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Yom Shlishi, 6 Tishri 5778
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Samuel and the Destruction of Amelek

On the Shabbat immediately preceding the holiday of Purim, a difficult and controversial haftara (prophet section) is read. The passage describes King Saul following a commandment from God (relayed through the prophet Samuel) and exterminating the entire people called the Amelekites. Saul, however, spares the King (Agag), and for this reason, God declares that he has forfeited the monarchy. This essay is a discussion of how we might best understand this apparently bloody and pitiless biblical reading.

First, See the Movie

In the climactic chapter of the book of Esther, the Jews, attack their attackers. The book relates that 800 were killed in the capital city of Shushan, and fully 75,000 were slaughtered throughout the balance of the empire. The text adds “but they (the Jews) did not lay their hands on the spoil (Esther 9:15 and again in verse 16).” The action on the part of the Jews, we learn, is vengeance and not exploitation.

Most Megillah readings on Purim soft-pedal the final chapters. Many English renditions, abridged from the biblical book, will focus on Haman's come-uppence: he and his ten sons being hanged on the same gallows originally set up for Mordechai. The slaughter of the enemies is demurely left for the Hebrew reading. I think it was quite obvious that among a broad spectrum of the Jewish population there is some measure of discomfort with the blood and revenge-filled conclusion of the Esther tale.

The discomfort, however, is mildly curious. The book is, after all, a classic action melodrama. The good guys are virtuous and courageous, and bad guys are sneaky and cruel. In the end - we have seen it in innumerable westerns, cop shows and space adventures - the hero, facing daunting odds, kills the villain. If the show is R-rated, the climax is usually quite bloody and the screen is littered with bodies. The Book of Esther fits snugly in this long and honorable tradition, and yet we are uncomfortable.

This reaction to the reading of the Megillah might not be particularly new. Rabbi Moses Isserles, writing in the sixteenth century, suggested that Jews drink enough on Purim so that they cannot tell the difference between praising Mordechai and cursing Haman. If we follow Isserles' directive, we certainly would be quite insensitive to the mayhem that takes place at the end of the reading.

I think we can articulate a number of reasons for this discomfort. The Jews have always been a relatively small and weak community. Their military victories have been few: David's success in expanding and consolidating his kingdom, the Maccabean revolt, and, of course, the more recent creation and defense of the State of Israel. Jewish survival has overwhelmingly depended upon means other than fighting. Even today, with Israel being militarily strong with respect to its hostile neighbors, Jews mostly recognize that the Jewish State remains in peril if military defense remains its only option.

A Double Reading

Our attitude toward the end of the Book of Esther serves as a background for my discussion of the prophetic portion assigned to Shabbat Zakhor, the Sabbath that immediately precedes a celebration of Purim. On four Sabbaths between the beginning of the Hebrew month of Adar (or Adar II in a 'leap' year) and the first day of Pesach, there is an extra Torah reading (taking the place of the usual maftir), and an accompanying haftarah that replaces the normal prophetic reading for that week. One can explain each of the special Sabbaths in the context of preparation for the Pesach observance.

The prophetic portion traditionally assigned to Shabbat Zakhor is definitely one of the most challenging one among all the haftarot read throughout the year. The thrust of the text is quite clear. Saul is fiercely criticized by Samuel for deviating from a divine command to exterminate utterly the Amalekites. The message of the haftarah appears to be simple-and disturbing-enough. For a long time, the Reform Movement had sought to avoid the prophetic reading altogether, suggesting sections from Esther instead. [The reading 7:1-10, 8:15-17, relates Esther unmasking Haman's evil intent, leading to his execution, and the Jews' celebration.]

In the Haftarah Commentary, edited by Rabbi Gunther Plaut, the traditional passage from I Samuel is restored. Rabbi Plaut provides his own commentary there, seeking to contextualize the passage: “Our position is that the Tanakh is not to be judged but to be read for what it is: a record of our history that withholds little and whitewashes no one. One thing for sure: wars have not become more humane in our day, though we do not associate the killing of innocent people with God's will.” Plaut suggests, in accord with classic Reform Jewish progressive thought, that earlier times would have been less sensitive to the fierce message of bloody revenge indicated by the text.

The Commentary also includes an excerpt from an article by Martin Buber, one of the most prominent Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century. Buber wrote: “…Man is so created he can understand, but does not have to understand what God says to him. In the very hearing, he already confuses the command of heaven and the statute of earth…Even man's holy scriptures are not immune, not even the Bible.” He then concludes: “Nothing can make me believe in a God who punishes Saul because he did not murder his enemy. And yet even today I cannot read the passage that tells this otherwise than with fear and trembling…an inescapable tension between the word of God and the word of man.”

Yes, we clearly feel a good measure of discomfort with a passage that recalls all the bloodiness that has occurred in God's Name. I firmly believe, however, that our discomfort was shared both by the rabbis who chose this passage to be a haftarah read publicly in the synagogue, and by the author of the biblical passage itself. While I think evidence can be drawn from talmudic and biblical texts that would support my belief, this argument is not particular relevant right now. The task I wish to present is to identify the tensions that arise not merely in our contemporary reading of the haftarah, but within the words of the biblical passage itself. Their tension is ours (ours is theirs), and through it, the lesson of the text may begin to arise.

Actually, I have found two interrelated lessons because, in essence there are two texts before us. One is the biblical passage, a narrative from the first book of Samuel, normally attributed to the Deuteronomist author (an individual or school of writing responsible for the six books Joshua, Judges, I & II Samuel, I & II Kings.) The second is the creation of the rabbis some time during the Talmudic period (around the fifth century C.E.), who chose this passage, explicitly connecting it with the forthcoming observance of Purim. The content of the two texts is substantially identical, but their context and therefore the interpretations they tend to yield are different.

What we hear in the synagogue and what we read in Tanakh are not quite the same. Yet, the hearing points us to the reading and both lessons arise. I am going to begin with the reading, the confrontation between Saul and Samuel that is presented in the text.

The Biblical Reading

Samuel and Saul

Chapter 15 of I Samuel represents the climax of a narrative arc dealing with Samuel and Saul. At the end of the chapter, the two go off in their own directions, never meeting again (at least until Saul calls for the spirit of the dead Samuel out of the grave [Chap. 28]). The story begins with Samuel, having established himself as a strong, popular and fair Judge over Israel, now growing old. His own children, likely successors to his leadership, turn out to be weak and corrupt. The populace calls for a king.

Samuel is resistant; is not God the sole Ruler of Israel? The people persist, and God speaks to Samuel, “heed their demands and appoint a king for them (8:22).” Thus, Samuel, through the agency of divine inspiration, finds a tall, handsome young man from the central tribe of Benjamin, to anoint. Samuel's reticence regarding the establishment of the monarchy is matched by Saul's reluctance to be Israel's first king. When the land is attacked by the Ammonites, Saul proves himself to be a strong and resourceful military leader. Samuel thereupon gives a valedictory speech (Chap. 12), and appears to retire from public life.

As we approach Chapter 15, the narrative has created a rich and complex relationship between the old Judge and the younger King. Both are reluctant to assume the roles assigned to them. They are thrust together by the will of God. Samuel has been sorely disappointed by the moral shallowness of his own sons, and attracted to both the physical and spiritual uprightness of the young man from Benjamin. In essence, Saul becomes Samuel's surrogate son. We also become aware that Saul is not quite stable. He is capable of rash judgments and unpredictable mood swings.

At the behest of God, Samuel directs Saul to eradicate the Amalekites. The king amasses a huge army and quickly dispatches of every Amalekite man, woman and child, save the King, Agag, and a portion of their livestock. Samuel is then informed by God, that Saul, for his disobedience, will be dethroned. The old prophet is greatly distressed, pleads through the night with God, but then dutifully informs the king of the divine will. Saul initially attempts to make an excuse for his actions, then apologizes and begs that the strict decree be rescinded. At first, Samuel declares “the Glory of Israel does not dissemble nor have a change of mind (15:29),” then relents somewhat by following Saul as they returned from the south (Amalek was destroyed in the Sinai Peninsula), and permitting Saul to act as a triumphant king before the people. In the end, Samuel himself executes the Amalekite king, and the chapter ends with the words, “Samuel never saw Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul…”

Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue…

When Chapter 15 is read in the context of the larger narrative, it fits into a drama that involves Saul, Samuel and God as the principal characters. The story line continuously loops back on itself, and its dominant mood is that of irony. When the people first clamor for a king, God informs Samuel, “it is not you that they have rejected; it is Me…(8:7).” Now, God in turn, rejects Saul as the king (15:25). At the beginning of the chapter, Samuel tells Saul to “listen to the voice of God's command.” When they meet again, Saul claims that he had indeed fulfilled God's word, but the voice Samuel hears is that of bleating sheep (15:14). Samuel insists that God never has a change of mind (15:29), yet God had informed the prophet of the divine regret over having made Saul a king (15:11). Saul relents on the strict decree to wipe out Amalek by sparing the king, and then Samuel relents on the strict decree to reject Saul as king by accompanying him as he gives public worship before God (15:31).

This last twist bookends what I find to be the most intriguing, and perhaps important verse in the chapter. In v. 11, when Samuel learns that Saul has forfeited the monarchy by his action, “Samuel was distressed and pleaded with God through the night.” The narrative does not indicate what Samuel said to God that night, but we readers are able to take a reasonable guess.

Arguing with God is not particularly unusual in the Bible. Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, Jonah and Job all confronted the Eternal, challenging the divine will. (We ought to add Jacob as well, who wrestled with God.) There are certainly striking differences among all these confrontations, and yet there is one equally striking similarity. In every instance, the challenger is questioning God regarding divine justice.

Tzedek-justice-is an elusive term. In contemporary everyday language, we use the word to refer to redress. When we call for justice, we tend to expect a guilty party to be punished and the victim repaid financially or otherwise. Justice, therefore, conventionally connotes something punitive. This meaning hardly comports with its use in biblical Hebrew.

Think of the related terms: tzadik-a righteous person and tzedaka-charity. Further, the verb l'hatzdik means 'to declare innocent.' Tzedek is judgment all right, but at its core is judgment rendered with compassion. Justice is the willingness to punish, and the willingness to forgive.

The arguments with God thus sought to determine the extent to which punishment would be leavened with mercy, or-particularly in the case of Jonah-whether forgiveness would eradicate the consequences of sin. In the case of this biblical passage, we can imagine Samuel, like Abraham learning of the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah, pleading with God to clarify the justice in the stern and irrevocable judgment being rendered on both Saul and Amalek.

Will the innocent be punished for the sins of the wicked? So, Abraham challenged God (Genesis 19). God's response satisfied Abraham, and he went on his way. Moreover, he was so confident in God's justice that he did not feel the need to challenge once more when called upon to sacrifice his own son. Are we, the readers of the encounter, as satisfied? Abraham began his argument by wishing to know if the cities would be destroyed if there were as many as fifty righteous inhabitants among them. He gets down to ten, and after receiving assurances that the cities would be spared for the sake of the ten, the argument ends. Thus, Abraham was willing in his own mind to tolerate the destruction of nine innocent people along with the wicked of Sodom.

Abraham was satisfied with the outcome of his dialogue, I think, because he recognized that in human communities, justice is messy. Wickedness fairly entails harm being perpetrated on the innocent. Moreover, evil persists because, at least in the short run, it works! The prophet Jeremiah recognized this rip in a moral universe as he turned to God and complained, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are the workers of treachery at ease?” (Jer. 12:1). Innocents do suffer. Justice serves to respond to the wrong of wickedness; it cannot, however, eliminate the suffering that called for justice in the first place.

We are left only with our imagination as to the content of Samuel's pleading before God, but it is most reasonable to believe that he followed other personage's in seeking to understand the divine way in matters of justice, and particularly the stern judgment that had been passed in this case. When the night was over, the argument ended as well. And just as Abraham walked away from the divine presence prepared to accept a definition of justice that might entail the killing of innocents, Samuel arose confident in the measure of divine justice, and prepared to carry out God's will.

The entire chapter takes on an interesting and instructive symmetry. At the beginning, God gives a clear command to have all of the Amalekites destroyed, but Saul modifies the full force of the decree. At the end, God declares that Saul is no longer king, then relents. Saul remains king, but the House of Saul has come to an end. In the center, serving as a pivot is that nightlong encounter between Samuel and God. At the heart of the biblical tale is the challenging notion of justice.

Two judgments are given: the destruction of Amalek and the dethroning of the king. Saul chose to relent somewhat from the order given him. And God chose to relent somewhat from the strictness of the decree Samuel delivered in God's name. We can tell that Saul has not so much disobeyed God's command (need we believe that divine commands given to prophets are so clear and explicit?), as he acted according to his own needs. God, on the other hand, determines that the initial judgment was too strict. Thus, God tempered judgment with mercy-God executed justice-while Saul tempered judgment with indulgence.

The Haftarah

Connections

The prophetic reading that is delivered in the synagogue is almost always logically connected to the Torah reading. There are exceptions. The haftarot recited on the Shabbat before Pesach (Shabbat ha-Gadol), on Sabbaths that fall on the first and last day of a Hebrew (Shabbat Rosh Hodesh and Mahar Hodesh), and on the two Sabbaths following the 17th day of Tammuz (that is, leading up to Tisha b'Av), are made up of prophetic readings who directly connect with the observances of the Jewish calendar. We can fit Shabbat Zakhor into this group as well, although as in the case of the other special Sabbaths preceding Pesach, a maftir (concluding 'aliyah from the Torah) is appended that draws a connection to the haftarah (more below).

The section from I Samuel can be directly related to the Book of Esther. In Chapter 2:5, Mordechai is introduced as a direct descendant of the Benjaminite Kish, the father of Saul (I Sam. 9: 1-2). Haman, of course, is described as an Agagite. Thus, the Purim story unfolds as a recapitulation Saul's war against Amalek. In this case, however, Mordechai (Saul) disposes of Haman (Agag) first, before his followers are put to rout. A number of scholars, particularly Michael Fishbane in Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel, have asserted that this connection predates any rabbinic exegesis, and rather was established by the author of Esther.

In the rabbinic construct, the prophetic reading is the relevant background to the recital of the Megillah later in the week. Indeed, through the act of Mordechai, Saul's failure is finally rectified. This interpretation also provides an insight into the well-known Talmudic story (T. B. Shabbat 88a) in the Mt. Sinai hovers threateningly over the Israelites as they were about to receive the revelation, and remains that way until Esther and Mordechai's triumph.


Who are These Guys

When read in the context of the narrative that forms the first part of I Samuel, chapter 15 deals principally with Saul, Samuel and the idea of divine justice. The rabbis, in fashioning the haftarah, change the focus in a very important way. The background of the saga is moved to the front. This shift in emphasis is signaled by the special maftir.*

Remember [Zakhor] what Amalek did to you on your journey…how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary…Therefore, when the Eternal your God grants you safety…in the land…you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! [Deut. 25:17-19]

The passage, as read in the synagogue, points back (“Remember”) to another passage, Exodus 17. It also points forward to the prophetic reading, in which Saul is ordered to fulfill the command found here in the Torah: you shall blot out Amalek.

Just who is Amalek? The Bible establishes them as a people who dwell in the Sinai region. The name Amalek is first provided in Genesis 36, in which he is listed as a child of Esau's son, born to him by a concubine. Although, I Samuel 15 suggests that Saul eliminated the Amalekites (and Samuel executed their king), the people do show up in subsequent passages of the Bible. In I Samuel 30, David needs to rescue the inhabitants of the city of Ziklag-including two of David's wives-from a pogrom-like raid by the Amalekites (his victory is alluded to in II Samuel 8). According to II Samuel 1, it was an Amalekite who assisted Saul in his suicide rather than being captured by Philistines. According to a verse in I Chronicles 4, the Amalekites continued to exist until the days of Hezekiah-about 200 years after Saul and David-when a troop from the tribe of Shimon finished them off. Finally, however, there is the relevant reference to Agag (the name of Amalek's king) as an ancestor of Haman in the book of Esther.

These are the significant biblical references to the Amalekites. They are not mentioned in any other literary source, nor are there definitive archeological remains. Histories of the biblical era nonetheless accept the existence of such a people. Certainly, the classic Sages, who were responsible for the haftarah, would have accepted unquestioningly that there were a people called Amalek. Yet, it is not the historical Amalek that concerned the rabbis, nor should they concern us. It is only a few passages, but we have a comprehensive image of a particular archetype; a form of humankind we can label “Amalek.”

Now, as we return to the haftarah, let us think about the Amalekites as the rabbis would have. The people are first introduced, once again, by establishing their line as coming from Esau, and not by a wife, but rather a concubine! Esau himself, who is a hapless and semi-tragic character in the Genesis narrative, is transformed into a symbol of oppressive power by the rabbis. Amalek's provenance thus announces something sinister about the people themselves.

Then Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim (Ex. 17:8). The Israelites had just crossed the Sea, and were beginning the trek, first to Sinai, then on to the Land God promised them. The attack is sudden and unprovoked, and the Israelites were in no way prepared. Even before they left Egypt, the text relates that God determined that they should take a less direct route, since “the people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt (13:17).” The Amalekites, however, attacked from the rear (cf. Deuteronomy), thus cutting off any possible escape back to Egypt.

A fighting force was organized under the direction of Joshua, but they could not hold off the attackers. The text makes clear that God needed to fight on their behalf, through the agency of Moses' uplifted arms. “Whenever Moses raised his hand, Israel could prevail; whenever he let his hand down, Amalek would prevail (17:11).” Finally, Israel beat the attackers back, and the passage concludes: “the Eternal will be at war with Amalek throughout the generations (17:16).”

And so it is. Although the haftarah rather clearly implies that Amalek was eliminated in the days of Saul, they are beaten back by David, destroyed once more in the days of Hezekiah, and continue to exist in the person of Haman. At the end of the book of Esther, when Haman and all his sons are hanged, we can hardly be sanguine that Amalek is truly at an end. Like countless pulp fiction evil monsters, the enemy can be shot, stabbed, beheaded, poisoned and burned to cinders, yet somehow keeps coming back.

The Bible is not pulp fiction, and the persistence of Amalek is not some F/X monster. There is something more real and palpable about this otherwise fictional construct. The haftarah indicates as much when it gives this unusual piece of information: “Saul said to the Kenites: Go away…pull out from among the Amalekites, or I will destroy you along with them, although you acted kindly to all the people of Israel…So the Kenites withdrew from Amalek (15:6).”

The Kenites are listed in the book of Genesis (Chapter 15) as among the aboriginal peoples of Canaan. In Judges (Chapters 1 and 4), they are associated with Moses' father-in-law [one medieval commentator identifies Jethro as a Kenite], and include Jael, the young woman who kills the fleeing general Sisera, after his defeat at the hands of Deborah and Barak. How curious, then, that this people can live among the Amalekites!

I would imagine that Saul's address to the Kenites is placed in the text in order to make it more explicit that the campaign was waged exclusively against Amalek. Yet, it also makes the Amalekites less cardboard-like. They are human, and thus God's stern command regarding their elimination becomes quite challenging.

We Have Met the Enemy, and He is Us

Three times-in Exodus 17, Deuteronomy 25 and I Samuel 15-God declares an interest in eliminating Amalek. Before concerning ourselves with the form of punishment, we must consider whether Amalek should be punished at all. From Israel's point of view, the answer must be yes. The people were attacked in an unprovoked and malicious fashion upon their leaving Egypt, and the Bible then records incident of continued enmity through to the 'Amalekite' Haman.

The question then moves to just how much punishment does Amalek deserve? How does anyone know when the punishment actually fits the crime? In a few places in Torah (Ex. 21, Lev. 24, Deut. 19), the concept of lex talionis [the law of exchange] is promoted: an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, etc. What could be a more fundamental and logical notion of finding the proper level of punishment? So, the persistent efforts on the part of Amalek to eradicate Israel are met with eradication itself!

A simple yet disturbing equation! The classical rabbis themselves were sensitive to the brutal violence inherent in lex talionis. They make clear in the Talmud that 'an eye for an eye' is to be interpreted properly as 'the value of an eye for an eye.' Violence is not to be met with violence, but rather with compensation. The chain of revenge must come to an end. Yet, if this is indeed the rabbinic position, what purpose is served by promoting this clearly contradictory biblical narrative as a haftarah?

I think the answer is to be found in a recognition that as disturbing as the notion of “an eye for an eye” (as one wit put it, a solution that would leave the world populated by blind toothless people), is the notion of the “value of an eye for an eye.” Consider the exchange: money for permanent disfigurement. The wealthy person could therefore maim with impunity!

The twentieth century French-Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, concluded a commentary on the relevant passage in Leviticus with this thought (found in a collection of his Jewish writings, Difficult Freedom):

The Bible speeds up the movement that brings us a world without violence, but if money or excuses could repair everything and leave us with a free conscience, the movement would be given a misinterpretation. Yes, eye for eye. Neither all eternity, nor all the money in the world, can heal the outrage done to man. It is a disfigurement or wound that bleeds for all time, as though it required a parallel suffering to staunch this eternal hemorrhage.

Thus, we return to the central question raised in my analysis of the biblical passage, the issue of justice. The justice of human legal courts can-and must-incorporate both judgment and mercy. What, however, is justice in the case of some entity whose very existence seems to be dedicated to the genocidal elimination of a people? How can, in this situation, the overriding rabbinic concern of staunching the cycle of violence actually be achieved?

But, we must ask, is there really such an Amalek? Is there really a nation who, while content to dwell in peace with one people (such as the Kenites), is eternally dedicated to the destruction of another? While the Nazis come to mind, the key word in this question is “eternally.” Is there not always the possibility of sincere repentance and forgiveness? The great High Holy Day prayer, Un'taneh tokef, recited on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, repeats these words (drawn from the Book of Ezekiel): “it is not the death of sinners You seek, God, but that they should turn from their ways and live.” In the Amalekites, we are supposed to imagine a people, who generation after generation, never turn from their ways.

We end by pondering once more, who are the Amalekites? The fierce desert people of the time of Samuel and Saul might have really existed, but they were clearly no more when the rabbis were promulgating this haftarah. We are nonetheless admonished to remember them. So, who is Amalek, not of history, but rather of the rabbis?

More than one commentator has pointed to the narrative that immediately precedes the critical passage in Exodus. Ex. 17:1-7 relates that the Israelites, having journeyed away from the Sea, encamp at a site near Sinai called Rephidim, and discover they have no water. They complain with a refrain that is going to be repeated throughout the Torah: have we been led out of Egypt in order to die in the wilderness? (Ironically, the answer is literally yes, but that is another story!) Moses is directed by God to strike a rock with his staff, and water flows out. The site is thus renamed Masa u'Meriva [rebellious quarreling], because, the passage concludes, they cried out, “Is or is not the Eternal among us?” The next line is “Amalek came and fought with Israel.”

Midrash and mystic sources connect the two sentences-which are otherwise separated by a space in the Torah scroll-by asserting that Amalek comes precisely whenever Israel questions God's presence.

Who is Amalek? It is the malevolent enemy; an enemy that might appear to exist externally among the peoples who have sought Israel's destruction. But the eternal people among whom Israel dwells is Israel itself! Amalek is a projection of our own insecurities and dark thoughts.

We turn one last time to the maftir, the passage in Deuteronomy that characterizes the Sabbath before Purim as Shabbat Zakhor: …Therefore, when the Eternal your God grants you safety…in the land…you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! In the midst of the remembering and forgetting of the passage is the qualification that the disposition regarding Amalek will take place only when Israel has safety. Such security, we know, is the result of the dual requirements of the lack of a real external threat, and the inward feeling of peace of mind. Flesh-and-blood enemies can be kept at bay. The gnawing insecurities within us are far harder to defeat. If we remember just who Amalek really is, we might truly blot the name from the face of the earth.

Afterword

Martin Buber's comment, quoted above, that he refused to believe God would punish Saul for not murdering, touches on the fundamental challenge of reading Scripture. Occasionally, one's own sensibility - the sense of what is right and what wrong - seems so at odds with the plain meaning of the biblical text. In which case, the faithful person asks: who is right and who wrong.

Yet, where does one's own sensibility arise? How do we come to believe something is morally wrong when our sacred literature and religious tradition appears to say otherwise? The question I have been raising in this essay is: do the texts and tradition actually say otherwise? The answer I have been providing is 'no,' but a qualified no.

When the Scripture seems to promote something that we find objectionable - a blanket condemnation of homosexuality, the belittlement of women, a tolerance of genocide - we often choose to disregard the text altogether, or strive mightily to give an interpretation that actually fits our sensibilities. I am opposed to both options, because they make the text itself disappear. When we ignore it or demand that it say what we want it to say, then it no longer has the capacity to teach or guide us; it is no longer Torah!

Our sensibilities, on the other hand, do change a plain meaning and understanding of the text. The classic rabbis were wise in asserting that there are 70 gates to the Torah - that is, a wide variety of ways of interpreting what Scripture is telling us. But, we must also be open to hearing that the text is indeed telling us something. (I use the word “hearing” as that is what we do when we sit in the synagogue during the service of reading Torah.) Often, it is precisely because the lesson of Scripture is neither completely adverse nor completely in accord with our attitudes, it can truly be a lesson.