Working With the Words of Torah

April 1, 2001
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Jane Rachel Litman

The background sound in the small library is muted but intense. Pairs of scholars lean over their talmudic texts whispering energetically, trying to puzzle out the meaning of the particular sugya, passage. The teacher directs them back toward the group and asks for questions. One student raises a hand: “I don’t understand verse 5:4 of the tractate Niddah. What does the phrase ‘it is like a finger in the eye’ mean?” The teacher responds, “This refers to the hymen of a girl younger than three years old. The Sages believed that in the case of toddler rape, the hymen would fully grow back by the time the girl reached adulthood and married. Therefore, though violated, she would still technically be counted as a virgin and could marry a priest. It’s an analogy: poking your finger in the eye is uncomfortable, but causes no lasting harm.”

There is a collective gasp of breath among the students. Their dismay is palpable. They do not like this particular talmudic text or the men behind it. But its authors, the talmudic rabbis, hardly wrote it with this particular group of students in mind - mostly thirty- and forty-year-old women in suburban Philadelphia taking a four-week class titled “Women in Jewish Law” at their Reform synagogue.

The questioner persists, “I don’t understand. Are you saying this refers to the rape of a three year-old girl?”

“Or younger,” the teacher responds dryly.

“I don’t see how it says anything about rape and hymens. You must be mistaken. I don’t believe the rabbis are talking about rape at all. I think this statement has nothing to do with the rest of the passage.” The teacher (I’ll admit now that it was me, a second-year rabbinic student) responds, “Well, that’s the common understanding. What do you think it means?”

The woman is clearly agitated, “I don’t know, but I do know that it couldn’t be about child rape.” This is week three of the class. The woman does not return for week four. Denial.

On Shavuot in 1996, I led a session for the Los Angeles Jewish Feminist Center’s tikkun. For a group of mostly middle-aged middle-class women sitting in a suburban living room, I taught Rabbi Shirley Idelson’s disturbing midrash on Leviticus 24:10-16 - the story of a man stoned to death for blasphemy. The man’s mother is Shelomit Bat Divri, the only named woman in Leviticus. Idelson’s midrash painfully explores the issues of women’s status and voice, intermarriage, and communal violence as a means of social control. The discussion following the reading was both difficult and thoughtful. Afterward, a prominent Jewish educator approached me and said, “after reading that midrash, I just felt like punching someone in the nose.” Anger.

Elizabeth Kubler Ross tells us that people confronting death go through stages of denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and finally acceptance. The stages are not strictly linear, but do tend to follow a certain path. For much of my rabbinic career, I have served gay outreach congregations, facing the deaths of young people many times. While I have found Ross’s model extremely helpful in these circumstances, I have also found this model useful in other pastoral and even educational situations.

I find Ross’s model helpful when addressing sacred Jewish texts that are violent or xenophobic, that speak of child abuse, human slavery, or homophobia with gross insensitivity. Like so many of my colleagues and students, I often drift confusedly through denial, anger, grief, rationalization (a form of bargaining); sometimes reaching acceptance, sometimes not.

As a 3,000-year-old religious tradition, Judaism has a depth and richness that doesn’t generally whitewash reality; our greatest leaders are presented in all their nasty humanness. As in any authentic, committed relationship, I take the good with the bad. If I cannot always accept all aspects of the tradition, at least I have found equanimity in my response. If I felt only negative responses to my Jewish heritage, then I would need to leave (and probably become a pagan or a Buddhist like so many of my contemporaries). A college friend of mine used to call this the “yum to yuch ratio.” His theory was that a good relationship had a yum to yuch ratio of at least three to one. Happily, I can report that Torah and Judaism meets this test for me.

A voice within me resists measuring this relationship in yums to yuchs. Torah is a sacred covenant, a committed relationship. The depth of my commitment to Judaism and Torah empowers me to be touched deeply and take risks. Judaism teaches that redemption is possible - my own redemption, that of my tradition, and that of the world. My experiences of rage and grief, rationalization, equanimity - even denial - can be redemptive and transformative. That which I find most disturbing pushes me toward constructive change.

Torah, by which I mean the entire Jewish narrative/legal literature, contains much that is morally uplifting. It is filled with intellectual challenge and religious inspiration. It also contains much that is dull, simplistic, and wrongheaded. Fortunately, the traditional blessing for studying Torah isn’t that we should unquestioningly obey it or even that we must accept any or all of it. The blessing isn’t that we should understand it or learn from it. The blessing for Torah is active: we are commanded “la’asok b’divray Torah,” to engage the words of Torah. Authentic engagement is the process through which redemption is possible.

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Jane Rachel Litman is the Rabbi-Educator of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley. She specializes in moral education for alternative families, and is a regular columnist for

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