Rashbam: Inheriting Punishment (Ki Teitzei)

sins of the fathers 1928 movie promo
1928 movie "Sins of the Fathers"

Our biblical tradition is a stitching together of different viewpoints, theologies, experiences, stories…not unlike any community. Occasionally the perspectives blend together nicely, while at other times they seem to conflict directly with each other. In Parshat Ki Teitzei we encounter a rule that apparently clashes with an earlier rule from the book of Exodus.

Deuteronomy 24:16 reads: “Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents: a person shall be put to death only for his own crime.”

But Exodus 20:5 had already taught us: “I YHVH your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me…”

So which is it? Are children punished for parental crimes, or not? What are we to do when Exodus whispers one thing in our ear, and Deuteronomy says the opposite?

For starters, we could choose sides. From my vantage point as an American in the 21st century who values individualism (to a point), I prefer Deuteronomy’s take here. One person shouldn’t be punished for what someone else did, even if it were their own parents.

But Rashbam and other classic Jewish interpreters didn’t have the luxury of choosing favorite teachings. They believed it was all sacred and true. They had to find a way to harmonize the two teachings such that they could both be true. Each rule must operate on a different pitch, offering complementary rather than discordant notes to the music of Torah.

Here’s how Rashbam harmonizes:

Deuteronomy 24:16 CHILDREN SHALL NOT DIE FOR THEIR PARENTS in a court of law. So it is written (2 Kings 14:6), “But he did not put the children of the assassins to death, in accordance with what is written… ‘[Children] shall not be put to death…'”

However, [that rule does not apply to] God [who] “visits the guilt of parents upon the children” (Exodus 20:5), if they continue in their parents’ ways. So it is written (Jeremiah 31:29), “Parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are blunted,” and they lose their ancestral inheritance. But a [Jewish] court of law does not do that. (Translation adapted from Martin Lockshin)

In other words, Rashbam says that when it comes to God, children who follow in the wicked footsteps of their parents will be punished by God. But within the human court system, such punishment by association is not allowed. Courts must follow the legal standard of each person being charged according to their own crime.

Rashbam neatly solves the dilemma. But his comment isn’t so straightforward. The phrase he quotes from Jeremiah, in its original context, did not in fact lend support children being punished for the parents’ crimes. The full verse reads: “In those days (i.e. the days when God will redeem Israel], they shall no longer say, ‘Parents have eaten sour grapes and children’s teeth are blunted.'”

Jeremiah is actually suggesting that God’s concern with justice demands that the unjust situation of children inheriting punishment from their parents will no longer hold true. Martin Lockshin, noting that Rashbam does at times pull language out of context to make his point, suggests that “possibly Rashbam is being purposely mischievous.”

Rashbam, the master of peshat, of the straightforward meaning of Torah, is having fun emphasizing his point with a anti-contextual proof text, more in the spirit of midrash. If you have a problem with that, well, find one of his great-great-descendants and vent your frustration on them instead…

For more about Rashbam, see my introduction.