What are we to do with our texts of terror? Of course, Phyllis Trible in one of the most brilliant early feminist works on the Bible gave her book the title, “Texts of Terror: Literary-feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives”. It’s a stunning volume and Trible is rightly regarded as one of the most important feminist readers of the Bible.

In a way, I shouldn’t really appropriate the use of her title for my own musings, since Trible’s writing is within a context of Biblical criticism that leads her to examine narratives of Hagar, Tamar, Jephtah’s daughter and so on. It’s chutzpah and I’m sure the appropriation of something borne out of feminism by me could be rather easily seized upon (checking my privilege etc).

But that’s all I could think of when I read the Torah portion last week and this week that deals with the laws of warfare in Deuteronomy. Actually, a hefty chunk of my PhD is devoted to just a few verses of this section of Deuteronomy. In passing, I have examined some of the approaches to dealing with texts that effectively prescribe what is an immoral path. Mostly the apologists either historically situate the laws (arguing that was back then) or claim that the Biblical text legislates away from predominant customs. So, where battlefield rape may have been prevalent, the Bible rules that rape cannot take place on the battlefield but may occur later providing the rapist gives the woman a place in his household as his wife – thus protecting, to a Biblical extent, women’s civil rights. Charming really isn’t it. That’s coming up this week.

Last week I reflected on a text that proscribes various nations, that should all be put to death, nothing spared, and I’m wondering how the words of the portion can even be vocalised. You can spare the trees of course – fruit bearing ones that is – which becomes the source of the principle of ‘Bal Tashchit’ (not to wantonly destroy – which then becomes the Jewish version of ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recyle’). But its origins are not so lofty.

What are we to do with these texts?

רַק, מֵעָרֵי הָעַמִּים הָאֵלֶּה, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה–לֹא תְחַיֶּה, כָּל-נְשָׁמָה. 16 In the towns of the latter peoples, however, which the Eternal your God is giving you as a heritage, you shall not let a soul remain alive.
יז  כִּי-הַחֲרֵם תַּחֲרִימֵם, הַחִתִּי וְהָאֱמֹרִי הַכְּנַעֲנִי וְהַפְּרִזִּי, הַחִוִּי, וְהַיְבוּסִי–כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוְּךָ, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ. 17 No, you must proscribe them — the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites — as the Eternal your God has commanded you,
יח  לְמַעַן, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יְלַמְּדוּ אֶתְכֶם לַעֲשׂוֹת, כְּכֹל תּוֹעֲבֹתָם, אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם; וַחֲטָאתֶם, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.  {ס} 18 lest they teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they have done for their gods and you stand guilty before the Lord your God.

Rashi remarks the following:

“Lest they teach you: but if they are repentant and convert, you are permitted to accept them.”

So what is it, destroy or accept? Does Rashi already point at something that made Jewish interpreters distinctly uncomfortable that led them to make a choice to sublimate a violent tendency with a preferred choice of coexistence (of a sort). The ambiguity of Rashi’s stance seemingly at odds with the obvious legal meaning is a typical conundrum of Jewish tradition in which we never read a text in isolation but text, interpretation and the interpreters layer meaning over time, each within their own historical and geographical context. What all that means is that it is possible to all but eradicate a law even whilst reading it scripturally as part of the regular lectionary.

Professor David Resnick makes the case that, even whilst sensitive to the apologetics, these texts can create a framework for learning and moral development that is not necessarily afforded by resort to secular legislative sources. Drawing on the specific issue of battlefield rape in Deuteronomy 21:10-14, Resnick asserts traditional religious moral instruction may offer something helpful in the modification of educational programmes. His attempts are admirable and drawing on Boyarin’s methodology of constructing a ‘usable past’ I’d say he partially succeeds. But the hint of a positive interpretation of the legislation as being cognisant of rights of women and captives and of emotional strains of sexual desire, could equally have been a damning negative interpretation.

Not a huge fan of simply letting children read an ‘expurgated’ version of the Bible, Claude G Montefiore (founder of Liberal Judaism and Bible scholar) in a laudable attempt to provide parents with some kind of Bible that can be read with children and will not cause them to teach something which a parent does not themselves believe, notes:

It matters comparatively little if it be implied that a given statement is historically ‘true,’ when it is believed to be historically ‘false’; but if it be implied that it is morally and religiously true, when it is believed to be morally and religiously false, the injury done is educationally far greater.” p. iii.

He goes on to comment that:

“tales of bloodshed and slaughter, unredeemed by moral teaching, yet set too often in a pseudo-religious framework, are very unsuitable in a Bible for Home Reading.” p. vi.

(Taken from “The Bible for Home Reading” by C G Montefiore, 1897).

I have colleagues and congregants who think similarly and reject the validity of reading these texts scripturally in services, since that serves to connote sanctity and importance when we think anything but that.

Dr Bonna Devora Haberman z’l (who only died this year), wrote in an edition of the journal ‘Sh’ma’ that was largely devoted to exploring the question of difficult texts:

In this rugged textual terrain, we explore layers of culture, fissures and fault lines, topographies of an ongoing and difficult process of revelation. We are not the text. It is “other.” Acknowledging the simultaneous “otherness” of our texts and our tremendous commitment to them enables us to engage with their difficulty. In this process of struggle, we negotiate multiple, even mutually exclusive co-existent meanings. We seek out the ways that this struggle might have the cogency to mandate intervention in difficult systems. In this sense, difficult texts become a nexus for a troubled existence, for problematic identities and realities. Rather than affirming who we are, this way of engaging texts addresses study as a method for social change. With difficult texts we aim toward transformation of ourselves and our world.

I think the issue remains because whilst Haberman discusses our need to study, even those texts which horrify us, she does not touch on what happens when we read them in synagogue as part of our public lectionary cycle. One option, which plays to the ignorance of Jews, insulting them, is to read but not translate. They hear the words of holiness, little realising that the words are anything but holy.

What do we do with texts of terror?

I’ve come to my own conclusion that the biggest issue is not the reading of the texts (actually any religious texts of any faith tradition), it is the lack of context. Read in isolation the texts are those of terror. From a visitor to synagogue hearing the words for the first time or a naïve zealot studying them alone at home – and everything in between – this isolation of context, history and interpretative tradition leave us vulnerable to undermining what our Judaism might stand for and/or inspired to carry out fundamentalist acts of violence.

Our contemporary social context and interpretative tradition is part of what protects us.  And at the same time, we have a choice to make – we cannot remain silent in the face of the terror in our texts. We must read them to also verbalise a stance that says this is not our way. We have chosen to lead authentic Jewish lives that are different. We have to be cognisant of the parts of our textual tradition that are not all noble ideals and more than that, we have to accept that these strains of thought are in our library of sacred texts. They could have been Judaism, but they are not and we will never let them become Judaism.

Of course there will always be people who are willing to commit atrocities (most do not need religion to help them) and religious texts (of many faiths) can be used to justify horrendous acts (see this sermon on the subject). Our duty is to not allow humanity to be dragged back into the dark ages. Acknowledging texts of terror in our scriptural traditions and choosing another way is part of that duty to humanity.