by Jhos Singer
Shabbat Shalom Chaverim—
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetze (Deut. 21:10-25:19) is chock full with social rules and edicts that range from compassionate and noble to downright nasty and cruel. On the one hand we are encouraged to take care of each other, especially folks who are stateless, homeless, and friendless. On the other hand “we” (read “heterosexual men”) are allowed to take a beautiful captive woman and do with her as we pretty much please—well, after giving her a bath and some clothes and a month to deal with the trauma of being a captive wife. If “we” tire of her she is to be released, not sold. Ick….
Last weekend Chochmat HaLev had the great privilege of learning with Merissa Nathan Gerson. Merissa is a glorious bundle of energy and wisdom. She is a staunch feminist, a sex educator, a trauma expert, a spiritual seeker, a scholar, and a radical and respectful Jew. She acknowledged that parts of Torah are inexplicably crass and violent, demeaning and ugly. “But,” she said, “I am humbled by the parts of the Torah that I don’t understand—when I encounter Torah that is really upsetting or just plain gross, I know I’ve just encountered the Torah that is emblematic of what we still don’t understand.”
The rabbis of the Talmud were masters of stopping when they encountered troublesome Torah and decoding it until they understood. This week’s Torah portion includes one such snippet:
“If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who doesn’t listen to his father or his mother, and doesn’t comply even after they discipline him, his father and mother will take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of the city, and tell them what he did, and then the townsmen should stone him to death.” (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
The Rabbis get over their initial revulsion to this text, and then start engaging.
Torah: “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son…”
Rabbis: Ah ha! This doesn’t apply to daughters.
Torah: “…who doesn’t listen…”
Rabbis: Ah!! This doesn’t apply to deaf parents, cuz the parents would have to have heard his belligerent comments! Come to think of it, maybe the parents can’t be visually impaired either, since they would have needed to see what he did! Yeah! Oh, same for speech impediments, since the text clearly says that they had spoken to him. And another thing, parents who lost a limb or have a severe injury to their arms or legs, this isn’t for them because how could they take hold of him and march him out to the city’s elders. And if they don’t live in the city—off the hook!!! And hey…..
They go on an on like this until they debunk the whole idea, saying, “It never was, and it never will be.” (Sanhedrin 71a) And then they say something utterly stunning:
“Drosh v’kabeil schar/Investigate-drash-interpret, and receive reward.”
Sometimes, our Torah needs our eyes, our lives, our insight and our wisdom to engage with it and wrestle it to the ground. One of Judaism’s greatest gifts to her adherents is the respect and love of thoughtful challenges, our willingness to grapple with things that are uncomfortable and off putting, and our tenacity and dedication to squeeze the ugly right out.
So, nu, why isn’t Torah easier, clearer, simpler? Because it is like life—so much of the wisdom we gain starts out an incomprehensible and disturbing mess. Torah wrestling is amazing practice for encountering the things we fear or dread in day-to-day life.
Friends, I bless you this Shabbes with the desire and strength to draw from your wit and insight, your patience and faith, your convictions and compassion to see the world with fresh and forward thinking eyes. That’s a reward we could all use right about now.