Bamidbar, Chapter 31
1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin.”…
… 7 They took the field against Midian, as the Lord had commanded Moses, and slew every male. …They also put Balaam son of Beor to the sword.
9 The Israelites took the women and children of the Midianites captive, and seized as booty all their beasts, all their herds, and all their wealth. 10 And they destroyed by fire all the towns in which they were settled, and their encampments. 11 They gathered all the spoil and all the booty, man and beast, 12 and they brought the captives, the booty, and the spoil to Moses, Eleazar the priest, and the whole Israelite community, at the camp in the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho.
A long time ago
After ten years of Hebrew School
And in my final year, Thank God!
I was 15
And the Rabbi,
Who shall remain nameless,
Taught the class.
He was dull and pedestrian
But he was the rabbi
So I treated him with respect
Which at that point I mostly withheld
From everybody else.
I was 15.
We were reading this parsha
And the rabbi,
“Everything in the Torah is true.”
“If it’s in the Torah then that’s how we should live.”
And so I raised my hand, and asked,
“Rabbi, does that mean that when we win a war that we should kill all the enemy men and rape all the enemy women and enslave all the enemy children?”
There was a pause, and then he said,
And then he said, “No more questions from you, young lady.”
That was the day I lost Torah.
Why did I lose Torah?
Well yes, because I was a girl
Back in the day
And though I had a Bat Mitzvah
It was on a Friday night
And I got a lot fewer presents
And had a much smaller party
Than the boys
And I wasn’t called to the Torah
I wasn’t allowed to have an aliyah
And wasn’t allowed near the Torah
Sure that’s one reason I lost the Torah,
Basically I never had it.
But really it was that rabbi
Who wouldn’t answer my questions,
Who wouldn’t even let me ask questions.
That rabbi was an idiot
But he owned the Torah
That was the last straw, that was the moment when I walked away from Judaism and God and the whole kit and caboodle in my heart. If I couldn’t ask questions then screw ‘em. And if Judaism was all about vengence, then screw that. I was fifteen, and the only response I could come up with was complete rejection. It took me years and decades of slow crawling to my identity and to knowledge to find my way back to where I might have been if that rabbi had let me ask questions and embrace Torah.
So I guess it’s basherte, that this is the parsha I am asked to address to a room full of strangers. Kill all the women, enslave all the women and children.
Of course I rejected this, we don’t live this way, we don’t condone vengeance killings, or honor killings, we don’t have slaves and we don’t rape women. We despise genocide, and none of us identify with this passage in any way, right? So we should reject it utterly, and if this Torah puts this forth as the way we should live and think, then we should reject the Torah, right?
Not right. I want us to be able to talke a nuanced, dialectical approach to Torah when we read things we object to. For lots of reasons.
Partly because this is an historical document, written thousands of years ago, that tells us what the lives of the people were like back then. Much of who we are as Jews because we exist in history. Whether the Torah literally happened or not is almost unimportant. As history or as myth, ethnic Jew or Jew by Choice, this is where we come from. We can’t turn away from it.
Even more fundamentally, the essence of Judaism is our arguments with it. You are never more Jewish then when you are engaged in struggle with some part of Torah, Talmud, the stories or the traditions. To walk away from that struggle is to reject what for me is the absolutely best part of being Jewish. There’s so much to talk about here that is so completely relevant to us and Israel at this very moment, alas! The Ethics of War…genocide… Slavery..how to treat the innocent…Vengence….
This is really interesting stuff. Reject the passage because it’s ugly and you lose so much. In fact, we should be embracing precisely because it IS ugly.
Life can be hideous. People do selfish and gruesome and cruel things to each other. They did it then, they do it now. We do it now. Jews do it now. If you refuse to look at the ugly in Torah, you are refusing to look at it in yourself and it is our obligation as Jews to confront the truth and make choices about how we will deal with it. People will do things that make us angry. We can choose to act from that anger or not, but we can’t make that choice if we don’t acknowledge it.
I don’t know about you, but I can hold to more than one idea in my head at a time. I can love Jews and Israel and know that there is God-ness in this world with every fiber of my being, and I can also know that lots of Jews are crazy and mean and that I am not happy with the current Israeli government and that it often seems like pain and hardship are random and arbitrary. I can know that Torah portrays the people and their God as ugly and jealous and hurtful and cruel and also know that the Torah shows them to be loving and beautiful and kind and forgiving, I can know these all at the same time and live with both, they are all, each in theirr own way, truth.
When I was 15 that Rabbi owned the Torah, but now we do, which means we can play with it as much as we want:
Why did I get Torah back?
I met a rabbi who told me that,
Doubt could be an act of faith.
I had a teacher who said,
The study of Talmud was about the questions and not the answers.
I met a spiritual director who helped me meet my God, the fierce mystery.
Long story short
And check it out
Some forty years after that Hebrew School class,
I’m in rabbinical school!
And someday, when I teach Torah?
And some wiseguy kid
Asks of me a question,
Genuine and/or smartass,
That I don’t want to answer
Or I cannot answer,
What will I say?
I hope I will say,
This is my torah
And this is what I think.
And this is your Torah
So what do you think?
Blessed Yah, giving us so many opportunities for questions
And for this we are so grateful.