The Bible is sometimes known in popular parlance as the ‘Good Book’ in a sense th
at I think is meant to imply wholesomeness. I must say I have never been comfortable with this name. The Bible and its stories are many things but wholesome is not the first word that springs to mind! They are challenging, life-changing, and fascinating to be sure but good? Sometimes, however, the challenging nature of the Bible is obscured to us or we simply fail to or do not want to see it.
In order to understand this it may, sometimes, be necessary to try and hear the stories as if for the first time.
When I first decided that I was going to apply to the Leo Baeck College to train to be a rabbi I threw myself into the life of my synagogue in order to learn as much about the day-to-day life of a busy community rabbi as possible. One day I was given the task of entertaining a young girl while her parents and older sister discussed Bat-mitzvah plans. We went to the synagogue’s library and selected a suitable book and I started reading Bible stories (as adapted for children) needless to say this week’s Sidra Bechukkotai was not included.
All went well, we read story after story and enjoyed looking at the pictures until we reached the story of the Judgment of Solomon. When she suddenly burst into tears, I was somewhat taken aback, it was after all a children’s book and the story had a happy ending.
But on reflection I feel prompted to ask why do we tend to think that such stories as the Judgment of Solomon are suitable for children?
Why have they lost their power to shock?
One answer is that we know them too well, we have read or have heard them so many times, that we know before they even start that, in the end, the baby won’t be cut in half or when reading about the Akedah, we know that Isaac will not, in the end, be sacrificed.
But when they are new to us, or when we let them, the stories in the Tanakh have a real and deep ability to shock.
One thing that can safely be said of this week’s Sidra Bechukkotai is that it is profoundly disturbing. It is not a part of Torah that we are likely to allow to flow over us without really taking on its message.
I first encountered it fully last year while studying in Israel when I experienced something of the same shock as that young girl when she first heard the story of the Judgment of Solomon. We were studying a midrash when a few words I could read jumped out of the Hebrew at me, as it turned out they from Bechukotai:
‘You shall eat the flesh of your sons and of your daughters. (Leviticus 26:27)’
At first I hoped I had misread or misunderstood it. When that proved not to be the case I went to read the verse in its original context. Sadly, this did little to help.
Bechukkotai starts with a short section of all the good things that will happen if the Israelites follow God’s commandments. This is followed by a much longer list of curses which will befall them if they fail to follow them.
Putting the quotation, that so shocked me, in its Biblical context did little to help. It was still awful and overall Bechukkotai was very theologically troubling.
But this raises a larger, practical question.
What can be done with sections of the Torah, and for that matter liturgy, that we find theologically disturbing and even shocking as well?
One approach might be simply to ignore it. To pretend that it isn’t there. In this case it would mean not reading this section of the Torah.
Indeed both the Liberal and Reform lectionaries give options for Torah-readings that do not cover the more shocking and difficult verses.
In fact in the past, in some Progressive congregations, whole sections of the Book of Leviticus were simply not read. Alternative readings were substituted in their place. In a similar way in some Progressive Siddurim to this day the Second Paragraph of the Shema is omitted because of theological objections.
The early Reformers objected to the ideas of reward and punishment expressed in the Shema’s second paragraph but even though both Bechukkotai and the Second Paragraph of the Shema deal with reward and punishment, the Shema does not have the shocking quality of the curses in Bechukkotai.
Even in Traditional circles a similar technique is, sometimes, used to effectively pass over the more difficult parts in this week’s Sidra.
All the curses are read within one aliyah and verses which are not curses are read before and after them, which not only means that reading them is completed as quickly as possible but also that the curses themselves are not blessed.
This is a similar strategy that is used when reading of the execution of the Ten sons of Haman (their names are read in a single breath), or at the end of Grace after meals when the lines ‘I have been young and have grown old but I have never seen a righteous man go hungry or his children begging for food’, which if they are said at all are recited very quickly.
In these cases it is almost as if the person speaking does not want to hear what they are saying.
Although I cannot offer a strategy which would make the more difficult parts of the Torah easier to cope with, I do not think that trying to pretend that hard parts aren’t there is the way to go.
In fact I think that we should be pleased that even in the Book of Leviticus there are passages that not only grab our attention but are so shocking that they demand it.