As a long-time teacher of Judaic studies who has tended to emphasize the moral vectors in the material that I present, I read Erica Brown’s essay, “Pedagogic Disturbances in the Jewish Adult Classroom: The Teaching and Learning of Morally Problematic Biblical Texts” (TRADITION 51:3, Summer 2019) with a great deal of personal interest. Many of the issues that she mentions that present difficulties to students of Tanakh, such as Abraham’s lying about his relationship with Sara, the exile of Hagar and Yishmael, Yehuda and Tamar’s incestual relationship, slavery, instances of murder, rape, adultery, etc., must per force be dealt with, unless, as she writes, “an educator… chooses to sidestep these problems altogether by avoiding the legal or narrative texts in question” (pp. 20-21). Clearly, such a pedagogical choice is so much more difficult to do when one is teaching “older” students, who generally are well-attuned to what is being “skipped” and scandalized by the teacher’s obvious discomfort.
While the religious morality of individual characters in their interpersonal dealings with one another over the course of their lives certainly qualifies as a “pedagogic disturbance” that will inevitably have to be responsibly discussed and debated, in my experience, the greatest difficulty is raised by our attempting to comprehend God’s actions and demands over the course of the biblical text, a dimension that for the most part, Brown does not discuss. While one of the bible students that Brown quotes in her article, writes:
I don’t expect moral perfection from Biblical characters. The difficulty for me lies in those instances when God seems to be asking that we act in a morally indefensible way. How do we understand the condemnation of homosexuality? Why were the Israelites called upon to wipe out or enslave all of the inhabitants of Canaan—men, women, and children—in the process of conquering the land? The answers to these questions never feel satisfying. The best that I can do is admit that I don’t understand (pp. 33-34).
Clearly, a student can more easily project him/herself into situations involving other human beings, proceed to decide whether positive or negative modeling is taking place, and reflect about what such a tale might mean to him/her personally. This is far more difficult to do, however, when it comes to the actions of the Divine. God’s inscrutability due to His being considered unique and superior when compared to those that He created, affords Him, by definition, the “cover” that His actions are simply beyond human comprehension. However, as Maharal of Prague (“Derasha al HaTorah”) has pointed out, “Torah” is derived from the verb “le-horot” (to teach). If a description of God’s impelling man to carry out some action is included in the Torah, shouldn’t it be accompanied with the expectation that some lesson is intended to be learned, rather than our being forced to concede that one “simply doesn’t understand”?
This conundrum applies not only to various historical actions that man is commanded by God to undertake, such as causing suffering to the Egyptians via the plagues, destroying Amalek, battling Midian, etc.; it is also an issue with respect to the general topic of “Ta’amei HaMitzvot” (the reasons for the commandments). Various commentators have dichotomized groups of mitzvot to include, on the one hand, those that are logical and necessary in order for society to operate in an ethical fashion, and, on the other, “Hukkim” (literally, statutes; figuratively, actions that are either impossible, or at least exceedingly difficult, to understand). Once again, the bible instructor has to decide whether to attempt to wade into the “murky waters” of trying to explain commandments which possibly are not meant to be explained, or to simply state, “these mitzvot are included in the Torah for some reason that is beyond our ken.”
Of particular interest to me personally is the entire issue of Jewish “chosenness,” whereby God designates specifically the Jews as His “first-born son” and “treasured people.” This is also reflected in our liturgy. For example, one of the blessings that is recited when one arises in the morning or is called for an honor at the public Torah reading:
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has chosen us from among all the nations and given us His Torah. Blessed are You Lord, who gives the Torah.
While it may be well and good for those who have been “chosen” to read about how they are the recipients of special Divine attention, I have deeply wondered how, in light of innumerable biblical verses, non-Jews are expected to comprehend their being excluded from God’s concern, as well as how Jews relate to others when they believe that they have come in for God’s special consideration. I recall a supervisor sitting in on one of my Jewish high school classes, and when I explained the phrase “a light of the nations” (Isaiah 49:6) to mean that “being chosen” suggests additional responsibility rather than intrinsic superiority. He considered my interpretation as being a bit too iconoclastic, and he challenged me with how the verse has been interpreted by some traditional commentators. Will adult learners, or for that matter “older high school students,” not question the implications of such a concept, certainly in contemporary terms, when it is presented to them? And what might be the intended “take-aways”?
It is altogether possible that due to the sociological and psychological dimensions of interpersonal vignettes in the bible they become more accessible to a broader audience, particularly those who view themselves as more “liberal” or “progressive.” Aspects of the Bible involving God, on the other hand, are viewed as theological and raise the additional specter of discussing commitment and observance rather than simply human decency and ethical sensitivity. But should this be a determinant in choosing which topics to address over the course of studying Tanakh? Naturally, if we are dealing with isolated lectures regarding biblical topics, then this is a consideration that can enter into our pedagogical “triage” decisions. However, if we are concerned that within the course of presenting an entire biblical section or book, we will be accused of “editing” the portions of the text that we ourselves may find difficult and disconcerting, greater attention may have to be devoted to pedagogic approaches for teaching these parts of the biblical text as well.
Rabbi Yaakov Bieler, Silver Spring
Dr. Erica Brown replies:
I am grateful for Rabbi Yaakov Bieler’s response to my article. While I tried to present some of the profound educational dilemmas when teaching the difficult moral indiscretions of biblical characters, I limited the article to narrative texts and focused on human failure. In many regards, this subject was much easier than the serious pedagogical challenges Rabbi Bieler cogently describes. Dealing with the theological tangle of Israel’s chosenness or God’s perceived inscrutability in the classroom raises a whole host of questions that can be deeply injurious to the already fragile ecology of faith for many of our students. My hope is that the essay spawns many more such critical conversations – especially in writing – about what contemporary Jewish educators need to be thinking about and addressing. There is difficult work ahead.
Published August 26, 2019