When our Texts Embarrass Us (July 2005)

The Shulchan Aruch has recently been attacked in a Russia lawsuit as a racist book. Obviously, this is very disturbing for any number of reasons.

It’s a tough issue because the Shulchan Aruch often is anti-goyim, whether Christian or Moslem. If we want to be honest, we have to own up to this. One of my greatest challenges is reconciling those parts of it, as well as other texts, to my own derech. This invariably leads straight to Metaphor, do not pass go, do not collect $200, do not rest on pshat. These passages can be explained as appropriate to certain times and places, especially those where Jews were under attack both frontally as well as more subtlely in terms of proselytizing. Which, unfortunately, probably describes the conditions of many of Russia’s Jews right now, reflected by this issue itself.

More than this, much of Tanach can be labeled genocidal. Wipe out the seven nations, destroy Amalek…. How do we read, understand and teach these passages?

In many ways, the “paradigm shift” we take as a fundamental structure for Judaism in the 21st century might not be true for Jews in Russia. And “our” paradigm shift certainly doesn’t apply to Jews immediately following the destruction of the Temple, to our ancestors expelled from Spain, suffering from pogroms in Europe, slaughter in North Africa and the middle east, to those in the shtetl or the victims of the Holocaust. The sense of openness and exploration we currently enjoy requires a sense of safety and trust which, to some degree, does exist in much of the west and, perhaps in other non-Christian, non-Moslem countries. While we can today learn together with Moslem clerics in San Francisco or Seattle, even in Jerusalem, I doubt that would be possible in Syria today and certainly not in the times of the Talmud, the Zohar (written by R. Shimon Bar Yochai while hiding from Roman troops in a cave), Rashi, the Shulchan Aruch or other major times in our history.

Of course, from the very beginning of rabbinic times, we’ve been told to view even the Written Torah itself below the surface. We learn that “eyn milchama ele b’yetzer”, that when Scripture mentions “war”, it’s really talking about the war each of us wages with our own inner demons, weaknesses and flaws in our grand work of tikkun, of self-refinement. Canaanites, Emorites, even Amalakites are not actual living people we’re told to murder, but they signify parts of our personalities to work on.

Perhaps it’s easier to take this grand approach to these biblical verses than it is to understand why it’s ok to charge interest from goyim, why it’s ok to uncover a collapsed wall on Shabbat if a Jew might be trapped, but not if we’re certain the victim isn’t Jewish. It could be that all we can do is say these were different times, times where the struggle to survive was more immediate.

But is we start with the assumption that the Torah, both written and oral, both Scriptural and Rabbinic, are eternally true, we have the much greater challenge to uncover the meanings beneath the meanings. An image I have is an infinite onion whose layers can be removed when no longer fresh, revealing new and totally alive layers.

If you’ve studied with me, you know that I’ll often find the journey itself, trying to bond to the underlying structures and webs of relationships between the concepts and opinions, the very music and dance of the Talmud (or other text), to be the meditation, the process, the avenue to reach toward devekut. Perhaps the meaning isn’t in the meaning at all, but in the architecture as it reflects the Divine Mind.

These answers aren’t wholly satisfying, but they are a start.

July, 2005

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