Taking the Bad with the Good – Ki Teitze
Every week, since the start of the book of Exodus, I have committed to writing a haiku on the weekly parasha and posting it on Facebook. I decided to do so as a way of encouraging myself to read the parasha every week. I found that because I had made the haikus public, even on the weeks that I had little time, I read the parasha and wrote a haiku because people were expecting me to do so (even if really no one would notice if I didn’t). Publicising the haikus has also made me realise that I have to think extremely carefully about which parts of the parasha to include. A haiku itself is only seventeen syllables and so, of course, it can never do the parasha justice. I often find myself either choosing the nice fluffy bits, or accidentally offending people with a reductionist display of the gory bits.
I have written a haiku for this week’s parasha and it could cause a lot of pain if I were to publish it without clarification, conversation or explanation. Quite frankly, even with all those things the words of this week’s parasha can still cause a lot of hurt.
Here is what I created:
You shall not cross dress
No rape if she fails to shout
Stone naughty children
Our Torah has many painful texts and it is a constant struggle to work out what to do with them. In her article ‘When sacred text hurts others, how do we apologize?’, Rabbi Mychal Copeland tells of her experience at an interfaith conference. There, she lit the Shabbat candles and blew the shofar to commemorate the start of the month of Av, and shared some Jewish traditions with the Christian leaders she met that day. She tells how a scriptural reading from the New Testament then followed, and the text that was used caused her to feel uncomfortable. The text was Matthew 23:5, 27, 28 ‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites…You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness’. Copeland continues that just minutes after the passage was read, the presiding pastor brought her a handwritten note apologising for the pain that the reading may have caused, and then the whole congregation proceeded to do a five minute confession for ‘the misuse and abuse of scripture’. (Rabbi Copeland, 2015)
In Rabbi Copeland’s situation it was one religion’s text that caused harm to a person of another faith. However, often our texts can be harmful to us in our own community. Is it best that we avoid these harmful texts completely, or do we need to share them together and give space to those who feel pain and the pain we feel as a community? Do we need to apologise amongst ourselves for the pain that is caused by the words in our own text, as a way of dealing with what is written and having open discussions in our communities?
Ki Titze holds in it many painful commandments. In the recommended readings published in the Reform and Liberal lectionaries it is clear that the intention has been to avoid these painful pieces of the parasha, opting instead for readings that speak of keepings vows, laws against kidnap, the commandment not to turn away a slave who seeks refuge from his master, ensuring that a person’s lost property is returned to them, making sure that a labourer is paid on the same day of their work, and many other commandments that encourage good practice between one person to another. It is clear that there is much good that can be learned from the parasha, and understandable why these would be the recommended readings for our communities. Although it must be said that even these suggested readings include parts that can cause pain to those present, including the line that man should not wear woman’s clothing and nor should a woman wear man’s clothing for it is abhorrent to God (Deut 22:5). These suggested readings also avoid difficult descriptions of what may or may not be constituted as rape, as well as the passage that gives allowance to rape of a captive in war. Unfortunately, both of these seemingly ancient scenarios have featured in international news over the past two years.
There are many reasons why shuls would choose to read the parts of Torah that avoid causing harm. I sometimes worry that in avoiding the gory bits, we are not only not being honest to ourselves, but we also run the risk that people will come across these passages in a context that can be damaging for them, where they do not have the space to process their pain. Maybe there is a way that we can bring the good with the bad and occasionally bring these painful texts out in the open, so that we can face them head on, share the hurt together, open discussion and create a safe space for those to be able to feel and process their pain. As every text can evoke different feelings in each of us, it possible that we can learn not only more from the Torah in doing this, but also more about each other.
Anna Posner LBC rabbinic student