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Understanding Death by Stoning

People are instinctively drawn to rituals, like those that fill our daily lives: how we make our coffee or read the newspaper or get ready for bed. There are a wide range of explanations for why we do this. To some extent, rituals give us the lines around our daily box, allow us to let repetitive words and actions free up our minds for other, perhaps more entertaining or valuable activities.

The next level of ritual are the common superstitious ones that we use as a way of handling uncertainty and trying to influence an outcome. Think of wearing a lucky jersey for a sports contest, or a mask during Covid: these rituals are ways of showing we are making a shared effort, as well as identifying with a larger tribe. There may be no larger meaning or efficacy at all, but there is perceived safety in numbers, in sharing a sports team, a cause, or even just an irrational fear with a crowd.

But some rituals are far more meaningful, because what they ask us to do has symbolic meaning that can connect us to the past or the future. Think of a christening or funeral, or the Jewish re-enactment of the Exodus at the yearly Passover Seder. These rituals are full of overtones and undertones meant for a purpose that arches over comfortable repetition or tribal belonging.

We can even go to the logical extreme: ritual symbolism without any actual ritual at all! In their purest form, the symbolic value of the ritual can be much more important than the ritual itself, when the doing of the ritual becomes immaterial compared to the lesson we learn when contemplating a ritual, even though it is not practiced.

The Torah is full of these. In theory, the text has no shortage of threats, different unpleasant ways to die as a result of bad choices. Yet we know from our own history that many of these punishments were rarely carried out, and in some cases, they were never enforced. Which means that the reason for the ritual was in the symbolic value of its description, in the concept of the ritual, even though it never happened. This is deterrence in its highest form: we don’t need to see a hanged man to know that we should not commit a heinous crime; it can be enough to know that such a punishment exists for that crime. It can even more valuable to realize that the punishment is itself meant to be a balancing corrective act for the initial crime.

I am aware that this sounds abstract – and it has been so far – but if I illustrate it, things should become simpler.

The Torah tells us of a rebellious son:

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and who, when they have chastened him, will not heed them,  then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city, to the gate of his city. And they shall say to 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 with stones; so you shall put away the evil from among you, and all Israel shall hear and fear. (Deut. 21:18-21)

The Torah tells us he should be stoned.

Harsh? Absolutely. But we also know from our history that it did not happen. Not once. So why does the Torah offer the commandment, and prescribe this ritual? As deterrent, certainly.

But there is more than this! Why does the Torah tell us to stone him, killing him that way, as opposed to any other? Indeed, the Torah could have just said, “put him to death.” But it does not.

Indeed, the commandment to stone someone in the Torah is not uncommon. Yet there is a common theme that draws them all together, giving the ritual of stoning meaning even if it is never carried out. That meaning becomes a teachable lesson, explaining what our mental priorities ought to be.

Let’s start with identifying all the times the Torah tells us that a person should be stoned. Each and every one of these events is triggered by idol worship, adultery, or an inability to keep our primary priority in mind: fidelity in relationship. If a man worships another deity, or a young woman whores, or a rebellious son is unable to form a relationship of any kind with his parents, then they are to be stoned. There is a common bond here, and it is all about remaining true to those we should never cheat on: in marriage, adultery; in worship, idolatry; for a son, his parents. And for a loose girl, her own soul.

Which still does not answer the initial question: why stoning?

The answer is found in the Torah itself. The first stones in the Torah are those which Jacob took when he slept and dreamt of angels connecting to heaven.

He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. … Early in the morning, Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. (Gen 28: 11, 18)

This is where Jacob dreamed a dream, and G-d made a promise:

Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Gen 28:15)

Jacob wakes and makes a corresponding vow: “If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house—the LORD shall be my God. And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You. (Gen 20:20-22)

The stone is the central prop to a key event: the first time G-d and Man swear fealty to one another, exchanging promises and bonding the descendants of Jacob’s people to G-d evermore.

Now it starts to make sense. The first time stones are mentioned, they are used to symbolize the core relationship between man and his Creator, and the exclusive nature of that relationship. As the Torah says, the words recognizing G-d are to be said, “when you lie down and when you get up.” (Deut 6:7) Jacob lay down with the stone as his pillow, and rose up with it as well: the divine was on his mind.

The stones represent what we should desire: the constant and conscious presence of G-d in our lives. If we have that mindset, then all of the situations where the perpetrator would be stoned (entirely rejecting our parents, squandering our sexuality outside of a committed relationship, idol worship and adultery) should all be impossible. The symbolism retains all its power without requiring that the actual ritual act of stoning someone is performed.

The Torah consistently uses “stones” for building a relationship with the divine. The Tower of Babel, of example, is built using bricks in place of stones – telling us that the relationship was not authentic.

When Moses fights the nation of Amalek, the text tells us, “But Moses’ hands grew heavy; so they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur, one on each side, supported his hands; thus his hands remained steady until the sun set.” Moses’ foundation was the building block of the relationship between man and G-d. The ten commandments were similarly made of stone, with the same underlying connection to Jacob’s stone pillow.

The altar, which is used to connect man and G-d, must be made of raw stone unshaped by tools, such as those Jacob found lying on the ground at Bethel. (Ex. 22:2) So when we reach out to G-d with an offering, we do so while simultaneously connecting to Jacob’s covenant in both words and deeds. Our relationship with G-d is built on, and modeled after, the relationships our forefathers established.

P.S. There is a particularly interesting and relevant verse, just after a section discussing the need to be separate from other people:

A man or a woman who has an “ov” or a “yidoni” shall be put to death; they shall be pelted with stones. (Lev. 20:27)

As Joseph Cox points out, the root words of these mysterious nouns are common: the first means “father,” and the second means “knowledge.” The Torah is identifying false gods, specifically ancestor worship and the worship of knowledge without any reference to the moral obligation to use knowledge or science for good things. This last example is very common these days, and might be called “Scientism” – the view that the hard sciences—like chemistry, biology, physics, astronomy—provide the only genuine knowledge of reality. Scientism, like any worship of a form of knowledge that has no reference to, or is not checked by G-d’s laws, is itself a false god.

The Torah is concerned with not keeping G-d in our minds, close to our hearts. Our relationship was built with stones – and if we forget it, we will be reminded by those same stones.

[another @iwe and @susanquinn production!]

Comments are welcome!