Fixing the Text (or Not)

I can’t. I won’t. I will not fix texts anymore.

It is what we are taught to do, of course. We meet up with a terrible text, a dark one. Then we hunt for some word, some strategy to redeem the text, to uplift, to provide light. We look to our rabbinic royalty, famous rabbis from centuries past and times present. The right quote, the right insight. A tale complete with the sweetest of textual crumbs will lead to a wholly different conclusion.

Relief. We have fixed the text.

Each year we go through this cycle. Each year we read one painful and difficult text after another. At the end of July, we read Balak. An animal, so kindly serving and protecting her master, is beaten again and again (Numbers 22: 23-27). Should we not name the bitter abuse humanity exercises on non-human animals — then and now?

Last week, we read Phinehas. YHVH’s priest is praised for turning back divine wrath. How has he achieved such an awesome task? By driving a spear through the bellies of an Israelite man and a Midianite woman. Such relationships displease the deity.

The plague is checked, and Phinehas is richly rewarded with divine praise, commitment, and gratitude. How does one get the deity to calm down and stop slaying his people? Pick up a weapon and kill those that piss him off yourself.

This next Shabbat we will read about the war of vengeance YHVH commands against the Midianites. When the Israelite troops return from battle, Moses discovers that they failed to slaughter all the Midianite women and children. He orders them to do the deed. They may spare virgins. Only virgins (Numbers 31: 15-17).

Women taken prisoner by Israelites are owned by the soldiers who have captured them. Such a woman has one month before her body is permitted to her captor for his use — that way, he can be certain that any resulting child is his own (Deuteronomy 21: 10-14).

If we are not reminded of soldiers in our own time stealing girls and women for their sexual use, we are not paying attention to the world we live in. Would you call such women “captive brides”? That’s what the Israelite’s female prisoner is often named.

These women, like those of Tanakh, have been raped.

Animal abuse, ethnic and sexualized violence, sanctified rape — these are what we so often feel we must explain away.  

It is painful work to sit with the full implications of difficult texts; we naturally long for ways to soften the blow. And yet, naming the shadow and the dark empowers us – it brings light. We rabbis must sit with our thoughts and feelings. We must consider deeply and honestly how our grief and anger — and the grief and anger of our congregants — can and should inform us.

Otherwise, we silence not just ourselves but those everywhere around us who suffer from the kind of violence described in such texts. That is no fix.

My book on similarly dark questions, Male Friendship, Homosociality, and Women in the Hebrew Bible: Malignant Fraternities, has just been published by Routledge Press. Abstracts can be found here. May we provide safe space for naming and confronting sexual and ethnic violence wherever we find it to bring the healing we seek.


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