Sermon Leo Baeck College / Sinai Synagogue Leeds
The Shadow Side of Torah
If last week’s parashah (Yitro) was the wedding ceremony, this week’s reading should be the honeymoon. Last week’s parashah was so easy to fall in love with. There was the wisdom of Yitro, the romance of Revelation and the drama of the Ten Utterances to woo the reader. We collectively experienced the marriage between God and the people of Israel as we became His bride and as He presented us with His ketubah. So, a romantic honeymoon seems to be in the making!
There is much to love in Parashat Mishpatim. God and Israel are starting to build their relationship and working out the details of living a covenanted life together. Up to this point, there is much to be happy about. Mishpatim is the parashah that gives us such moral classics as ‘do not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in Egypt’ (Ex. 22:20) and ‘you shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favour of the mighty...’ (Ex. 23:2) and ‘You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me’... (Ex. 22:21).
In true honeymoon-style, this is ethical monotheism at its finest.
But even new relationships can start to show cracks. With increased emotional intimacy comes increased awareness. Neither God nor Israel are perfect in this marriage. Both partners, so to say, bring their own baggage. Between the brightness of Mishpatim’s most uplifting words, the taboo, the difficult, and the hateful lurk in the shadows.
Amidst lofty sentiments of protecting the stranger, the widow and the poor, there is a voice of condemnation. Amidst verses extolling the beauty of the relationship between God and man, there is a voice fraught with fear and superstition. Amidst humanising the Other, there is a call to genocide. And amidst the rational, there is simply the bizarre.
A triad of Mishpatim’s most obtuse verses can be found in Ex 22:17-19. ‘You shall not allow a sorceress to live... whoever lies with an animal shall surely die... whoever sacrifices to a god other than the Eternal shall be proscribed.’
Here they sit, wedged between the realities of tort law and the prophetic voice of social justice. Three bizarre verses that deal with transgressions punishable by death. They feel taboo. They embarrass us. They cannot easily be explained away. Even our classical commentaries remain quiet. Rashi apologetically argues that these sins apply to men as well as women. Our discomfort is palpable and justified.
The verse ‘you shall not allow a sorceress to live’ was a cause of marginalisation and persecution among pre-modern women in Christian Europe. Scholars think that about 40,000 to 60,000 women were put to death through witch trials and lynching between 1480 and 1750.
The verse condemning bestiality makes us turn away our gaze in embarrassment. What on earth were the Biblical authors thinking by addressing such sexual deviance? It seems very Freudian. And of course, the verse extolling us not to make offerings to other gods lest we risk excision is as old as religious persecution itself. This is religious totalitarianism at its fullest. How many wars have there been fought in the Name of the One True God? I cannot even begin to list the death toll in the name of religion. These verses make us cringe and avert our eyes. Is this our Holy Torah which we dress so lovingly, read so painstakingly and study so ardently?
The play of light and darkness in parashat Mishpatim prompts bigger questions about the shadow side of Torah. It prompts questions about the eternality of the text, of modern sensibilities versus ancient principles. At what point does a text become so reprehensible that the only thing left to do is to... close the book and walk away?
In my own studies, I’ve asked myself this question. During my study of Talmud and Midrash, I have read texts that violently scream out at me. Texts that objectify women, that condemn the Other, that speak scathingly of non-Jews and that reinforce unhealthy social hierarchies. Women are treated as chattels, their bodies as battlefields. In these texts, Jews at the periphery of rabbinic society are sometimes treated with contempt: mamzerim (children from forbidden unions), foundlings, slaves, converts. I have been tempted to get up and walk out in disgust and anger.
But we cannot walk or edit out. We cannot rip the pages from our Tanakh. We must face these difficult texts head-on with the courage to stare into the heart of darkness; and then embark on a mission even more difficult - to mine these texts for meaning, if there is any to be found.
What do disturbing verses about witchcraft, bestiality and idolatry teach us about our world today? Can we square these with our values as Progressive Jews? They touch upon the taboo in human culture, they make us feel a little dirty and a little unhinged and in an ironic way they endanger our sense of moral purity, as the famous anthropologist Mary Douglas would argue. Does witchcraft allude to the fatalistic superstitions and fears that drive us to this day? Does idolatry reference how we bow down before gods of subprime mortgages and national debt? And does the ban on bestiality suggest something about how we abuse and objectify both our animals and our own bodies in an age of factory farming and sexual confusion? Or are these texts lost to us forever in their weirdness?
I am not sure. I am asking the question, not offering the answer. And that is exactly the point of a living tradition. Perhaps the wedding metaphor offers us insight. Torah is a passionate love affair but also a difficult relationship. Religion is a messy business and, just like marriage, requires work. We may fight with our spouses and wrestle with our darkest feelings. But in the shadows and through the cracks, there is a great and holy light. God never promised us a bed of roses. Is that not the theme of many a love song? But He did promise us a covenant that keeps us and challenges us and lifts us up to great moral heights. Even in the lows. Even in the shadows.
Do not be afraid to fall in love with our Torah. And do not be afraid to tell this great love of your life where she fails. That way we can help her light shine, upon the darkness of the world and the darkness of her own innermost places.