Three Paths Through Torah


By Rabbi Rami Shapiro What do we do with the painful, misogynist, and genocidal passages of Torah? This was my challenge as I prepared to teach Torah yesterday at Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in Connecticut. The passage in question is the Israelite slaughter of the Midianites. Moses and God demand the death of them all, […]

torahBy Rabbi Rami Shapiro

What do we do with the painful, misogynist, and genocidal passages of Torah? This was my challenge as I prepared to teach Torah yesterday at Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in Connecticut.

The passage in question is the Israelite slaughter of the Midianites. Moses and God demand the death of them all, and when the soldiers spare the women and babies, Moses is furious, ordering the soldiers to murder the survivors sparing only the baby girls and virgins whom the soldiers may take for themselves.

In the course of sharing my dilemma with colleagues, three options for dealing with such texts emerged:

1. The way of justification: this was a time of war when the Israelites were taking the Promised Land from its inhabitants and they needed to cleanse the land from non-Israelite influences of both blood and religion.

2. The way of denial: this isn’t history at all. It just never happened.

3. The way of allegory: the text isn’t meant to be taken literally but metaphorically. The women aren’t women; the babies aren’t babies. All the characters in this genocidal drama are aspects of ourselves with which we must wrestle.

All three ways of dealing with the text have merit, but none satisfy me fully.

The Way of Justification. It is one thing to justify the actions of our ancient ancestors and another to celebrate them by reading their story over and over again each year. Since it is anachronistic to apply today’s morality to that of biblical times, there is no point to reading this text in the context of a sacred celebration of Shabbat at all. It should be relegated to the library where other history books are stored.

The Way of Denial. If we deny the historicity of the text and claim it is just a story, why read it (and texts like it) at all? I don’t read tales of gore and horror in any other form; why read it because it is in the Bible? And even if we claim it is fiction, the calling it sacred fiction and reading it as the word of God poisons the collective psyche of our people. What is the difference between pretend history and real history when both are so honored? And if it is pretend history, why pretend at all? Why pretend we were butchers when we were not butchers?

The Way of Allegory. If we claim the story is allegory, that it is about inner spiritual warfare rather than actual warfare, why use this allegory? Couldn’t we find more effective ways to explore and perhaps free ourselves from our genocidal urges than to interpret ancient fictions? And, if the history is not history, but story, as the way of denial and the way of allegory attest, what does this say about our claim to the Land of Israel today? The Jewish claim to the Land in the 20th and 21st centuries is based on the fact that God gave it to us in biblical times. If these stories aren’t history then our claim to Palestine is moot.

I understand the need to both justify and escape from the horrors of the Bible. Who wants to believe they come from such a people? I can understand why we would want to deny the historicity of the text and take refuge in allegory. But doing so scares me.

If we can allegorize our genocide against the inhabitants of the Midianites (and many others), won’t the German people someday allegorize the Holocaust? “No, no,” they will insist, “The Holocaust is an allegory. Nazis represent the darker forces of our nature and Jews represent ‘the other.’ There were no real Nazis and Jews; this is just a story we tell ourselves to work through the human fear of the other.”

How many centuries will it take for Americans to allegorize slavery and the genocide of the Native American? Perhaps there will be no Jews left when Nazism becomes an allegory, but imagine if there were. Imagine if you were among them. Would you be pleased to see your suffering denied and reduced to psychological struggle within the minds of the ancestors of your oppressors? The only reason we can get away with allegorizing the slaughter of the Midianites is that there are not Midianites left to protest our callousness.
I am not saying that allegory has no place. But it cannot be used to replace history—real or imagined. If we pretend to be genocidal murderers, if we celebrate the death of our enemies and the innocents who simply happen to be in our way even if we are only imagining them, what does that do to those of us who hear these tales week after week, year after year?

I am not sure the text is history. There is much debate over this and I am inclined to follow those scholars who say this is story rather than history. But it is a story that frightens me. I don’t want to imagine my ancestors this way. So I have two choices: One is I can cease to read fiction that is so dark and evil (just as I refuse to see movies or read books about serial killers or the rape and torture of innocents), and seek more modern means for dealing with the darkside of my psyche. The other is that I can take these texts not only as an opportunity for inner exploration and healing, but also as opportunities for communal grief and soul searching.

There are many great rabbis who do the former, but I have yet to see anyone do the latter. When we read about our genocides against our “enemies” let us stop and mourn for them and for our ancestors—real or fictional—who felt the need to either do these things or pretend to do them. Let us take responsibility for our people and our stories, true or fanciful. Let us confess our sins, if nothing else the sin of wanting to be the murderers we were not.

re-printed from Rami’s Blog


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5 Responses to “Three Paths Through Torah”

  1. Betty Van Till
    July 23, 2009 at 3:39 pm #

    Thanks for struggling with a text that so many hold “true” or “sacred.” Thanks for honesty,
    thanks for reality, thanks for caring about tradition and rationality and then what to do with it all.

  2. Stuart
    July 24, 2009 at 4:49 am #

    I appreciate this article. I’ve been thinking on this topic for some time and have just started to engage my friends and family on the subject. It seems like it’s at the heart of much of our culture and the reason many religious people justify violent thoughts and actions. May we all learn to pursue peace more and more and change the world through love, not violence.

  3. Phillip Smith
    July 24, 2009 at 5:21 am #

    Similar sentiments to the first respondent, this piece is also particularly poignant here in Australia, where I live. It most likely barely created a ripple in the U.S
    Very poignant piece, particularly from where I was born and live. I don’t know if it even created a ripple in your news over there in the U.S(correct me if I’m wrong), but you may, or may not, remember, that our Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, finally gave a public apology and acknowlegement to the Aboriginals(of course the original inhabitants of our land, and an unreserved apology to the “Stolen Generation”(for those who don’t know, who they were, they were those Aboriginals who were, under the auspices of previous Federal Governments and authorities, forcibly removed from their families. Something very moving, and a long time coming, but as yet, there is a long way to go yet, as many issues remain, including health, disease control, and alcohol abuse, which leads to despair, violence, and suicide. So yeah, much more work to be done.Likewise,to the first respondent, thanks for struggling with, and all the while, respecting biblical tradition, and with how we can interpret it into our posstmodern culture.

  4. Tim West
    July 24, 2009 at 6:25 am #

    Why not look at it as mythology? Much classic horror literature and mythology explores the dark side of our nature, and it can be cathartic. It doesn’t matter if it is history or not. It becomes problematic when we begin calling it sacred or using it to justify things like a claim to Palestine.

    Of course allegory is not a replacement for history. If we know something happened, we acknowledge it, or at least ought to. Mythology is semi-historical. It grew out of oral traditions before history was properly recorded. All we have is someone’s preferred account of an event and the meaning it has taken on for generations. If we can find a positive use for the stories that have been handed down to us through the generations, more power to us. We use lots of things that have been handed down to us that feed our need for a sense of rootedness and connectedness. If we cannot use them, we are free to drop them.

  5. Sabina Becker
    August 16, 2009 at 7:44 am #

    Dear Rabbi Shapiro
    A sensitive, deeply thoughtful article! I was raised Christian (Roman Catholic), and for me the violence and vindictiveness displayed in the “Old Testament” portion of Torah (what I’m familiar with)has always been totally unacceptable. Such scriptures led to my rejection of the Bible at age 15. Too many such scriptures are also similiar in attitudes and actions displayed by militant “Jihadist” agendas.

    Being older and (I hope) wiser (at age 61). I have practicised and studied many spiritual practises (Buddhist,Hindu,shamanic,Gnostic Christian, Kabbalah),as well as “depth”,transpersonal and developmental object relations psychologies, for many years. I strongly believe that we have to understand such scripture within a developmental psychological and sociological perspective.

    Just as individual humans go through the developmental stages of birth-childhood-adolescence-adulthood-ageing-death, perhaps so do cultures and civilizations. Perhaps many portions of Torah/Old Testament were created during historical periods displaying characteristics typical of infancy/childhood/adolescence. Childrens’ biology and neurology do include “primitive” violent affect, fantasies, and sometimes actions. Adolescents, especially males,often display aggressive territoriality, rebellion, competitiveness, and violence. All humans display tendencies toward tribalism and prejudice/warfare against those perceived as the enemy/alien other. These qualities are displayed throughout many of the world’s religions and tribal superstitions.

    I am especially impressed with much writing on these topics by the Jungian school of depth psychology. There are too many resources I have found helpful in understanding human behavior to mention them all here. However I will recommend (to start with) these books: “The Origin and History of Consciousness” and “The Great Mother; Analysis of an Archetype” by Erich Neumann; “The Religious Functions of the Psyche” by Lionel Corbett, and “The Two Million Year Old Self” by Anthony Stevens.

    Perhaps others will find these resources helpful in understanding the tribal warfare, violence, and misogyny found in the scriptures of many religions.

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