Re’eh What do we do with difficult bits of Torah?

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 31 October 2023

There’s an old joke, which got picked up in an episode in that wonderful series The West Wing. The US President is meeting with a group of rather fundamentalist Christians. He confronts one of them with their negative attitude to homosexuality and they reply that it’s not them but the Bible that calls it ‘an abomination.’ They are about to quote chapter and verse when the President does so – Leviticus 18:22. He knows his Bible well. He goes on to play with them a bit. He quotes Exodus 21:7 “ a man may sell his daughter as a slave.” “My daughter,” he says, “is a university graduate, speaks fluent Italian and always clears the table. What would be a fair price to ask for her?” He goes through a number of similar verses, and takes one similar to a verse in our Torah reading: “if your brother, son or daughter entices you to worship other gods do not listen to them, show no pity but stone them to death.” (Deuteronomy 13:7-11) “The thing is,” he asks, “do I have to do it myself, or can I get the police to do it?”

Thank goodness we didn’t have a Bar- or Batmitzvah today to saddle some poor kid with reading such stuff. I used to jokingly suggest that Jewish family planning consists in finding the sort of sidra you’d like your child to read, figuring out what date their Bar- or Batmitzvah will fall and then, some 12 years and 9 months or so prior to that, you and your partner get all lovey-dovey one evening and hope for the best!

But joking aside, it’s these sorts of verse which give Judaism a bad name, confirming the old stereotypes about Jews and Judaism, about the harsh and vengeful ‘God of the Old Testament’ and so on.

The reality, as you and I know, of course, is that, from the earliest days, Judaism never read such verses literally. Two weeks ago Rabbi Karstadt spoke about how the rabbis abhorred the death sentence and, while they didn’t feel they could simply expunge such verses from the Torah, they felt able to interpret them in such a way that it became virtually impossible to apply them as stated.

What we read this morning feels much harder to interpret in a positive way. Don’t imitate pagans (Deut 12:30); don’t listen to false prophets and diviners (13:2); kill any of your family or friends who want to lure you into idolatry (13:7-11.)

So what should we do with passages like this?

One approach is to say “there’s nothing here for me” and reject virtually any relationship with the text. Clearly that’s everybody’s choice. Sadly, many adults tell me that such verses were one of the reasons they sort of gave up on Judaism around the time of their Barmitzvah. I understand why –I could well have been one of those boys – but 13 is hardly the best age to do so.

I’m equally sceptical about the person who says, at that sort of age, “This is the truth.” In neither case is there sufficient intellectual, cognitive or experiential wherewithal for anybody to be making serious judgements or decisions which are binding on their future. Far from closing oneself off to any path, should this not be a time for keeping oneself open to all sorts of possibilities?

Another approach argues “This is the word of God, transmitted to us by Moses.” Moses becomes a sort of divine stenographer, faithfully transcribing God’s words. But what do we do with sections like ours which make God appear to be acting unjustly?: stone this blasphemer; kill that Sabbath violator, wipe out this or that people when you enter the land. In short, what do we do with those parts which seem ethically abhorrent to us? Or with those which seem to contradict the current state of human knowledge – say, that the world was created in seven days?

I remember being told, as no doubt do some of you, that when the Creation account in Genesis chapter 1 says yom ‘day’, it’s really several million years. Fine – but a mere six chapters later, the word yom is used when speaking of forty days during which the rain of the Flood fell. Should we not, therefore, also be multiplying that figure by a factor of several million? Words become meaningless if yom can mean millions of years and 24 hours.

When I was involved with the Junior Membership of West London Synagogue, we invited a Lubavitcher to come and speak to us. (That they were prepared to come into a Reform Synagogue shows how long ago it must have been….) Somebody asked them if Carbon14 testing, fossils and the like, didn’t prove that the world was millions of years old? I still remember the two answers they gave. The first was “well, sometimes strongly held scientific theories have been proved over time not to be true – that the earth is flat, for example. So Carbon14-testing might eventually prove to be fallible.” I think that’s to misunderstand the nature of scientific theories, but it’s not a totally-unreasonable argument, to be dismissed out of hand.

But their second argument was stonkingly stupid. “Fossils,” they said, “might well be millions of years old, but what’s to stop God creating the world 5600-and-something years ago and putting fossils in it?” The argument was, I presume, to say that God is so powerful, He – of course for them God was a He – could do whatever He wants.” Maybe, I thought, but what sort of God would it be who purposely does something to confuse His creation? To which they would, I suppose, have replied, “Ah that shows how weak your faith in God is.”

These are the sort of logical binds you might get into if you are committed to a single, unified, divine authorship of the Bible. Whether the world is 5783 years or millions of years old isn’t an ethical issue. But surely ascribing divine authorship to the Torah means that you equate something like “you shall love your neighbour as yourself” with “do not mix wool and linen in your clothing.” Once you start saying this is more important than that, you’ve stepped outside the framework of divine authorship of the Bible.

Another approach is to see the text as humanly written but divinely inspired. The Bible then becomes the progressive revelation of God to human beings, a record of the ongoing relationship between God and humanity, written by human beings over the course of several centuries. Hence there will be inaccuracies, inconsistencies and contradictions. Seen that way, it might be less surprising to find sections of the “stone the blasphemer to death” sort.

Even the nicest of people occasionally come out with nasty, racist remarks. If we say, “I’ll only read literature without antisemitic remarks in it,” we’d end up with a pretty short reading list. Yet we also know that the writer capable of those nasty remarks is also capable of producing literature which transcends time, space and culture, expressing some eternal truths, through which we can almost hear the voice of an Absolute addressing us.

But that may be the most liberating and, at the same time, the most difficult approach to the text. ‘Liberating’ because it means we don’t have to accept as literal truth something that strikes us as palpable nonsense; nor do we have to put our moral and ethical sensibilities on hold, nor deny some aspect of human knowledge.

The ’difficult’ part of that approach is that it is less definite, it can see ‘this” and “this.” It recognises contradictions but doesn’t try to resolve them by segregating our religious truth and our secular knowledge. It can’t speak with certainty because the search for God, for truth, is, by its very nature, tentative questing, exploratory. That doesn’t lend itself to definitude and certainty. It speaks of greys rather than blacks and whites.

One of my teachers once put it: “Progressives are rarely charismatic; we prefer to persuade rather than to seduce or bully; we have fewer absolutes and certainties to sell.” Of course, even the supposedly mature self can succumb to wilfulness, idiosyncrasy or just plain stupidity.

Those negative verses therefore suggest a continuum. At one end would be the view which says “This is God’s word. Just follow it.” At the other end, the approach which says “it’s all a load of rubbish – reject it.” That’s fine but only if it’s done on the basis of knowledge, integrity and commitment, rather than prejudice, ignorance and half-baked ideas. In between are a range of positions, each of which tries to find some sensible, honest equilibrium between the often-competing demands of tradition and modernity, without selling out or abdicating on responsibility for our religious lives.