Difficult Texts

April 1, 2001
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Bonna Devora Haberman

How do we study difficult Jewish texts without apologizing for, justifying, or historicizing them? At Mistabra: The Israel-Diaspora Institute for Jewish Textual Activism in Boston and Jerusalem, we are not working with texts that make us feel good. While we are proud and motivated by congenial Jewish texts that mandate us to give charity, deal fairly in business, and prescribe retreat from the hectic week into Shabbat, Mistabra (in talmudic Aramaic Mistabra means, roughly, through the process of engagement it will become clear) focuses on “difficult” texts – texts that provoke, exasperate, make us cringe and revile, feel frustrated and furious, intrigued, excluded, embarrassed, defensive, offended, even wounded and alienated.

The widespread campaign for Jewish literacy has made Jewish text study a reality in day schools, synagogue adult education programs and yeshivot, as well as in post-secondary institutions, universities, and colleges. It emphasizes the beauty, intellectual rigor and complexity, historicity, and in some places, spiritual wisdom to which Jewish texts give access. Study is viewed as a source of affirmation – a root for religious, cultural, historical, and ethnic identity for Jews. Another goal of the contemporary renaissance of Jewish text study has been to place Jewish books on the shelves with Western tradition. Philosophic, literary, ethical, legal, and political ideas are contained in the Tanakh, Talmud, and codes all of which deserve to rank among the great books in the Western canon.

Insofar as text study is a method for identity formation and maintenance, the text is invoked as a mirror to reflect and affirm the worthiness and dignity of Judaism. This goal is best achieved by studying texts that make us proud to be Jews. In contrast to affirmation and inclusion, difficult texts make us uncomfortable. Sometimes we euphemize or apologize for them; more often we simply ignore them. I intentionally choose difficult texts that propose a different role for text study. Here is an example.

The Torah speaks on numerous occasions of the value of a woman’s virginity. In Deuteronomy 22, virginity determines a woman’s fate, to live or die (Deut. 22:20-1). If a young betrothed virgin woman is raped in the city, then she is taken to the gate of the city and killed by stoning together with the rapist. She is killed because she did not scream; the rapist is killed because he raped his neighbor’s wife. If a man rapes a betrothed virgin woman in the field, only the man dies. Nothing is done to the woman, for she has not committed a sin worthy of death. Since she was in the field, she might have cried out and there was no one to save her. Restitution is made to the father for the loss of the virgin price when an unbetrothed woman is raped (Deut. 22:23-28).

Some people respond with outrage to passages that treat women as commodities or property in sterile legalistic, even misogynist language. This text might be read as a dated statement of legal and monetary obligations between men in relation to women’s lives in biblical society. Mistabra is creating a process of interpretation, “textual activism,” that propels difficult texts into our lives. In this case, we give voice to silent women and strive to engage the pain. Whereas we often dissociate the system that seeks to protect women from those who violate it, we find an affiliation between the men who rape and the men who possess. The text portrays women in relation to men who exercise power over them (fathers, spouses, and rapists) or as passive objects of men’s violation and economic intercourse. Perhaps the systemic preoccupation with women’s sexual vulnerability entails a violation similar to the way ownership and possessiveness establish trespass. At the same time, the assertion that the helplessness of the woman is identical to that of a murder victim lays the groundwork for the bold rabbinic equation of rape with murder (bYoma 82a-b). This verse is the source for the imperative to intervene in order to prevent murder, or rape, even if it means murdering the potential offender. Western justice systems have not yet attained this level of sensitivity about rape.

A related rabbinic passage brings a prooftext from Ezekiel 16 that compares the raped woman’s pain to that of Israel, a whoring woman who parts her legs to passers by (Ketubot 39a-b). In these discussions of the pain of rape, women’s bodies are figured as a vulnerable site where violations to faithfulness to God are negotiated.

In this rugged textual terrain, we explore layers of culture, fissures and fault lines, topographies of an ongoing and difficult process of revelation. We are not the text. It is “other.” Acknowledging the simultaneous “otherness” of our texts and our tremendous commitment to them enables us to engage with their difficulty. In this process of struggle, we negotiate multiple, even mutually exclusive co-existent meanings. We seek out the ways that this struggle might have the cogency to mandate intervention in difficult systems. In this sense, difficult texts become a nexus for a troubled existence, for problematic identities and realities. Rather than affirming who we are, this way of engaging texts addresses study as a method for social change. With difficult texts we aim toward transformation of ourselves and our world.

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Dr. Bonna Devora Haberman is Resident Scholar in Women's Studies.She is Lecturer in Brandeis University, where she is also the Director of Mistabra. Founder of Women of the Wall, she is currently initiating a Jewish movement to help women out of prostitution. She is the mother of five children. She can be contacted at haberman@binah.cc.brandeis.edu.

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