable. They tell us:
תניא רבי יוסי הגלילי אומר וכי מפני שאכל זה תרטימר בשר ושתה חצי לוג יין האיטלקי אמרה תורה יצא לבית דין ליסקל אלא הגיעה תורה לסוף דעתו של בן סורר ומורה שסוף מגמר נכסי אביו ומבקש למודו ואינו מוצא ויוצא לפרשת דרכים ומלסטם את הבריות אמרה תורה ימות זכאי ואל ימות חייב שמיתתן של רשעים.
It has been taught: R. Jose the Galilean said: Did the Torah decree that the rebellious son shall be brought before bet din and stoned merely because he ate a tartemar of meat and drank a log of Italian wine? Rather, the Torah foresaw his ultimate destiny. For at the end, after dissipating his father's wealth, he would [still] seek to satisfy his accustomed [gluttonous] desires but being unable to do so, he would go out to the crossroads and rob. Therefore the Torah said: Let him die while yet innocent, and let him not die guilty. (Sanhedrin 72a)
This suggests that the boy was stoned not because of what he had already done, but to prevent him from committing a more egregious violation—theft—which is also not punishable by execution. Is this consistent with Torah’s notion of justice? Hardly.
Yet this justification comes after the Rabbis have devoted no fewer than six full dapim (68b through 71b) to successfully dismantling the law of the Rebellious Son by placing so many strictures and limitations on it that it is impossible to carry out. Thus the Rabbis simultaneously justify and promote the law of the Rebellious Son, on the one hand, and effectively demolish it on the other hand. Are the Sages consistent?
Certainly, consistency has much to commend it, but it was consistency that Emerson criticized, but rather “foolish consistence”—doing things the same way without regard to consequences, new knowledge, or consideration of deeper values and concerns.
From a certain perspective, the Rabbis are meticulously consistent. The underlying values—a premium on family and respect for parents, concern for the welfare of society, respect for the dignity of every human being—are consistent and admirable. The way to best live and promote those values in law and life changes with time. But even our values change with time, as we acquire more knowledge and wisdom. To say that nothing changes is to deny the magnificence manner in which halakhah—a system and tool chest for responding to questions of morality and practice, not merely a set of rigid laws—responds to our ever-changing, dynamic reality. To reduce halakhah to a strict set of immutable laws is to render it “a foolish consistency” that is, indeed “the hobgoblin of little minds.”
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman
This Torah commentary is posted at: , where you can find commentaries for all the weekly Torah portions.
The Rabbis famously considered, but rejected, the idea of killing Bar Kamtza, although they knew that he intended to bring false evidence to the Roman government that the Jews were rebelling, a lie that would likely lead to war and the deaths of thousands. Gittin 56a reports that confronted with a preponderance of evidence concerning Bar Kamtza’s intensions, R. Zechariah ben Abkulas said to his colleagues: "Is one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals to be put to death?”