Reading Difficult Parts of the Torah, Part II

August 12th: D’varim
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Last week, we considered violence in the Bible—particularly the stories in which God commands us to destroy other nations. The theme continues this week, as we begin Deuteronomy and hear about other instances of violent engagements: the massacre of Sihon’s kingdom of Heshbon (2.30-34) and of Og’s kingdom of Bashan (3.1-7). In both cases, according to the stories, there were no Amorite survivors.

We know about the wonderful and inspirational parts of our Holy Scriptures, but is not the whole document—perhaps our whole religion—tainted with these horrible, embarrassing, and manifestly unholy passages? Last week, I discussed some mitigating considerations: (1) the massacres described in these Biblical passages did not actually happen, and (2) though violence is sometimes necessary, it is not the only response to conflict the Bible teaches. Indeed, the Bible counsels peace and respect, leaving violence only for extreme situations. I also promised a third way to approach these passages, one which considers the evolution of human thinking. Improvements have occurred during the last 3000 years, and these affect the way we should regard our ancient Tradition.

The ancient understanding of cause and effect—the scientific knowledge of the day—was different than ours. In the case of the Midianites (from last week), think of the situation our ancestors faced. When our wanderings brought us to Midian and many of our men engaged with Midianite women in pagan religio-sexual rites, we were hit with a sudden and mysterious plague that killed thousands. The wisdom of the time saw this plague not in terms of germ theory or public health shortfalls, but rather as a punishment from God for religious misbehavior and rebellion. We can speak in our modern world about tolerance and mutual respect for other religious or philosophical systems, but only because we judge them not to be dangerous. If they are dangerous, then the discussion of affirmation and multi-culturalism takes a very different turn. Indeed, many discussions in our modern world deal with the question of whether different is just different or potentially dangerous. You can see this dynamic in the word used for people who are opposed to GLBT rights: homophobic. Homophobic people, say the GLBT rights proponents, are needlessly fearful. The same dynamic is at play in discussions about Islam—and, in particular, refugees from Muslim countries. Is the whole religion—and all of its adherents—dangerous, or is just a small minority of “radicalized” Muslims dangerous?

In the ancient mentality, the Midianites were considered a danger—possibly cultural, possibly religious, but definitely viz. the wrath of the Lord! They were a danger requiring an extreme response. Though we may view it differently today, it is important to remember that humanity has taken a long, long, long time to progress to the kinds of tolerance and mutual respect that we hold precious today. Do we not think—and give thanks—that human progress has occurred, that enlightenment has slowly/finally dawned?

When I try to reconcile the positive and negative aspects of our sacred texts, I think of how we can love people (relatives, friends, and ancestors) even if some of their attributes and qualities are problematic or offensive. Not everyone we love and respect is perfect in every way, and we do not have to agree with everything they think or do to nonetheless feel a sense of kinship and even pride at the good things they do/did with their lives.

The same can be said of our nation’s Founding Fathers, many of whom can be indicted for a number of moral failings. Slavery, adultery, racism, and misogyny are not faults to be justified or excused, but these terrible social mores are not the reasons we revere people like Washington, Jefferson, or Franklin. What we revere—and what we hope to continue—are their efforts to outgrow the moral limitations of their time and to set in motion principles that eventually brought liberation and a measure of equality.

When I look at the Bible, I see it as an ancient document reflecting what our ancient ancestors thought was wisdom. Much of it, we judge today, is wisdom—wisdom that is profound and sublime and eternal. These are the parts we revere and consider the essence of our encounter with God. But, some parts are not reflective of what we have come to understand as moral or even spiritual. The treatment of women—regarding them as property and denying them equal participation in society and religion—is something we moderns regard as time-bound and culture-bound attitudes that, thank God, we have outgrown. The same goes for the treatment of people with skin diseases, people who are physically malformed or mentally deficient, or people who simply choose not to be religious. The same goes for the Biblical insistence that the only way to approach God is through a sacrificial system, killing, butchering, and cooking animals in a sacred setting. The presence of these things in the Bible does not mean that we must take these ancient attitudes as marching orders. Rather, they show us how much we have grown morally, socially, and even spiritually.

The Bible reflects the beginning of our relationship with God, and it expresses what people back then thought was good and proper. Many of their principles and ideas were magnificent. Some were problematic, and the process of Judaism’s development every step along the way has been figuring out what should be kept and what should be interpreted away.

As much as our Tradition is defined by our ancient texts, it is also defined by the developmental process of adapting and mediating Biblical attitudes and practices. One can see this process in the many reforms and reformulations within the Bible itself, and one can see it in the Talmud and every subsequent stage in Judaism’s continuing growth and improvement.

Am I shocked to read stories of massacres and violence in the Bible? Of course. Am I happy to read some of the primitive and oppressive ideas held back then? Of course not. And yet, in the context of human history and in the process of finding both our moral grounding and our moral purpose, I rejoice at the stirrings of moral perception and strength that have been active in our holy community since its beginning, and I rejoice at the progress we have made. Torah is not the verbatim repetition of the ancient text; Torah occurs when we search the ancient text, mining it for its insights, its wisdom, and its goodness.