Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Dead Babies of Babylon...and Other Biblical Challenges

One of the more irritating aspects of the latest spate of pro-atheism, anti-religion books that have been published in the last few years is their insistence on reading the Bible literally. In that regard, their authors forge a strange bond with actual fundamentalists, Christian and Jewish. But, whereas the latter respond to embarrassing passages in the Bible (that is, the ones wholly out of sync with the moral values we promote today as reasonable and rational) by insisting that they are God’s own words and that if we don’t understand them it’s because we’re not intelligent enough to perceive their “real” meaning, the former take them simply to be signs of what a really bad idea it is to try to live in harmony with books written millennia ago which, precisely because they are presumed to mean what exactly they say, in no way match our modern, well-honed sense of right and wrong.

Neither approach is all that rational. To reject the whole concept of there being sacred books reflective of God’s will in the world because we are unable to embrace some specific passages in some one of those books seems a bit like pitching out the baby with the bathwater. But to insist that every single thought expressed in any biblical passage must be embraced—and wholeheartedly—as an acceptable plank in the study, defensible moral platform on which all decent people naturally wish to stand, that seems more than a bit forced as well.

I encounter this all the time, both when I prepare remarks to deliver from the bimah and in my own writing. The Torah portion, Ki Teitztei, for example, opens with three stunning examples of this kind of passage, beginning with a passage describing the circumstances under which an Israelite soldier can force himself on an attractive female prisoner-of-war, the continuing with a passage requiring a father not to treat his sons equally when disposing of his estate (daughters don’t inherit at all unless there are no sons), and then concluding with a passage explaining under what circumstances parents can legitimately petition municipal authorities to execute a disobedient child who has turned (no doubt among other things) to gluttony and excessive drinking.  Surely none of these passages even remotely conforms to our modern sense of how ethically to encounter the world, but we read the full passage aloud when we get there in our annual lectionary cycle nevertheless, hoping quickly to move along to something more acceptable. But is that a reasonable compromise, reading the passage aloud in synagogue, thus acclaiming it both publicly and formally as sacred writ, and then dealing with its implications by hoping no one reads the translation before we move forward to some other, more morally justifiable passage? Should we attempt to rationalize, thus to find some acceptable layer of meaning embedded in the text somewhere? Or should we simply wave such passages away as reflective of the morality of a different age and leave it at that?

I recently came across a terrifically interesting symposium on just such a passage on a website I’ve been frequenting lately, It’s a remarkable site, featuring weekly essays by authors who uniformly try to merge a scientific, intellectually-justifiable approach to the text with a traditionalist orientation towards Judaism and towards religion in general. There’s so much there that I won’t even attempt to list the various essays you’ll find there, but I recommend it highly as a place to go for serious, thoughtful learning…the kind that mostly successfully integrates a traditional worldview with cutting-edge biblical scholarship.

The symposium focuses on Psalm 137 and particularly on its last verse. It’s a famous poem. Writing as one of the exiles shipped off to Iraq in the wake of the Babylonian conquest of Judah and the razing of Jerusalem, the poet begins with one of the Bible’s most famous rhetorical questions.  “We wept by the rivers of Babylon,” he recalls, “as we remembered Zion, and we hung our lyres on the willows along the riverbank. Indeed, when our captors demanded to hear some songs, some happy tunes, ordering us to ‘sing some songs of Zion for us,’ we couldn’t—for how ever could we sing divine hymns on foreign soil?”  And then, moved by his predicament, the poet takes a solemn oath, “If I should forget you, O Jerusalem,” he declares, “let my right hand too forget how to function; let my tongue cleave to my palate if I no longer remember you, if I fail to place Jerusalem at the top of the list of things that bring me joy.” So far, the poem is moving and deeply touching. But then the poet becomes angry, remembering the Babylonians crying out “Raze it, raze it down to its very foundations” as they set themselves to destroying the Holy City. And then he wraps his ode to frustration in the wake of catastrophe with a double observation, the first that “happy will be the one who pays back to you what you have done to us,” and the second grotesquely noting that no less happy will be the one who has the opportunity to seize the babes of Babylon and hurl them to their deaths by smashing their defenseless bodies on outcroppings of rock.

It’s that last thought that’s hard to process. To be angry, to be enraged, to be frustrated, to be miserable…all these emotions feel more than justified by the historical reality through which the poet apparently lived personally. To hope for payback, to pray that the enemy experience the horror it has inflicted on the House of Israel—that too seems reasonable, or at least rational. But to pray for the summary murder of babies—one doesn’t try infants in court for the crimes of their parents, after all—seems unbearable to read, much less to accept as a valid wish. Does the poet ruin his psalm by adding such a base, ignoble thought at the end? Should we suppress the ending, or perhaps the entire psalm, as tainted by a dishonorable wish that that poet, half-crazed in his misery, failed to censor? Or should we embrace the bracing thought that the enemies of Israel risk everything, even the lives of their babes, when they go to war with God’s people? Is that last thought a noble idea or an ignoble one, a profoundly monitory notion the nations of the world would do well to take to heart or an embarrassingly sordid fantasy to which the poet should never have given voice? How should we read biblical passages like Psalm 137?

The symposium, which you can find easily by clicking here, is fascinating. Jeremy Rosen, a Cambridge graduate with rabbinic ordination from the Mir yeshivah, suggest we consider passages like the end of Psalm 137 as poetic catharsis, as a therapeutic way to deal with unbearable pain not by carrying out one’s baser wishes but by finding the courage to express them and then to face them down. Eugene Korn, also an Orthodox rabbi with a Ph.D. in philosophy, writes about the way the classical rabbis themselves defanged these texts, accepting them as expressive of their authors’ basest inclinations and then laboring not to deny them their power but to reassign that power to more noble ends, thus taking the text not as a bitter pill to be swallowed but as an intellectual and moral challenge to be met.  Both those essays had strong effects on me and I think my readers will find them intriguing and interesting as well.

Erica Brown, author of many books and a columnist for the New York Jewish Week, writes cleverly about the poet’s motive in writing what he did, suggesting that by cursing the enemy in a way that no sane person could embrace honorably, he was inviting readers to understand that this is what happened to the infants of Israel whom the Babylonians seized, a bit of wartime reportage so ghoulish that he could only report on it obliquely by praying that the enemy be forced one day to swallow its own medicine. And Yehudah Gilad, a rosh yeshivah in Israel and formerly a member of the Knesset, take a similar tack, taking the poet’s ghoulish imprecation as indicative of the horrors visited upon the Jews themselves and forgiving the poet for taking such a potentially confusing way somehow to say what he simply could not say aloud any other way.

Tamar Ross, before her retirement a professor of philosophy at Bar Ilan, writes about the poet’s rage and how the exaggerated, wholly inappropriate curse at the end of his poem is mean to suggest rage so overwhelming that the enraged party no longer knows any boundary in seeking to express the emotion it engenders.

My favorite response, though, was by Marc Zvi Brettler, a professor of Jewish studies at Duke, whose essay contextualizes the whole passage, bringing to bear not one or two but a dozen texts from elsewhere in the Bible and from ancient Assyrian texts as well. It’s a tour de force, one that encourages readers to read in context, to appreciate the way language was used in antiquity to threaten the foe with the horrific consequences that defeat will bring in its wake…and the specific way that threat applies to the foe’s wives and children. It’s very convincing, this argument that the problem itself doesn’t exist because the poet’s horrific wish that the enemy’s infants be murdered by being flung so violently against rocks that they explode (to translate the passage literally) is part of a large complex of literary devices used by poets and prose-authors in antiquity to express their hostility to their nation’s foes…and nothing more (or less) than that.

There are several more pieces on the website worth your time to read and consider, including one by Lee Buckman, once a rabbinic intern at Shelter Rock and now the principal of a Jewish high school in Toronto.  All are very interesting as separate pieces of work, but together they constitute a clear example of just how penetratingly and intelligently rabbis and Jewish scholars can grapple with serious moral issues when they set aside their preoccupation with doctrinal orthodoxy and explore the issues on their own merits and without prejudice born of prior convictions. is a remarkable resource. I encourage you to take a look, to read what interests you, and to find comfort in the fact that there are those out there, and myself surely among them, laboring to integrate the values of spiritual authenticity and intellectual integrity in the context of the thoughtful analysis of the bread-and-butter texts of the literary legacy of Jewish antiquity. It is a daunting task, and—particularly for the Orthodox-affiliated, a relatively thankless one. But there can be great nobility even in the most thankless task and I think my readers will find the material gathered at this particular website as inspiring as they will surely find it fascinating. 

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