In the Winter 2017 edition of Tikkun, Rabbi Michael Lerner and Peter Gabel wrote of rising racism, sexism, and xenophobia in the current political and social face of America. Much was made of attempts to narrow today’s divisive gap between “Trump-ism” and the progressive political movements. Among the valuable suggestions made on how to achieve this goal was an emphasis on Tikkun‘s Network of Spiritual Progressives. Speaking truth to power was mentioned more than once.
However, if there is one area in which speaking truth to power is simply not acceptable, it is what the world embraces as spiritual. This is true not only of religions of which we are not a part, it is true of our own spiritual texts.
In the long history of the spiritual fracturing of these three great Biblical religions, each tradition has pointed to problematic texts in the religions of the others. But the response is not the same when criticism is leveled at our own. There are texts of hatred and racism in the sacred texts of other traditions, but that is another essay. I am interested in dealing with our sacred texts because when it comes to our own, we have all sorts of red herring excuses, dogmatic apologetics, and other evasive responses to any who would point to racism, sexism, and xenophobia in our Torah. It is easy to focus on the problems of the others, but almost impossible to do so when we are challenged about our own bits of the spiritually abhorrent.
One of the things I have admired about Tikkun and its writers is their willingness to challenge Israel when it violates the greatest of our moral teachings. Perhaps that is easy because it can be seen as a political issue rather than one rooted in parts of our spiritually foundational texts. I suggest that without an honest examination of the roots of these spiritual forms of hatred, we will accomplish little.
As Jewish children attend regular religious schools and services, Torah passages where “God” commands genocide, texts of racism, xenophobia, and sexism are judiciously avoided. They don’t learn them. Many a rabbi, including myself, don’t read them the whole meghillah; we stop the hanging of Haman, thus avoiding the rampage of our Israelite ancestors who killed tens of thousands of the evil Haman’s followers. We rush past the extermination of other tribes in our passage to the Holy Land. We teach them “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” Noah and the rainbow, Jacob’s dream, and Elijah’s chariot in the sky. The “rest of the story” gets no mention, or is rapidly glossed over.
Perhaps when they study for Bar/Bat Mitzvah, they encounter problematic texts in their Torah portion, but we have ready-made excuses: “taken in context,” “it really wasn’t God who commanded these things, it was the people writing the story who said this,” “maybe we did keep captive women as slaves in those days, but we don’t do it anymore.” Trying to assert that the use of today’s ethics is not appropriate as judge of yesterday’s actions begs the question, but we offer it to these bright students. Sometimes a student doesn’t read more than three sentences of the maftir and can avoid the rest of the text. Worst of all, some who really do read and understand a troubling text are told that they simply must accept the slaying of the suckling babe in its mother’s arms as a wisdom of God so superior to ours that what is appalling to us is mysterious righteousness in God. Some of these Jewish kids know a snow job when they see it and as soon as the Bar/Bat Mitzvah trip to Israel is over, they have had it with Judaism and might never enter the Shul again. Similar responses are given to adults who are troubled by the brutality in parts of the Torah.
Speaking truth to power I say to you that retaining so-called sacred texts of divine genocide, racism, and hatred of others is at the very least a subliminal way of teaching our children to hate. Even if they lovingly do want to embrace the sacred texts of their fathers, we make them victims of what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” The brain does not do well with diametrically oppositional messages. No matter how deeply the repulsive message is suppressed, it remains there. As part of our sacred mission we kill every man, woman, and child except a prostitute and her family at Jericho. God finds that babies and children, and totally innocent denizens of nature deserve to be drowned while just one family in the entire world is worthy to be spared.
As part of our sacred prayers and teachings, many devout Jewish men still say a blessing to God every day that they were not born a woman and they are quick to note that a woman’s voice in the sacred setting of a synagogue is tiflut. Many Orthodox prayer books still contain the following passage as part of every weekday birkat hamazon: “…happy is he who shall seize and dash thy [Babylon’s] little ones against the rock.” To their credit, progressive Jews have eliminated such sexism and Psalms 137:9 from their liturgies. But they remain in the Orthodox world and the progressives did not eliminate the texts themselves from our “canon” of sacred words. I know the excuse that Psalms 137:9 is said in the context of Babylonian destruction of Israel. But why do we need to recite it daily 2500+ years later? Even the truly great Rabbi Daniel Landes held a symposium suggesting that this part of the prayer needed to go.
These messages are the seeds for justifying hatred, racism, and violence against the outsider. From before the Inquisition to modern times, they have been embraced by zealots. How can we ignore that, no matter how many subsequent glosses on these verses, their messages were embraced by hate groups throughout history? Today, many neo-Nazis and KKK members are regular church members — might not they, like their predecessors, get inspiration from such texts? Is it any wonder that many of them come from the heart of bible-based communities? Does not the text tell them that, as our common ancestors blindly did God’s bidding, so should they burn the settlements of the enemy, poison their wells, burn their crops; that as our common ancestors blindly did God’s bidding in killing even pregnant women and sucking babes, should they not do the same?
By keeping repulsive, immoral texts in our Torah and by defending them as the “word of God,” we also drive away those who might see in our sacred texts a path to enrich their lives. Isn’t it a bit ironic that we keep and defend such texts, then wonder why anyone would be an atheist? While we turn away decent, caring, and intelligent people because we retain these texts, we are simultaneously providing sacred imprimaturs for Jews, Christians, and Muslims willing to commit genocide and to kill innocents in the name of God.
Not long ago, the BBC had a news report about the destruction of the memorials and grounds of the famous Bhodi Tree. More than one broadcast was devoted to damage caused by “radical Islamists.” Not once did the BBC mention that in the Torah, (called Tawrat in the Islamic world), God specifically commands the total destruction of any and all places of worship of other religions. The Southern Poverty Law Center did a 5-part series investigating how white supremacists and similar hate groups “use religious concepts and scripture to justify [violence].” In their promotional material, they were quick to note “[i]t should not be misconstrued as a critique of faith or criticism of the devout.” As if Cotton Mather, Pat Buchanan, the Reverend Phelps, Rabbi Meir Kahane, or radical clerics of Islam are not devout? Does “devout” mean only the religious figures we approve of?
Truth to power: some of our greatest religious minds refuse all such criticism of our sacred texts. In a 1993 edition of Tikkun, renowned scholar Susannah Heschel wrote an article in which she points out that a number of contemporary German Christian scholars (who condemn anti-Semitism and the Holocaust) have written about genocide at the behest of God in the Hebrew Bible. Ms. Heschel categorically dismissed such criticism as the work of anti-Semites when those scholars suggested that the Nazis were like the Israelites: just automatically following authoritarian obedience to orders. There was perhaps justification in calling them anti-Semitic; but why not also recognize the un-holy nature of some of our own “sacred” texts?
Is it anti-Semitic to be appalled by the passage where God sends three bears to destroy 44 children who teased a prophet of God? Even the rabbis of the Talmud were so aghast at such action they claimed there was “no such thing as bears or forests” in that particular location. Tragically, they did not vote it out of the sacred texts. Even the great Martin Buber said that the God in this passage was no God of his!
Biblical texts of hatred, ethnic superiority, and of holy genocide have been used to support acts of hatred against Pantheists, Pagans, Witches, Midianites, Prophetesses, Christians, Native Americans, Black people, women, and even the Jews who first called these texts “holy”.
So, what can we do about such texts? I have a radical proposal in keeping with rabbinic tradition. We must do what our ancestors had the courage to do: change or eliminate such passages from our sacred texts. They once eliminated whole books from the tradition of what were considered sacred texts which had been handed down to them. Maimonides once wrote that he could not say what God was but he could definitely say what God was not. It is a good teaching to follow. Passages of hatred in the name of God, passages of condemnation of others because of their ethnicity, or their differing religion, are not holy.
It is time to quit trying to mitigate the damage by denying the plain meanings of the texts of hatred or simply trying to obfuscate the issue by pointing to the many beautiful passages which contradict the racist, bigoted, and immoral passages.
There was an old song my parents used to sing and part of the lyrics were, “You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative and latch on to the affirmative and don’t mess with Mr. In-between.” Keep the texts of hatred, genocide, and ethnocentrism, the forms of patriarchal superiority, exhortations to commit violence against children and the weak among us, in some compendium of things we have rejected. But don’t keep passing them on, and defending their inclusion, in our sacred texts. If we can’t do this, we will forever give the haters all the justification they could wish for: They can continue to say that God exhorts “His” followers to act in accordance with these sacred texts.
There is no one way to the beauty of the spirit, no one way to nurture the soul, no one way to walk a path of holiness — except to eternally seek that which affirms life for all of us, to create that which enhances the grace and dignity of all life, to embrace that which draws each of us to connect with the entire spectrum of this earth.
From the peaks of its stone-capped mountains to the mysterious depths of its seas; from the smallest of its creatures to the largests of its suns, let us dedicate ourselves to that range of holiness.
Is this not the sacrifice of the heart that the prophet urged us to embrace?
Let us look to a day in which anyone who picks up our sacred texts will see the beauty of its path, that it is “a tree of life to those who hold fast to it.” Let there be a day in which the stranger might read our texts and exclaim they found only divine embrace and spiritual beauty in our path.
And in that day perhaps, Jews, Muslims, and Christians will have removed the texts which keep us at odds with one another. Then, truly, the spirit of the words of Micah will be a blessing to us all: “With no one to make them afraid…All nations may walk in the name of their gods as we will walk with ours.”
Rabbi Lester G. Scharnberg was ordained in 1990 by AJR (Academy For Jewish Religion) in New York. He served part-time for Havurah Shir Hadash in Arcata, CA until its closing in 2012, and as part-time congregational rabbi for the Crescent City, CA/Brookings, OR community since 1992. He was adjunct faculty at Humboldt State University and at College of the Redwoods where over the course of 10 years, he taught a number of courses including World Mythology, World Religions, Judaism, Hebrew Bible, Intro to Philosophy, Ethics, and Critical Thinking.