Dealing With Troubling Texts
Dr. Cohen’s article, republished with permission from magazine (April, 2001), raises the difficult question of how one relates to Jewish texts that one finds truly abhorrent. Classically, Jewish interpreters have approached “problematic texts” in a variety of ways. Sometimes, difficult texts, like Moses’ brother Aaron’s role in the sin of the golden calf, are buried inside countervailing material, like the six chapters that precede the story and the six chapters which follow, all of which glorify Aaron’s role in the Tabernacle. The conclusion of the Talmudic tractate on scrolls and liturgical recitation of texts (Megillah 25a-b) discusses some passages which are read but not translated, as well as texts that are just not read. Perhaps more drastic is the actual substitution of a euphemism for a harsh word in liturgical reading (Deuteronomy 30:28). A more common approach fills in the problems with additional narrative: Although it looks like Abraham exchanged his wife’s virtue for lots of property (Genesis 12: 11-15), the midrash explains that this only happened after Abraham tried to protect her by offering large sums of money (Genesis Rabbah 40:5). Moderns frequently “explain away” difficulties by pointing to the historical context in which the text was produced. None of these approaches excludes the problematic text from the category of Torah.
Cohen’s conclusion, in response to a text which uses the metaphor of God as the wife-beating husband, is to exclude the text from the category “Torah.” As he states it, “Would a holy text say something like this?" His article raises more questions than it answers.
I teach a third-year course at the Ziegler School for Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism called "Aggadah and Halakhah." The course explores--in both a general way and through specific midrashic and talmudic texts--the relationship between the genres of rabbinic literature that are traditionally known as aggadah and halakhah.
Aggadah often is seen as comprising stories, homilies, religious epigrams, and anything else that is not halakhah or law. I try to show how halakhah and aggadah are inextricably linked together using a model based on the works of Zionist visionary and writer Haim Nachman Bialik and legal theorist Robert Cover. Specifically, I was looking at the issue of divorce as symbolic representation of the exilic relationship between God and Israel, and how this impacted the "purely legal" discussions of divorce law.