Shattering Innocence: Disturbing Texts and Children

April 1, 2001
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Deeana Copeland Klepper

By the Waters of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion … If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour… Fair Babylon, you predator, a blessing on him who repays you in kind what you have inflicted on us; a blessing on him who seizes your babies and dashes them against the rocks! (Psalm 137)

I have read Psalm 137 with adults in Jewish his-tory classes many times; it is the best way I know to communicate the anguish of the Israelites in exile from their homeland. And yet reading the text also elicits a horrified reaction in my students. Against the familiarity of the first part of the psalm, that final vengeful outburst against innocent children shocks; it violates my students’ modern sensibilities. There are many passages in the Bible that make us squirm. If we hesitate to embrace these disturbing texts, however, we may shy away from sharing passages that disquiet or embarrass us with our children. Yet it is precisely studying such texts that gives us a unique opportunity to teach our children about our own values and the way our Jewish and American identities come together to create a whole Jewish adult.

Do we read the Passover story of the hardening of Pharoah’s heart and subsequent death of all Egypt’s first born as a sad necessity or as intolerably unjust? Do we read the ouster of Hagar and Ishmael as a justifiable corollary of Israel’s chosenness or do we seek new midrashim to explain Sarah’s behavior? When we share with our children our responses, we not only teach them our values but that we value Torah enough to struggle with it.

Whether we read Torah as halakhah or as literary and cultural artifact, whether we turn to the rabbis and tradition for guidance or create midrashim for a new generation, we are providing our children with the tools they will need to give Torah a central place in their grown-up lives.

While we need not expose our five-year-olds to all difficult passages of text, we should present our tradition in its fullness. There is no need to continually focus on the same “easy” parts of the Torah year after year! When we study with our children, we often discover that what we find disturbing does not trouble them, while passages we don’t wince at may horrify them. As well, we can learn about our children by listening to their “readings” of Torah. No school, teacher, or program of Torah study can substitute for parents studying Torah with their children. And as we show our children the work we do of encountering our tradition, we also show them the work we do, consciously or not, of integrating our Jewish selves with our modern American selves.

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Deeana Copeland Klepper is Assistant Professor of Religion at Boston University and the parent of two inquisitive and thoughtful daughters, ages 7 and 10.

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