Friday, 6 March 2009

Reading Texts of Terror - Shabbat Zachor


Last week I gave a sermon about simple things.

I spoke of the gentle power of straightforward acts of building community and Jewish life.

But much as I feel, still, the importance of simple actions, this week I feel the need to address something more intellectual.

Indeed much as I fear that we as a community overlook simple actions in favour of complex thoughts too often, this week I feel compelled to address something more dangerous and less obviously about building the strengths of this community.


I want to talk about what the critic Phyliss Tribble calls, 'texts of terror,' texts so dark that we would rather flick quickly by in favour of speaking about something nicer and less disturbing.


This is, after all, a community born out of a willingness to engage in a complexity.

As Rabbi Hammer, pointed out so eloquently in his talk here on Thursday, this is a community born out of a feeling that if there is a truth hidden in something we would rather not admit, our religious duty is to admit.

And not to hide.

We pride ourselves here, at New London, for being open minded, and that means we need to read our tradition without blinkers.


Ki macho emche et zecher amalek mi tachat hashamayim

I will truly blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens – says God to Moses in the special Maftir portion we read today.


Vayomer Shmuel el Shaul.

עַתָּה לֵךְ וְהִכִּיתָה אֶת-עֲמָלֵק, וְהַחֲרַמְתֶּם

אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ, וְלֹא תַחְמֹל, עָלָיו; וְהֵמַתָּה מֵאִישׁ

עַד-אִשָּׁה, מֵעֹלֵל וְעַד-יוֹנֵק, מִשּׁוֹר וְעַד-שֶׂה, מִגָּמָל


Samuel said to Saul, now go and strike Amalek, wipe out everything that is his, have no mercy for hi, kill whether man or woman, whether aged or infant, whether ox or sheep, whether camel or ass.

That comes from the special haftorah.

It turns out that Saul does indeed show mercy or for some other reason spares the King and his sheep and for this Samuel demands that he loses his hold on the monarchy.


And there is a word for a command to wipe out an entire people

And it is a word we, as Jews, have come to dread.


And so we have, in our holiest of scriptures a command to genocide.

And it's not our only terrifying text.

I wrote in the recently delivered NLS Newsletter of the massacre at the end of the Book of Ester and there are others.

We need a way to deal with these texts, these texts of terror.

And in a world where there are those, and sadly we must include Jews among these idiots, who read texts of terror and commit acts of terror in their name, we need to be much more explicit about how we handle these texts.


Let me begin with Martin Buber,

The great existentialist C20th philosopher of Judaism.

'I once met on a journey an observant Jew who followed the religious tradition in all the details of his life-pattern.

'I no longer remember exactly in what connection we came to speak of that section of the Book of Samuel in which it is told how Samuel delivered to King Saul the message that his dynastic rule would be taken from him because he had spared the life of the conquered prince of the Amalekites. I reported to my partner in dialogue how dreadful it had been to me, even as a boy, to read this as the message of God (though my heart had compelled me to read it again [and again]) … how the heathen king went up to the prophet with the words on his lips, "Surely the bitterness of death is past," and was hewn to pieces by him. I said to my partner in dialogue: "I have never been able to believe 'that this is a message of God. I do not believe it."


This, of course, is one response to texts of terror.

We believe in a God of goodness and when we see a text so steeped in what strikes us, no matter how long we study it, as immoral or, at the very least, amoral, we could simply deem it wrong and walk away.

One can share with Buber in refusing to believe that these texts, despite their location in our Bible and our liturgy do indeed reflect the will of God.


It is a beguiling response to these texts, but, ultimately, I believe it has to be rejected.

To believe that there is a space between the perfection we believe invests in the Divine and the, at the very least, humanly influenced prophecies recorded in the Bible is, of course very Jewish.

But this approach of Buber goes very far.

It is the approach of a nuclear weapon.

It works – the texts no longer terrify, but the debris, the aftermath is too severe.

What would it mean for us to strip any text of its power on the basis that we felt it problematic?

One day we might remove these worrying texts so bound into the story of Purim, the next we would delete any uncomfortable references to the special relationship we Jews feel we share with the divine.

The next we would remove any reference to not engaging in business affairs on the Shabbat, it's become too impractical – there is a recession on, don't you know.

And the next and the next and the next …

Until there will be nothing left but pareve children's tales devoid not only of terror but also of bite, or reality, of guts and of passion.

Buber, of course, felt no compunction in rewriting Judaism around his own morals, but that takes, for me at least, matters too far.

We need always to remember that the entire basis of the Jewish faith is that we posit authority beyond us, not in us.

We need to reject an approach to texts of terror based purely on our instinctive gut response.

So much for the approach of Buber.


Next port of call would be the approach of the Biblical scholars.

This requires the anatomisation of our Biblical texts.

The scholars view the antipathy called upon Amalek and Agag as part of an ancient society where the kinds of violence Moses and Samuel speak of is entirely normal.

Ancient near eastern civilisation after ancient near eastern civilisation wiped out one another and that shouldn't be considered odd and certainly should be considered immoral, or even amoral.

That was then, this is now and of course, say the scholars, we no longer pay these relics serious attention!

And as for the massacre in Ester, its lashon guzma – an exaggeration for dramatic effect. It's a fictional, say the scholars who know that there never was a King Ahasuerus who reigned, from Hodu to Kush, over one hundred and twenty seven provinces.

Ester is, say the academics, a satire, and just as the authors of Spitting Image presented Margaret Thatcher in Stormtrooper jackboots and just as Steve Bell presented George W. Bush as a chimpanzee, so too the author of Ester presents an unfolded Jewish unconscious. It's a dream, it's not a historical record and it's not supposed to be taken literally.

This is beguiling also.

Not least since these sorts of academic insights have a great deal of truth behind them.

But again their seductive power must be constrained.

For, like the Buberian approach, elevating this kind of read of texts of terror to a level so exalted that one is capable of overturning a clear injunction of the scriptures based on an argument from history, is too dangerous.

Let me give one example.

It says, in the Shema, that you shall write these words on the doorposts of your gates. And every Rabbinic Jew knows what this means – this means fix a mezuzah.

But history teaches us something else. History teaches us that the ancients would write, or carve, imprecations and amulets quite literally onto the doorposts. Indeed we have remains of these doorposts in museums and archaeological sites around the world.

And it would be wrong to say, as a matter of correct contemporary Jewish approach, that we should abandon the process of writing mezuzot and fixing mezuzot at a characteristic incline simply because we have learnt something different from our enquiries into history.

The correct approach to contemporary Jewish life cannot be shaped purely by our historical enquiries. We risk, again, the disintegration of everything we hold dear.


And this leaves one other response.

A response I believe is not only profoundly Jewish, but profoundly Masorti.

It is an approach wherein we hurl the parts of the tradition against one another in a battle for the soul of Judaism.

This hurling of one side of the tradition against the other is, of course, profoundly Jewish.

Rav Abba taught in the name of Shmuel, for three years the house of Hillel argued against the House of Shammai[1]

Teaches the Talmud,

It's so non-exceptional that the content of the argument isn't even recorded.

The important thing is that the argument is legitimate.

Vayatzah bat kol vayomar, elu v'elu divrei elohim chayim.

A Divine voice came forth and said, both these and these are the words of the living God.

Continues the Talmud,


So how does one argue with a Divine command to wipe out a people.

We turn to our religious books and find our archetypes, our models for lifting Judaism out of the genocide commands of our texts of terror.

I want to share an extract from a new book by one of my most influential teachers, Rabbi Harold Schulweis.[2]



Schulweis' point is that our tradition is full of the voice of human consciousness engaging in problematic Divine orders.

Abraham cites theology argues God on behalf of Sodom and Gemorah.

And Moses, time and time again, uses the voice of the tradition to take on God.


In another fabulous extract from the tradition – Midrash Bmidbar Rabba[3] Moses is recorded taking God's first attempt at a command to be given in the book of Deuteronomy, in which, we are told, there was a promise to visit the sins of the father on the children.


Ribono shel olam, says Moses hearing the news, doesn't Kind Hezekiah do good, and didn't he spring from the loins of the wicked Kind Ahaz?

Doesn't king Josiah do good, and didn't he spring from the loins of the wicked Amnon?

And far from criticising Moses, God responds, 'By your life Moses, you have instructed Me. I will nullify my words and confirm yours. And let the verse instead read, 'The father shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death because of the fathers.' (Deut 24:16)


And following the end of the sort of direct encounter Moses had with God, oOther great heroes of Jewish consciousness take on the remnants of God's will in prophetic calls and the books of our tradition.

Hannah takes on the prophet Eli who thinks that a pouring out of the soul is a mark of drunkenness. He recants and recognises in Hannah a higher way of prayer than he knew before.

The Rabbis of the Talmud, as Rabbi Hammer discussed on Thursday night, took on verses and commands in the Bible they felt unconscionable and stripped them of their unacceptable affect.

There are almost too many examples to mention.

My favourite example comes from the last body-blow given by the Rabbis to the doctrine of capital punishment.

It comes from the Talmudic tractate Avodah Zara[4]

Forty years before the destruction of the Temple the Sanhedrin abandoned [the Temple grounds] and held its sittings in Hanuth…Why? Because when the Sanhedrin saw that murderers could not be properly dealt with they said, 'Rather let us be exiled from place to place than pronounce them guilty of capital offences. As it is written, 'You shall carry out the verdict that is announced to you from that place will chose.' (Deut 17:10)


It's a fabulous moment in Rabbinic history.

The Rabbis decide on the basis of a verse that could easily be read in so many other ways, that capital punishment can only be carried by a Sanhedrin seated in Jerusalem. And so they exile themselves so they can no longer demand a capital sentence.

They insist a technicality overturns a morally impossible text.

There is, I admit a kind of absurdity, almost a madness in this kind of Rabbinic reading, but who among us would not wish a religious tradition to tie itself in logical knots before allowing a human being to be killed in the name of Divine Law.

Of course Judaism should, and must, be engaged in this kind of logical dance, for this is a logical dance that strips our texts of terror of their power.


And these texts lose their power without explicitly rejecting these texts as Buber does, or as the academics would do, but by applying the other voice – the counter voice of the tradition itself to the tradition.


What is remarkable about this approach – the approach of using the tradition to respond to the problems thrown up by the tradition is that, as it overturns texts of terror, it does so from within.

The tradition is strengthened even as it is weakened.

Indeed this strengthening of the tradition happens not only in terms of how we respond to the texts of tradition, but also in terms of what is required to be engaged in the process of healing terrifying texts.

In this third kind of approach to texts of terror one does cannot rely on the emotions of one's own moral compass.

One cannot even rely on any body of hitzoni – secular, academic knowledge. To engage in this kind of profoundly moral exegesis one needs to study Torah, one needs to turn the pages of Talmud, Midrash and Halachah, learn the ropes of the system.

One needs to learn to submit not only to its obvious charms, but also its methods and madnesses, madnesses used to confront the seemingly impossible – the texts of terror.

And it is in this process of study and submission to the ebbs and flows of Rabbinic discourse and practice that we find a protection against taking a too free – reforming – approach to the tradition.

The more we study and practice the more we deepen our sense of what it is to be a Jew.

But this never comes – at least it should never come – with an acceptance of texts of terror.

For Biblical mandate to wipe out Amalek there are some thirty something calls to tend for and care for the stranger.

For every Biblically mandated death penalty there are commands to honour the image of the Divine in every human, obligations to love our fellow, obligations deemed clalim gedolim batorah – the great principles of our tradition.


This is, I argue, the correct approach to these texts of terror.

It is an approach that has been our way, as Jews of every stripe from the age of Abraham to the beginning of the modern period.

It remains the approach of Masorti Jews, Jews cut from the same cloth of our founder Rabbi, Louis Jacobs, to this day.


Shabbat shalom


[1] Eruvin 13b

[2] Conscience: The duty to obey and the buty to disobey, (Jewish Lights 2008)

[3] Hukkat 19:33

[4] 8b


Peter Schogol said...

Sorry, Rabbi. I'm with Buber on this one.

jessica said...

Found your drash very meaningful!

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