Dr Judith Guedalia

"...but they are only children"-- On motherhood and punishment-- the Ben Sorer U'Moreh

Recently the Israeli press reported a complex capture involving Argentine and Israeli police, Interpol, and the assistance of the local Jewish community.  About five months ago, while on weekend leave from prison, a young man named Ben-Ivgi managed to skip the country (Israel). He was apparently been working overseas for the Abergil crime family, who helped him escape.  (The Abergil family is a known crime-family here and is purported to be involved in many gangster activities and murders).


In September 1994 two fourteen year old boys Ben-Ivgi and Aloni, were arrested for murder we were all shocked.  As more and more information became known about the case, Israeli society (all of it!) became revolted and then frightened.  These two young classmates, from ‘good families' (read wealthy and professional) decided to kill someone for a ‘thrill'.  They had well planned this horrible crime, and had gun in hand, when poor unsuspecting Derek Roth, H'YD, picked them up in his taxi, they shot and murdered him.

What had gone wrong?  Their parents were ‘professionals', they lived in Herzliah and had ‘everything' going for them.  Yes, one seemed weaker, maybe even ‘motherless' as his mother had left the family to live with someone else, but divorce is not so unusual.  Everyone kept murmuring ‘...they are only children'.   They were sentenced to prison; their names were not publicized until they were on a furlough four years.  During that weekend off, they committed an armed robbery!  Their lawyers said: "... they are only children", but the court held otherwise and all at once their names and ‘privacy' was no longer ‘protected'.  

Their case reminded me of another that seemed too similar to ignore. In that one, two 19 year old American Jews, one ‘motherless' and the other sadistic and manipulative of his friend, kidnapped and murdered a 14 year old boy (also Jewish).   They did this for the ‘thrill' of committing the perfect crime.  This case took place well before I was born, but as I was always interested in human behavior I had delved into it as a child.    

On May 21, 1924, Nathan Leopold, Jr. and Richard Loeb, two wealthy Jewish students (who were later infamously known as Leopold and Loeb) murdered 14 year old Bobby Franks (also Jewish).  Similar to Ben-Ivgi and Aloni , they believed themselves to be so clever, respectable, and talented that they could commit and profit from a kidnapping and murder without fear of punishment.  The body was found and along side it glasses belonging to Leopold, they were quickly arrested and fully implicated each other.

Their lawyer was the famous, Clarence Darrow, who was hired to defend the boys against the capital charges of murder and kidnap. They were expected to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, Darrow surprised everyone by having them both plead guilty. In this way, he avoided a jury trial which, due to the strong public sentiment, would certainly have resulted in a pair of hangings. Instead, he was able to argue before a single judge, pleading for the lives of his clients.  Darrow gave a two-hour speech which has justifiably been called the finest of his career.  In the end, the judge sentenced Leopold and Loeb to life in prison for the murder and 99 years for the kidnapping, Loeb died in a prison fight and Leopold was released on parole in 1958, after 33 years in prison.  He died of a heart attack at age 66 in 1971.

What about Judaism.  We believe in the death sentence.  In the Torah we read about the Ben Sorer U'Moreh, the incorrigible and intransigent child.  He is over Bar Mitzvah and yet not yet ‘a man', his parents bring him to the Beit Din when they feel they cannot ‘handle him'.  Rashi suggests that his parents may have been ‘the soldier' and the ‘beautiful woman' whom he vanquished and then married (Parshat Ki Tezei).  She is a woman without her ‘own' voice -the Gmarrah notes that she and her husband speak in the same voice, not only in words but in the same timbre. Their child, whom they cannot control, then goes through a process of being warned and then if he continues in his ways, is punished by death.  According to the commentaries he is killed for what he will do in the future and not necessarily what he has done in the past and present.

I am in no way suggesting that this is what we should do when our children do not listen to us, and are not ‘controllable'.  But what we may learn from all these extreme cases is the middle road.  A mother needs to be ‘heard' and her presence and humanity needs to expressed in the bringing up and chastisement of her children.  The commentators also say there has never been a case of Ben Sorer U'Moreh.  One wonders if that is because the parents and society has always said: "... but they are only children".

Tags: Aloni | Ben-Ivgi | Clarence Darrow | Death Sentence | Leopold | Loeb | Motherless