Carol K. Ingall
Deeana Klepper’s incisive remarks speak to all of us in teaching roles. What are our choices when confronted by a troubling text? We can excise it like the venerable Y. C. Pollack Chumashenu. (So many of my generation spent Shabbat at shul hunched over the Hertz Chumash wondering why the story of the rape of Dinah never appeared in our version of Genesis.) We can plow through the text, without explanation, as my teachers did with the horrific story of the bears who tore apart the boys who teased Elisha, sending an unequivocal message to preteens just beginning to question authority. We can explain it away as a cultural artifact, the pedagogy of choice in higher education. And, if we’re angry enough, we can use it as a vivid example of a tradition that is not only irrelevant but toxic, as did someone who declined my invitation to come to our family’s seder because he was repulsed by the Hebrews’ jubilation at the drowning of the Egyptians. I never persuaded him to break a fifty-year pattern of not attending sedarim, but I did tell him the midrash about God reprimanding the angels and our custom of spilling drops of wine in sympathy.
It doesn’t work with everyone; a fifty-year anger at Jewish parochialism won’t melt in the face of a midrash no matter how artful and universalistic. But using midrashim to show that the rabbis of old were troubled by what troubles us is a very compelling teaching option for parents and teachers. Not only does this approach afford us alternate, perhaps more satisfying, readings of the text, but it underscores the notion that the Bible can be flawed while remaining holy.
Children can handle paradox; they know about people who are good and do bad things. In a conversation I had with a seven-year-old, she commented on a classmate who was a “good friend” because he gave her a Pokemon card, but a “bad boy” because he broke the rule by bringing those cards to school. My little friend may have been precocious; developmental psychologists Sally Donaldson and Michael Westerman report that by the age of ten or eleven children clearly understand ambivalence. To teach Bible stories in a bowdlerized manner is insulting to children and confirms a widespread belief that religion is puerile or trivial. To teach Bible stories without discussing their moral complexities is, as Klepper points out, the loss of a significant teachable moment for both parents and educators.email print