God as a Wife-Beater

Does this text (or any text) deserve to be excluded from the larger category of Jewish teaching

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In his article on "troubling texts," Aryeh Cohen does not include the source citation for the problematic parable to which he refers. Here is the original text in translation, along with a commentary reading the text in the context of the Biblical texts it purports to interpret.  The Tanhuma dates from approximately the 6th-7th century CE.

Midrash Tanhuma, Parashat Mishpatim: 11

A parable to a king who beat his wife. Her guardian said to him: “If you want to divorce her, beat her until she dies. But if you plan to return to her, why are you so beating her so harshly?”
 
He said to him: Even if my palace were to be destroyed, I would not divorce her
 
Thus Jeremiah says: “If you want to divorce us, beat us until we die, unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure" (Lamentations 5:22). "But if not, why have you struck us down so that there is no healing for us?" (Jeremiah 14:19).
 
The Holy Blessed One responded to him: "Even if I destroy my world, I will not divorce Israel, as it says, “Thus says the Lord: If the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth can be explored, then I will reject all the offspring of Israel because of all they have done, says the Lord”" (Jeremiah 31:36). "Rather, even so, I have set a condition with them, that if they sin, the Temple will provide surety for them, as it says, 'I have placed my Tabernacle (mishkani) in their midst'" (Leviticus 26:11), [read this as] I have placed my surety (mashkoni).

Commentary

This text is certainly troubling. Cohen presents a three-step approach to evaluating difficult texts. His second-step asks “Is this mashal, this parable, representing a relationship between man and woman that is consonant with that found in rabbinic literature in general, or is this text an aberration?”
 
Clearly the language of the guardian, who stands for the Israelite prophet Jeremiah, indicates that God’s behavior in punishing the people with the destruction of the Temple, the death of thousands, and the exile of the people to Babylon, is aberrant.  Sometimes the artist needs to choose the most potent and oppressive image in order to express his point.
 
Chaim Potok, in his novel My Name is Asher Lev, expresses precisely this point when the artist, the heir to a Hassidic dynasty, must adapt the image of the crucifixion to express his understanding of the torment experienced by his mother. Is the crucifixion a Jewish image? No. Is the artist sometimes forced to use an unacceptable image to express an unimaginable pain? Sometimes.
 
Consider some of the language of the book of Lamentations, which tradition attributes to Jeremiah:
 
“The Lord has trodden the daughter of Judah as in a winepress.” (Lam 1:15)
“For vast as the see is your ruin; who can heal you?” (2:13)
“The young and the old are lying on the ground in the streets; my young women and my young men have fallen by the sword; in the day of your anger you have killed them, slaughtering without mercy. (2:21)
“Happier were those pierced by the sword than those pierced by hunger, whose life drains away, deprived of the produce of the field. The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food in the destruction of my people.” (4:9-10)
 
“Happier were those pierced by the sword.” Tragically, a victim of spousal abuse often swings back and forth between two different ways to conclude the suffering: death and a peaceful return to the violent husband. The last verse of Lamentations is quoted in the midrash above, but it should be read in context: “Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old—unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure.” The conclusion is unstated in the biblical text, but is worth drawing out. If you are angry with us beyond measure, then just kill us already and end our suffering. To my mind, the midrash captures both the desolation and desperation of the people, and makes explicit a condemnation of God’s harsh punishment in a way that the author of Lamentations could not.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.