Here at camp, I was recently asked to lead a series of sichot, conversations, with older campers. I chose as my topic troubling texts, though I gave it the racier and more appealing title of "Torah Say What?! Yeah, It Went There!"
There is no shortage of troubling texts in our tradition to examine and discuss, but the timing with this week's parasha, Matot-Masei presents me with one of the richest sources of problematic texts one can find, all within a few chapters.
Matot begins with those lovely instructions that require men to keep vows, but largely make women's vows subject to disavowal by their husbands (or fathers.) That's Chapter 30.
Chapter 31 begins with G"d saying to Moshe
Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites. (31:2a)
Today, when we learn of people who hear voices telling them to kill, we're a little more suspect. This is a G"d we can believe in? One who tells us to avenge ourselves?
The chosen Israelites go out and slay the Midianites - but only the men - and bring back lots of spoils and booty. Moshe berates them for sparing the women and children. He tells them to go back and kill the rest, sparing only young women who are virgins. It's not at all clear what they intended to do with all those young women, but one can hesitate a guess, and it's not a pretty one.
Next, the Gadites and Reubenites plead to be allowed to posses land on the east side of the Jordan, it being better pasture land for all their cattle. Moshe doesn't even check with G"d first, but authorizes the decision to give away land not technically among the parcels originally promised. In exchange for this largesse, Moshe makes the Gadites and Reubenites promise that all their available men will go and fight to conquer the people inhabiting the lands on the other side of the Jordan. Sure, we can bend G"d's promises a little if you agree to help us commit a genocide against the people living in Canaan. If that's not a troubling text...
(Interestingly, later in the parasha, there is yet another definition of the boundaries of the promised land. It draws the eastern boundary at the Jordan, thus theoretically leaving the Gadites and Reubenites on the other side.)
Yes, there's the redeeming concept of cities of refuge yet we must consider that allowing for cities of refuge is tantamount to acknowledging and accepting bloodguilt and honor killings. Oy.
Finally, in an attempt to squeeze in one last bit of misogyny, we have the directive to the daughter's of Zelophakhad that they must marry into their own clan so that the property that they have now inherited by Divine decree will remain within the same ancestral clan. They get to inherit, but their choice of marriage partners is limited - this far and no farther say the men. There's still a glass ceiling.
In my sichot, we are discussing ways that people can deal with troubling texts. Each person must come to their own understanding of how to do so. All of us are going to need to do that this Shabbat, for Torah has presented us with a real treasure trove of trouble.
©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester
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