I don't know it if was random chance or deliberate intent, but in the "Literature, Religion, Faith of Ancient Israel" course I started this week at Vanderbilt Divinity School (the course, is of course, referred to by most as "Old Testament" - I'll have to be on my guard to not get too used to using that particular term when referring to the Tanakh) instructor asked us to write a reflection paper describing how we might go about teaching a study class about Deuteronomy 23 in relation to "requirements for membership in the community of God."
When it came time to discuss our papers in small groups, I, and the one other Jewish student in the program of course expressed first of all how difficult it was to not think about and want to write about the entire parasha. Nevertheless, we did our best.
Being in a theological studies program, I am now operating in a "critical analysis" mode, so it's fairly easy to understand why the people of Israel were instructed to exclude those with crushed testes or Lorena Bobbitt syndrome. Lots of good reasons. Certainly other tribes practiced ritual mutilations, and in our quest to be different and apart, the exclusion makes sense. We were also a people who, first and foremost, need to survive. Males who could not father children weren't of much use to the community.
The exclusion of members of enemy tribes also makes perfect sense in that historical perspective.
But what about the catchall phrase of today: relevance. It seems both Jews and Christians suffer from this intense need for relevance. (Personally, I think it's one of life's great fallacies, but that's a musing for another time.)
Oddly, no one else in the group seemed to notice something that jumped out at me: how meaningful a lesson it is that Egyptians could be admitted to the community (after a few generations.) Given my own personal experience that Xtians are really into forgiving, I was quite surprised no one else picked up on this. Despite all the awful, horrible deeds done by the Egyptians to the Israelites, still, their one good act, in taking the descendants of Yaakov into their land, welcoming them, and allowing them to prosper and pray to their God-that one act was enough to win them the right to be a member of the community of Israel should they wish to join it. I think that's a pretty powerful statement, and one to keep in mind these days. (And what about that vice versa situation we have in the news these days: a man who has done many good things being taken to task for one, sinful deed. Hmmm. But I digress.)
I knew it would happen. Invariably, the topic of the class turned to "being exclusionary." Thus, the exclusion of eunuchs and the like are simply "bad Bible" to be ignored, or explained away historically, etc. In my paper, I wrote that, had this text been written in these times, we'd likely find ourselves assaulted by lawyers and activists protesting for "eunuchs' rights."
Indeed, Vanderbilt being the theologically liberal institution it is, much of the class was from the "Exclusion-is-bad-under-any-circumstances -and-should-never-be-tolerated" school of thought. Sorry, I don't buy it. Eliminate all exclusions, and you remove a group's ability to define itself. Yes, total non-exclusion might be a goal to shoot for, and might come about in the Olam Haba. But is it all it's cracked up to be? Do we really want to be a total melting pot homogenous society? Perhaps our ability to control genetics may eventually enable us to change our race at will. Would the chance to be black one day, white another eliminate hate and discrimination and all that goes with it?
I don't believe so. I believe God made us b'tzelem Elohim - in God's image. But, if God is all things-then isn't each of us "all things"? No. We are each of us unique, individual. And also part of some group. Part of many groups. In God we may find all our unique characteristics, and all the groups' characteristics represented. But we ourselves need to belong to something, to have an attachment- we do not and cannot live apart. A world with no exclusions, no defined groups-ultimate vision or ultimate nightmare? I'm not sure.
One group I belong to is that group which is known as the Jews. That particular group is pretty small-threatened, even. So it would make sense for it to welcome anyone who wanted to join, right? Even a eunuch. I can see it now-the debate in the CCAR over whether to convert eunuchs and males with other mutilations by choice. Oy!
It's OK to draw lines, create boundaries. Fences do make good neighbors at times. And we know this by illustration-by a gift God gives us each week. It is Shabbat. Shabbat has boundaries. It is a place we can go to get away from the rest of the world. We can keep the craziness of life at bay.
As we each cross the boundaries into and out of Shabbat, we might stop and reflect on what our lives would be like if there were no exclusions-no separations, no way to create a Shabbat out of the days of the week. Be thankful for the exclusions that make Shabbat possible.
Shabbat Shalom to you and yours from me and ours,
© 1998 & 2000 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some other musings on this parasha:
5764/5-The Torah, The Gold Watch, and The Rest of the Story
Ki Tetze 5757,9,60,63--The Torah, The Gold Watch, & Everything
Ki Tetze 5762--One Standard
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