The People and the Book: Freedom within a closed canon

The Torah portions Mattot and Masei are read on Shabbat, July 22.

Art by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Art by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
I REMEMBER a disagreement I had with my teacher, the late Hebrew University philosophy of education Prof. Michael Rosenak, about the underlying thesis of Mordecai Kaplan’s “Judaism as a Civilization.” Following Kaplan, I argued that the renewal of Judaism requires not merely to reconcile our faith with contemporary science and ethics but to support them. Beyond ridding ourselves of such hoary ideas as “the world to come,” “miracles” or “personal providence,” we should also rule out those parts of the Talmud and even of the Torah that clash with our modern worldview and moral sense, such as laws about sexual orientation and animal sacrifices, as well as those which discriminate against women.
In response Rosenak asked me to consider the following metaphor: When one’s home feels small and suffocating, instead of breaking the walls and sprawling out into the yard, “break through the roof.” In other words, one should grow while keeping the original house intact.
I felt that Rosenak’s suggestion was not radical enough. It offered compromise where decisive action was called for – how could I commit to a Judaism that insisted on holding on to outdated beliefs and laws? “Breaking through the roof,” I responded, will allow problematic customs and myths to intrude upon the newly built “upper floor.”
“Exactly so,” he replied. “Freedom to change presupposes a living memory from which we free ourselves.” Challenged by this concept of freedom I decided to suspend my Kaplanesque worldview and seek new interpretations for “problematic” texts within our canon.
The Torah portion Matot-Masei provides such an opportunity. It tells the story of revenge against the Midianites, women and men, children and elderly alike. “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin.’” (Num. 31:1-2). When the Israelites spare the Midianite women and children, Moses demands, “Slay every male among the children, and slay also every woman who has known a man carnally.”
(Num. 31:17) Moses’ reason for this carnage is not only to fulfill the commandment to take revenge on the Midianites for their attacks on the Israelites, but fear that the Israelite men will follow the Midianite women’s religious practices (Num. 31:16).
Be that as it may, our moral sense is appalled by such a decree – issued by God and echoed by our prophet, Moses. Where is the Abrahamic cry: “Far be it from You to do such a thing as this, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty… Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Gen. 18:25) The Torah is a “sealed canon,” whose words cannot be changed or omitted. However, as Hebrew University philosopher Moshe Halbertal reminds us, once the sacred text is canonized, “The authority is removed from the writers of the text and transferred to its interpreters; denied to the prophets and awarded to the sages.” Yet, our sages down the generations have not disputed this horrific decree.
Confronted with this predicament we have two interpretive choices. We can contextualize the text and demonstrate that these fierce laws and mores were common in ancient Near Eastern cultures, but by this method we accept the time-bounded nature of the Torah and thus dissipate its holiness.
The second option is to hold to the wholeness of the text and provide an interpretation that is substantially nourished by the text and the tradition emanating from it. To use the late philosopher Ronald Dworkin’s insight, we want to interpret the text in the “best possible light,” which means in a way that comports with our concept of the good.
In this spirit, let’s look back at the opening verses and note a discrepancy.
God says, “Avenge the Israelite people.” But Moses says, “Go against the Midianites to take vengeance for the Lord on Midian.” (Num. 31:3) Is it revenge on behalf of God or the Israelites? The discrepancy in the Torah narrative creates an opening for interpretation: God decrees revenge. It is Moses who alters the decree and interprets it in genocidal form.
This allows us to view the actions that followed as an extreme interpretation of divine revelation and not as a simple expression of Divine will. Considering that Moses’s previous subversion of God’s commandment to “speak to the rock” (Num. 20) led to banning him from entering the Promised Land, we may read God’s reminder to Moses of being “gathered to your kin” in Matot- Masei [Num. 27:13] as His warning against extreme interpretations. Thus, we may ‘break through the roof’ and set the first brick for a new interpretation based on our capacity to distinguish between the Divine voice and our own biases.
Now it is for each of us to build the next floor.
Rabbi Haim O. Rechnitzer is associate professor of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati, and a poet