Tikkun Magazine, September/October 1994
Dealing With the Hard Stuff
By Judith Plaskow
For many years, I had difficulty listening to the Megillah reading on Purim. I found the story morally repugnant. Vashti's banishment for refusing to display herself before a group of drunken revelers seemed to me an example of male chauvinism it was impossible to slide over. And I experienced chapter nine, in which the Jews slay their enemies, as dreadful and bloodthirsty. That Haman should be hanged was utterly fitting; he was the one who hatched the plot against the Jews. But why should that be an excuse for a general bloodletting i which Jews treated an unnamed enemy in precisely the way they feared to be treated themselves?
But a few years ago--I'm not sure how or why--I came to adopt the perspective certain friends had long been pressing on me. The story was Purim Torah--nonsense, parody. I suddenly heard the full absurdity of the line, "for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon all peoples" (9:2), and my gestalt shifted Ahasuerus was a complete fool, the story of Vashti obvious silliness, chapter nine the drunken fantasy of a powerless people. I thoroughly enjoyed the last several years of Megillah readings.
And then, this year, on the afternoon of Purim, I turned on my radio and heard that Baruch Goldstein had used the occasion of the holiday to mow down thirty Arabs praying in a mosque in Hebron. I realized that reading the story as Purim Torah had not banished or addressed the layer of poisonous objectification of the Other contained in chapter nine.
The massacre in Hebron raises a question posed many times in the course of the annual cycle of weekly and holiday readings: What do we do with hard texts? Wha do we do, when as individuals or communities, we find ourselves faced with text that not only express values we no longer share, but that seem to support and encourage hatred, oppression, and violence in the world? For me, the end of the Book of Esther is not the only or even the most egregious example of this problem. According to tradition, in avenging themselves against their enemies, the Jews were simply acting on a broader warrant for genocide: the commandment to exterminate Amalek (Deut. 25:19; Ex. 17:16). Numerous passages in the Torah call for the annihilation of the peoples and indigenous religious traditions of Canaan (e.g., Deut. 7:1-5). And others identify groups within Israel as fitting targets for destruction or dehumanization. A man who lies with a man as with a woman should be put to death (Lev. 20:13). Lot offers his virgin daughters to b gang-raped by the men of Sodom (Gen. 19:8), an act on which the Torah makes no comment.
I am not suggesting that there is a direct and simple connection between difficult texts and contemporary examples of intolerance or hatred. Baruch Goldstein did not kill thirty Arabs in cold blood because the Megillah told him to do so. Nor do I see a direct relationship between discrimination against gay and lesbians in the Jewish community and the injunctions of Leviticus. Not only have appeals to problematic passages been too selective to support such easy correlations, but also there are obviously complex social, historical, and political factors that shape religious attitudes toward particular communities. I am arguing, however, that these texts foster and support a process of objectification of people who are "not like us." We learn from the Torah that there are whole groups of human beings who are so evil, or so other than we are that marginalizing or destroying them is not only thinkable but divinely ordained.
Despite my willingness to read the Megillah as Purim Torah, I have never been o the school that feels we can simply dismiss troubling passages as reflections o an earlier time period. In this, I agree with Tzvi Marx, who discussed this dilemma in the last issue of TIKKUN ("A Post-Hebron Letter to My Son Michael," May/June 1994). Nor do I think we can interpret them away. In reading the Torah aloud each week as sacred text, we receive it ever again in the present, heatin it directly and unadorned. In this context, the fact that the midrashic tradition sees Lot as sharing in the sinfulness of Sodom cannot entirely eradicate the cruelty and violation of his readiness to sacrifice his daughters There is no easy way to escape or ignore the hard places in Torah. Insofar as i has shaped our values, it necessarily has shaped them for good and for ill.
In dealing with hard texts, then, we have several possibilities. Divrai Torah o Torah discussions constitute the most obvious context for grappling with the difficult passages in Torah. Their purpose is to provide occasions for interpretation and application of the weekly reading. But there may also be other creative ways to turn troubling passages into opportunities for communal conversation and learning. In an article on Leviticus and homosexuality, Rebecc Alpert suggests that all synagogues declare the weeks of Parshiot Ahare Mot and Kedoshim lesbian and gay awareness weeks. Synagogues might set up panels and invite speakers, foster discussion, and formulate policy. One can imagine analogous events for other problematic passages. The week of Ki Tetse, when the injunction to exterminate Amalek is read, might serve--in the contemporary context--as the occasion for examining Jewish attitudes toward Palestinians. Parashat Vayera, when we read about Lot, might provide the opportunity to talk about sexual abuse in the Jewish community. And so on.
As another response in the aftermath of the Purim massacre in Hebron, Rivkah Walton has come up with a proposal for liturgical acknowledgment of the problematic nature of certain canonical sources. She suggests that when the Torah verses concerning Amalek are read, congregations read softly and rapidly, as they do for the curses at Gerizim and Ebal (Deut. 27:11-28). And she also proposes that Esther 9:1-16 be read in the trop (melody for chanting) traditionally used for Lamentations. Varying trop is a classic way of expressin feelings and values surrounding the material being read, and it has the advantage of calling community attention to morally difficult texts in the very process of reading. Such approaches can, in Rebecca Alpert's words, "transform Torah from a stumbling block [in]to an entry path."
But if certain texts seem to call out for attention and action, confronting har texts also has its dangers and even absurdities. If we extend the principle of expressing our distance or mourning through trop, or set up "awareness weeks" for every passage whose import is damaging, where does the process end? It is not always easy to separate the stories and values we want to affirm from those we find troubling or simply unacceptable. We run the risk of always and only using Torah against itself, ignoring its richness and flattening its ambiguities.
And there is an opposite danger as well. It is one thing for adults who have already been affected and formed by difficult texts to find ways publicly to struggle with them. But can we justify teaching such passages and passing them on to the next generation so that they also need to exorcise the objectificatio of the Other that the text teaches and supports?
I do not have any easy answers to these questions. When I think about what I will do next Purim, I hope to be able to read on two levels. I do not want to lose the level of Purim Torah--the fun and self-mockery that is an important part of the cycle of human celebration and that has helped a persecuted people to survive. But I also want to grapple in community with the dangers of the Purim story for a people with power, and with the criminal use to which this text has been put, partly in my name. I continue to search for ways of dealing with a complex and contradictory heritage, and for ways of wresting life and justice from even its hardest places.
Judith Plaskow is professor of religious studies at Manhattan College. She is teaching at Harvard Divinity School in the fall of 1994.
Plaskow, Judith. 1994. Dealing With the Hard Stuff. Tikkun 9(5): 57.