Difficult Words in Holy Texts, Part II

Re’eh: August 18th
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Last week, we considered how one can revere and follow Holy Scriptures while holding back or editing out some of its problematic passages. I gave the example of Thomas Jefferson’s “Bible” where he cut and pasted what he considered to be the gems of Christian teaching and left out the rest. Given that the Bible is an inconsistent work—with a variety of instructions and principles, some contradicting others, Jefferson joined in a long tradition of commentators who interpreted their way around offensive or ungodly passages. I observed that this tradition exists in Islam as well as Judaism and Christianity. Interpretation is vital to discerning God’s wishes.

The passages in Deuteronomy that provoked my discussion are the ones that command the Israelites to annihilate the native Canaanite population. These instructions are found many times in Deuteronomy, and their successful execution is reported in Joshua. And yet, the historical, archeological, and even Biblical records show that such a mass extermination did not occur. The point I drew last week is that the ancients did not regard these passages as marching orders or literal history. This is another kind of literature.

By the way, the one part of these instructions which the Israelites did apparently carry out—at least, in part—is a destruction of Canaanite idols and religious sites. The commandment is in this week’s Torah portion (Deuteronomy 12.2-3): “You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.” And, sure enough, there are archeological ruins in Hatzor (northern Israel) showing burned Canaanite temples, with idols whose heads have been chopped off.

The subject this week is the context of ancient texts. Historical perspective and an understanding of context can often render problematic passages much less insistent on ungodly behavior.

In Christianity, the Jewish sages known as Pharisees are much maligned. Why? The Gospels tell of Pharisees arguing with Jesus, and later generations regarded these arguments as disrespectful. What many Christians do not know, however, is that Jesus himself seems to have been a part of Pharisaic Judaism—the movement that brought us the Rabbis, the Mishnah, the Oral Law, and the World to Come. The Pharisees (Pietists/Separatists) were scholars who made studying and teaching the Torah their life’s work. Part of the study involved discussing how various passages, laws, and principles were to be understood. Sometimes, these discussions got pretty animated, and one might refer to them as arguments. A historical reading of the Gospel stories shows a group of Pharisees (Jesus included!) discussing interpretations of Sabbath Law: what one can and cannot do on the Sabbath. In none of these arguments is Jesus voicing an opinion outside of Rabbinic/Pharisaic Judaism. He is simply putting forth one Pharisaic view, and the other Pharisees are arguing back with others. In the context, Jesus was just another Pharisaic Jew, discussing or arguing about Halachah. However, when these stories were told decades later, after Paul had crafted Christianity not from the historical Jesus but from his spiritual vision on the road to Damascus, Jesus was no longer seen as another teacher with whom one could discuss the Torah. At that point, Jesus was considered divine, and his words were to be obeyed and believed. The different context created the traditional Christian disparagement of the Pharisees—one which can still be heard in some Christian churches.

In the case of some very anti-Jewish passages in the Koran—passages that have recently made the news, it is important to remember the struggles of the founder of Islam. As with all religious innovators, Mohammed faced some fierce opposition from the authorities of his time, and, at one point, when his life was threatened, the Prophet took refuge among the Jews of Medina. They welcomed him and protected him for quite a while. Later, when he achieved success in his new understanding of religious monotheism, he expected those Jewish tribes to join him. When they refused, an armed conflict ensued, and he unleashed a torrent of anger on those Jews. Many were killed, and, to modern readers of the Koran, it can look like a blanket attack on all Jews of all times. This is not the inevitable interpretation of the Koran, but the passages are there if an interpreter chooses to use them in demagoguery.

For a truly shocking Jewish passage, let us turn to the Talmud, to Yevamot 61a. Here the rabbis are discussing the ritual impurity caused when someone dies, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai draws a distinction between Jews and Gentiles, saying, “The Jewish people are called Adam (men/humans), but Gentiles are not called Adam (men/humans).” Does this mean that Judaism does not consider non-Jews to be fully human? Do we not learn in Mishnah Sanhedrin 4.5: “All humanity was created as one person, the original Adam of Genesis, to teach you that anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world. And also, to promote peace so that no one will say that ‘My ancestors are greater than yours.’”? All humans come from the same ancestor, Adam. All are created in the image of God. All people are human beings.

What then are we to make of Yevamot’s statement that Gentiles are not human? The passage is in the context of assigning ritual impurity in the presence of a corpse or buried body. Jewish corpses are buried in clearly designated cemeteries so that a priest can easily avoid walking through them. However, given that Gentiles do not always observe the Halachic burial rules—and that land use changes over centuries, it is possible that any place one walks could be over a long lost non-Jewish burial. Hence, ritual purity is always in doubt, and the Rabbis need a way to accommodate Jewish priests walking through the world. Though clearly not a theological point, they establish this legal fiction—that Gentiles are not human—in order to protect the ritual purity of a priest whose path covers what might have, at one point, been a place of burial.

In every other instance, Gentiles are clearly considered human—human and beloved children of God. So, when looking through the Talmud, it is possible for an unlearned reader to read a passage out of context and come to a totally incorrect conclusion about Judaism.

Let us remember that every communication originates in a particular context and for a particular purpose. If we want to understand a text, we need to understand its context and purpose.