Dealing With Troubling Texts
My class studied a midrash that includes a parable picturing God and Israel as husband and wife. The midrash relates that the husband beat his wife mercilessly. The wife's guardian then approached the husband saying: "If you do not want to remain married to this woman, then kill her." The husband replied that he would never kill her, even if his whole estate were destroyed. The nimshal, or moral, of this parable teaches that though God might cause Israel to suffer terribly, God would never destroy her completely.
My class discussed this midrash and the problematic picture of the husband-wife relationship. For days after the class, I could not shake the midrash. I was surprised by how disturbed I felt, as I had been working with similar material for years. Working with texts like this in the past, I would state the ways a text was disturbing and then identify its political motivations. However, pointing out that these texts uncovered the rabbinic anxiety about power and their perception of women as a threat to their own power continued to leave me unsettled.
The source of my continued unease was that I was teaching these texts to students who understood them as Torah. I see these texts as Torah. Every morning I recite the blessing "who has sanctified us in the commandments and commanded us to engage with the words of Torah." With these words in my heart, I teach in the Rabbinic School. It cannot, then, be enough to explain, analyze, and locate the texts within their political tensions and cultural negotiations.
Confronted with a confounding statement attributed to the great sage Rabbi Meir, Resh Laqish asks: "Would a holy mouth say something like this?" This is the question I needed to voice: "Would a holy text say something like this?" I articulate the question in this way in order to make it more, not less, difficult to answer. If this story were found in any other text, it would bother me to the extent that it reflected a certain attitude that was abhorrent. Yet, once the moral judgment was made, and the political investments deconstructed, I would move on. I had then fulfilled my obligation as scholar and teacher. This, however, was not the case when I confronted a text that was part of the sacred core of my tradition.
Finally, I came to the following three-step framework. The three steps loosely resemble three biblical scenes wherein characters struggle with troubling situations. The first step is modeled after Aaron. When Moses tells Aaron that Aaron's sons have been killed at the dedication of the tabernacle (Leviticus 10), Aaron's response is silence. The silence, it seems, is his first acknowledgement that this too is "a way of God." Although this might be "a way of God" that is problematic, it is still "a way of God." Aaron's silence lets the impact of the death and tragedy hang in the air, untainted by pieties or apologies. As a reading practice, this model dictates that the reader first allow a text to wash over him or her as is, in all of its troubling aspects, without the vitiation of apologetics or even the distancing of historicistic location (i.e. "In the culture in which the rabbis lived...").
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