Sunday, July 19, 2009

Three Paths Through Torah

What do we do with the painful, misogynist, and genocidal passages of Torah? This was my challenge as I prepared to teach Torah yesterday at Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in Connecticut.

The passage in question is the Israelite slaughter of the Midianites. Moses and God demand the death of them all, and when the soldiers spare the women and babies, Moses is furious, ordering the soldiers to murder the survivors sparing only the baby girls and virgins whom the soldiers may take for themselves.

In the course of sharing my dilemma with colleagues three options for dealing with such texts emerged:

1. The way of justification: this was a time of war when the Israelites were taking the Promised Land from its inhabitants and they needed to cleanse the land from non-Israelite influences of both blood and religion.

2. The way of denial: this isn’t history at all. It just never happened.

3. The way of allegory: the text isn’t meant to be taken literally but metaphorically. The women aren’t women; the babies aren’t babies. All the characters in this genocidal drama are aspects of ourselves with which we must wrestle.

All three ways of dealing with the text have merit, but none satisfy me fully.

The Way of Justification. It is one thing to justify the actions of our ancient ancestors and another to celebrate them by reading their story over and over again each year. Since it is anachronistic to apply today’s morality to that of biblical times, there is no point to reading this text in the context of a sacred celebration of Shabbat at all. It should be relegated to the library where other history books are stored.

The Way of Denial. If we deny the historicity of the text and claim it is just a story, why read it (and texts like it) at all? I don’t read tales of gore and horror in any other form; why read it because it is in the Bible? And even if we claim it is fiction, the calling it sacred fiction and reading it as the word of God poisons the collective psyche of our people. What is the difference between pretend history and real history when both are so honored? And if it is pretend history, why pretend at all? Why pretend we were butchers when we were not butchers?

The Way of Allegory. If we claim the story is allegory, that it is about inner spiritual warfare rather than actual warfare, why use this allegory? Couldn’t we find more effective ways to explore and perhaps free ourselves from our genocidal urges that to interpret ancient fictions? And, if the history is not history but story as the way of denial and the way of allegory attest, what does this say about our claim to the Land of Israel today? The Jewish claim to the Land in the 20th and 21st centuries is based on the fact that God gave it to us in biblical times. If these stories aren’t history then our claim to Palestine is moot.

I understand the need to both justify and escape from the horrors of the Bible. Who wants to believer they come from such a people? I can understand why we would want to deny the historicity of the text and take refuge in allegory. But doing so scares me.

If we can allegorize our genocide against the inhabitants of the Midianites (and many others), won’t the German people someday allegorize the Holocaust? “No, no,” they will insist, “The Holocaust is an allegory. Nazis represent the darker forces of our nature and Jews represent ‘the other.’ There were no real Nazis and Jews, this is just a story we tell ourselves to work through the human fear of the other.”

How many centuries will it take for Americans to allegorize slavery and the genocide of the Native American? Perhaps there will be no Jews left when Nazism becomes an allegory, but imagine if there were. Imagine if you were among them. Would you be pleased to see your suffering denied and reduced to psychological struggle within the minds of the ancestors of your oppressors? The only reason we can get away with allegorizing the slaughter of the Midianites is that there are not Midianites left to protest our callousness.

I am not saying that allegory has no place. But it cannot be used to replace history—real or imagined. If we pretend to be genocidal murderers, if we celebrate the death of our enemies and the innocents who simply happen to be in our way even if we are only imagining them, what does that do to those of us who hear these tales week after week, year after year?

I am not sure the text is history. There is much debate over this and I am inclined to follow those scholars who say this is story rather than history. But it is a story that frightens me. I don’t want to imagine my ancestors this way. So I have two choices: One is I can cease to read fiction that is so dark and evil (just as I refuse to see movies or read books about serial killers or the rape and torture of innocents), and seek more modern means for dealing with the darkside of my psyche. The other is that I can take these texts not only as an opportunity for inner exploration and healing, but also as opportunities for communal grief and soul searching.

There are many great rabbis who do the former, but I have yet to see anyone do the latter. When we read about our genocides against our “enemies” let us stop and mourn for them and for our ancestors—real or fictional—who felt the need to either do these things or pretend to do them. Let us take responsibility for our people and our stories, true or fanciful. Let us confess our sins, if nothing else the sin of wanting to be the murders we were not.


TheNote said...

Thank you for posting - i hope you had a good retreat - Wowzer! - you begin again - handling the really tough stuff. Thanks for giving me a challenging thinking assignment.

AaronHerschel said...

I agree with you regarding the difficulty of reading such stories. This is certainly not the only one in the Torah. And I agree with you regarding the need for another way of reading them.

And yet I fell they are an important, essential part our heritage as Jews. We should not, we cannot, deny the presence of violence in our history, in our fiction, or in our collective and individual psyches. We must wrestle with these things.

Jews are not cosmic innocents betrayed by God, nor are we failed prophets justly punished by the allmighty, nor simple scapegoats demonized and destroyed by Western culture. We are a people who, like any other, produce a self-justifying and self-sustaining mythology. In that mythos are acts of genocide and murder, acts of rape and theft, spun as acts of God. We can mourn and critique these. We should. They should remind us that Jews, in the need to craft a communal identity, craft myths of the other, myths of power and subjugation.

But we must also acknowledge that there may be necessity at work here as well. We must contend with the fact that violence is inherent in both the natural world and in the human (which is not and never was separate from nature). To embrace and or enact violence is not easily classifiable as evil, or even as recidivist: a throwback to reptilian impulses in the brain. There may be moments when violence serves the life of the community, or the life of the biosphere. Like Arjuna, we may have to experience the oneness of all things in a way that enables the annihilation of our own extended family. Nightmarish, horrifying, morally repugnant. And yet part of life, of the integrity and continuity of life.

My thinking on this is ill-developed. I have no answers. No clear position. Yet, I believe that reading the stories, confronting the difficulty of violence, is desperately important. So, yes, we should read the stories, and the stories should disturb. And yes, they should do so on the Sabbath, which is not a day of rest, but a day of wrestling. Wrestle long. Wrestle well.

Rabbi Rami said...

Just a comment on Aaron Herschel's excellent critique. I agree with everything you said, but the fact that humans are innately violent doesn't mean that we have act violently. Indeed when it comes to large scale violence like war it takes a lot of propaganda work to get us motivated to take action.

And, let us not conflate violence and evil. We may be innately violent but that doesn't necessarily excuse or justify or even explain evil. The defeat of Midian and the other people's we supposedly conquered was an act of violence that may be understood in the context of shifting tribes and migrations or other geo-political forces, but the deliberate act of genocide and then rape was evil.

Let us own our violence and control it as best we can. But let us eschew evil.

Patti said...

Our contemporary view of whether the Bible is allegorical, historical or deniable seems to be overshadowed by the fact that what was written was what our ancestors valued. I woke this morning wondering; if I wrote a sacred text today, what would I put in it? What do I value? Then, discouraged, I prayed for pockets of change.

Immanuel said...

LeRavRam haYakar

As a Bhuddist can you not see the slaughter of the Midianites as liberating them from the suffering of identification with shape and form? Someone whose name begins with an S (a King of Israel, I believe) once said "the house of mourning is better than the house of birth". What's the big deal with Jews being Angels of Death for a change? Must someone else always do the dirty work? Lets roll up our sleeves and get to the butchery. Dam braces but bless supresses...sounds like you're engaging with these stories wearing the cultural spectacles of 19th and 20th century liberal effeteness...but you're reading a text that always assumes that the G?d of Creation is also the G?d of Destruction. The fact that you problematise it says nothing about the text and everything about the relative value set you have bought into...

Yours in the interest of stirring the pot

Peter Schogol said...

Rami, I recall at one point you advocating jettisoning the entire Tanakh except for the Prophets and the Wisdom literature; appending the Pirkei Avot; and adopting the Gospel of Thomas!

Personally I prefer your present take -- reading the Torah as a sort of biography of the Jewish collective psyche.

Louis Farrakhan said...


Cyrus sent Ezra to Jerusalem with the Babylonian religion of Zoroastrianism. Of course he was allowed to change the name of Ahura Mazda to YHWH -The Lord. Ezra REWROTE the Law of Moses, brought books of Myth like Esther, Job etc, corrupted the Books of the Prophets (Jeremiah ch 7; 8:8)& left them for the Pharisees to collate & canonize. They added the Oral Traditions, thereby creating Talmudic Judaism. That was the beginning of the end for Jews being a Light unto the Gentiles.