Blog Post

The Stubborn And Rebellious Son


Have you ever seen that bumper sticker?  “Insanity is hereditary.  You get it from your kids.”

I think a lot of parents of addicts would agree with that.

The funny thing is, I think the opposite is true.  I think – and this is just my take on things – that addiction is hereditary in the sense that a child who is an addict gets it from a parent who is a codependent. 

Please note that I’m using the term hereditary very loosely here.  I’m not trying to take stand on the nature vs. nurture / environment vs. genetics debate about what causes addiction.  I really have no idea which one it is.  It’s probably a combination of both.  What I am saying is that contrary to popular misconception, a parent doesn’t “suddenly” become a codependent because their kid grows up and becomes an addict.  It’s the other way around.  Parents who are codependents tend to raise addicts.  It shouldn’t be hard to understand.  We know that codependents tend to date and marry addicts.  So, it should make even more sense that codependents tend to raise addicts.  I mean, who do you have more influence on than your kids?

Yet, this is a very difficult point to get across.  It meets a lot of resistance, I think, because there is almost nobody who can elicit more pity and sympathy than the parent of an addict.  To the outside observer, the mother or father of an addict is an absolute picture of martyrdom, a hapless victim of rotten luck.

But I want to tell you what most “insiders” know.  For virtually every young addict who is on the road to self-destruction, there is a parent who actually put the kid on that path.

I know, it sounds crazy.  Maybe even mean.  But it’s true.  And like all truth, it can be found in the Torah if we look for it.  I believe that the Torah describes the dynamics of the codependent parent and that in so doing teaches us how to understand and – with G-d’s help – find ways to heal from this condition.


 A Biblical Case Study

            What follows is a literal translation of Deuteronomy, chapter 21, verses 18-21.


If a man will have a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother and though they chasten him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother will seize him and bring him out to the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; and they will say unto the elders of his city, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.”  Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death.  So shall you remove the evil from your midst and all Israel shall hear and fear.


            I know.  It’s not very politically correct.  It’s got stoning in it and everything.  But if we can withhold the kneejerk reactions to the perceived brutality of the story, there is much we can learn here.  First of all, it’s very interesting that the Sages say that this scenario is actually put forth as a purely hypothetical case.  According to one opinion, the Torah is not describing here something that would ever actually happen.  Rather, it is outlining a theoretical scenario for the purpose of presenting a didactic model.  As the Talmud says, the story is taught not for practical purposes but “so that we may study it and reap reward.”

In other words, the law calling for the execution of the stubborn and rebellious son was never intended to be carried out.  Indeed, the Talmud makes clear that the detailed legal parameters that determine who is or is not a stubborn and rebellious son are actually so complex that it would be, for all practical purposes, impossible for all of the necessary criteria to ever be met.  The story is meant to serve as an illustration of certain principles; an archetype where disastrous consequences are hypothetically played out to their terrible end so that future generations may gain insight and hopefully learn how to put a stop to such madness should it rear its head in their families.


 Whose Story?

Let’s take a closer look at the verses.

It may surprise you, but the story doesn’t begin with a stubborn and rebellious son.   It begins with a father – “If a man will have a stubborn and rebellious son….”

It’s an easy detail to miss, but it makes all the difference in the world.  The Torah tells us right away that the “problem child” is not really the main character in this drama.  The father is.  Sure, we all think of this as a story about a stubborn and rebellious son.  But it’s really the story of a father – a father who cannot deal with raising his own son.

Almost always, it will be some drama in the addict’s life that gets a family to admit that things are out of hand.  But once the family does find help, it is also almost instantly clear that the addict is not the only sick person or even the sickest person in the family. 

It makes sense that the Torah doesn’t really tell the story of a stubborn and rebellious son so much as the story of his parents.  In fact, the son actually does nothing in the whole story.  He says nothing and he takes no action.  The only thing the Torah actually tells us about him is that he doesn’t listen to his parents.  The rest of the details we only hear second-hand when his parents complain to the elders.

The parents, not the son, are the principle actors in this narrative.  It is they who enlist the aide of the elders; it is they who press the issue and bring the whole drama to its gruesome conclusion.

Let’s follow the story along verse by verse and see how that happens.


 Breakdown of the Codependent Marriage


The first verse in this narrative tells us that the stubborn and rebellious son “will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother.”

            The word for obey can actually be read as “listen” so that it says that the son literally “will not listen” to his parents.  But the same word could also be translated as “hear” as well, so that it says he does not “hear” his parents.  In other words, it is possible that this is a home where there is no real parental authority.  It is not that the child hears and then rejects his parents’ orders, it’s that there is no parental voice to be heard in the first place.

            Another extremely fascinating detail about this family is hinted to in the seemingly redundant wording “voice of his father” and “voice of his mother.”  Why not just say “his father and mother’s voice”?  Why?  Because the parents are not unified, hence there is no singular “father and mother’s voice.”  There is instead a “voice of his father” and a “voice of his mother.”

            It is extremely important to note that in this regard we see that the problems in the marriage faced by parents of an addict almost always predate the manifestation of the addicted child’s problem.  The parents weren’t on the same page long before the kid ever came along.  Now that they are trying to co-parent together and failing, it becomes more evident that there is discord in their relationship, but the child didn’t cause the break down in the marriage.  To the contrary, raising a child who is an addict is the result of their lack of emotional support for one another as husband and wife.

            Of course, later, when the parents take their son to the elders, the story they tell is quite different – “He will not obey our voice.”  They are either lying or in denial – or a little bit of both – about what their home is really like.  There is a little tinge of victim-hood there, too.  “We’re good parents, but he won’t listen!”  But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. 


 Ineffective Discipline

            The second thing the Torah tells us about the parents’ relationship with their son is that “though they chasten him, [he] will not listen to them.”  There is a saying of the Sages, “Words from the heart enter the heart.”  It is for that reason that the Chassidic masters say that if one rebukes another and the rebuke is rejected, it is the fault of the rebuker.  If one would only rebuke sincerely, then his or her words would be accepted.

            In other words, the fact that the way they “chasten” their son has proven to be ineffective tells us a lot more about their style of discipline than it does about the son’s behavior.  The parents need to learn how to discipline their child.

            This in itself would not be such a great problem – I mean, it could be dealt with – if the parents would just learn how to set and enforce limits for their child.  But that’s not what happens.  What do the parents do?  They “seize” their child and “bring him out to the elders.”  Now the drama is starting to build.  The parents now have other people involved.  They’ve brought in experts.  It’s becoming a community uproar.



            Before we go on and talk about what the parents tell the elders, I want to go back to that word “seize” again.  Talk about a classic inability to let go.  The parents literally “seize” their child.  They aren’t interested in parenting.  They want control.

            What makes this all the more absurd and more obviously dysfunctional is that one of the many conditions of actually being tried as a stubborn and rebellious son is that the “child” isn’t really a child at all. 

In Jewish law, there is no criminal action that can be taken against a minor.  Torah determines that a boy becomes a “moral adult” – ie: has the intellectual capacity to know between right and wrong – at thirteen.  This is the status known as bar mitzvah, which literally means one who is obligated in the commandments.  In our society we may scoff at the idea of a thirteen year old being considered an adult, but I think that is because in our very materialistic society, we think of adulthood as being synonymous with being able to be financially independent.  Judaism, which sees adulthood as a moral issue, designates it as the point at which you are held responsible for your own actions.  But I digress.  The stubborn and rebellious son is an adult.  Why are his parents taking him to the elders?  If the parents really don’t know what to do with him, let them kick him out of the house.  Does that sound harsh?  It’s a lot less harsh than what is going to happen after they get their son sentenced and executed based on their testimony.  It is the parents who are seizing their child and refusing to let go.  They are the ones who turn this whole situation literally into a capital case.

The Talmud explains that what is meant by the parents’ charge that their son is “a drunkard and a glutton” is that he steals money from then in order to buy food and wine which he then consumes in bad company.  These are not capital crimes.  If the parents really want to take legal action against their son, let them turn their son in as a thief so that he may be punished accordingly.  The rabbis could even force him to pay back the money.  But the parents don’t go to the authorities to turn in a thief who happens to be their son.  They go to the elders and say, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious and will not obey our voice.”  Instead of making a legal claim, they start complaining about their family problems. “This son of ours….”

Moreover, rather than just describing the behavior, they assail their sons character.  They label and blame.  “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious…  He is a glutton and a drunkard.”

It should be noted that the court will not execute the son the first time his parents bring him in.  The law is that they must bring him to the elders three times.  Each time, they return home with their son.  Each time they bring him back to the elders to complain some more.  You would think that after the first couple of times, the parents would get the picture.  The truth is, if they were being rational then they would.  Normal, healthy parents would not have their son executed for being stubborn and rebellious.  But these parents can’t stop.  Their involvement is compulsive.  They are enmeshed in the drama.

You know another thing?  The law stipulates that the food and wine the son consumes must be bought with money stolen from his parents and consumed while standing on their property.  Why is he still living in the house?  If the parents can’t handle him, they should have him leave.  But this is classic enabling.  Denial and enabling.  Because the enablers will say, “We are being tough.  We keep grabbing him and bringing him to the elders!”  Not only can’t they divest, they are the ones pushing the situation to its dramatic conclusion. 



Description (Deut. 21:18-21) Interpretation
If a man will have a stubborn and rebellious son Parent plays the main role in the drama
who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother Discord in the marriage predates problems with the child
and though they chasten him, will not listen to them Ineffective disciplining
then his father and his mother will seize him Enmeshment
and bring him out to the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place Building drama
and they will say unto the elders of his city Laying blame
“This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious Labeling
he will not obey our voice Denial about what goes on in the home
he is a glutton and a drunkard.”   Labeling
Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death. Illustration of ultimate fate if parents continue this way
So shall you remove the evil from your midst and all Israel shall hear and fear. The lesson to us


 The Predictable Outcome

            The classic question that is asked about the stubborn and rebellious son is why he has to be killed.  It does seem like an excessive reaction to his rather petty transgressions.  The easy answer – a false answer – is that it’s just a hypothetical case.  But that doesn’t really answer the question.  The fact that it’s theoretical doesn’t make it any less extreme.

            The classic answer is thus that the stubborn and rebellious son is not executed because of his present but because of his inevitable future.  Eventually, he will not be able to steal enough money from his parents to support his growing habit and will resort to a life of crime wherein he will inevitably kill somebody.  It is deemed better that he die now while still innocent than later when he is guilty.

            I want to offer my own interpretation of this explanation.  Most people seem to understand that the stubborn and rebellious son is put to death as a preventative measure.  But, like we said, the story is purely illustrative.  What would it be preventing? 

The story of the stubborn and rebellious son comes to make a point.  What is that point?  And to whom is it being made?

            In so many words – “Parents, you are killing your child.” 

            I don’t take those words lightly and neither does anyone who has ever had to actually say those words to another person.  Yet, anyone who deals with addiction knows how absolutely predictable these things are.  Anyone who has seen it a few times already knows how it’s going to end. 

So, the Torah says to these hypothetical parents of this hypothetical son in this hypothetical story, “Mom and dad, it’s the third time now you are coming to us to complain about your adult son’s behavior.  Things haven’t gotten better since you’ve come here.  They’ve only gotten worse.  Here’s where this is heading.  There is only one way this is going to end and now we will show you what that is.”

When the account concludes “so shall you remove the evil from your midst and all Israel shall hear and fear,” I don’t think it’s just talking about the results of executing this hypothetical stubborn and rebellious son.  I think it’s also talking about the positive consequences of our paying attention to the details of this story.  I think this is – on one level – what the Talmud means when it says that the story was given “so that we may study it and reap reward.”

If we study this story carefully, we will be able to identify and “remove the evil” from our midst.  I don’t mean this in an ominous, foreboding way.  To the contrary, I think it’s a wonderful thing to be able to gain clarity from a hypothetical case instead of real people having to endure actual misery.  And so I hope that the study of these verses will help shed light on the dilemma of the addicted family and maybe help some people find the recovery they need.  That is my prayer.


 Learning Early

            They say that it is a wise person that can learn from someone else’s mistakes.  In the early days of AA, the only people who were working the Steps were low-bottom cases.  As the decades went on, however, more and more people were coming into recovery before things had already gotten as bad as they can get.

            The stark fact about addiction is that it is fatal.  Whenever there is addiction, someone is eventually going to die.  So, whoever can get themselves into recovery before death is actually looming has already saved themselves quite a bit of misery.

            The problem is that in order for recovery to work, it seems that the person must feel that things cannot possible get worse than they are and still go on living.  This is called “hitting bottom” – when there is just no deeper you can get.

            Theoretically, a very wise person could read the story of the stubborn and rebellious son, identify with certain aspects of the story and seek a solution to the problem before it has really developed into much at all.  That would be ideal.  That is the whole idea of “raising the bottom” – the attempt to show addicts the inevitability and predictability of their patterns before they actually have to go through every awful eventuality they have in store.

            Practically, however, experience has shown time and again that until a person truly feels that they are on a path that is doomed, they will not begin to recover.  Thus, for most addicts, the paradox of recovery is that things have to get a lot worse before they can start to get better.

            Again, I pray that this book may play a part in helping someone come to a realization that will spare them even one extra moment of suffering.  But that is not in my control.  I can only share what I know and leave it up to the reader to see if he or she relates to what’s being said here.

            I honestly think that all of us human beings are addicts and we are all codependents but that the severity and stage of our conditions exist on a wide spectrum.  Some of us are naturally more adept at handling life than others, but all of us would benefit from working a program of recovery.  It just seems that it’s only the people whose lives have become a living hell who are willing to do the work on recovery.


Shabbat Shalom,


— Rabbi Meir Kessler Director Of  the Jewish Recovery Center Office 561.450.5503