Back in February, Deb Spector offered me the opportunity to give a Dvar over the summer. I didn’t ask which parsha it would be. I just agreed on a far-away July date when I figured we’d be in town.
I wanted a d’var in order to share with you a learning experience that I have been given over the past year, as a member of the Institute for Master Teachers sponsored by the Community Foundation for Jewish Education. I have just spent the better part of the year studying what are known as the best practices in Jewish education. Religious schools frequently lag far behind secular schools in the use of well researched successful methods of teaching. The CFJE has attempted to address that lag, especially the retro teaching style which prevails in many of our Jewish schools.
The Institute represents a concentrated effort to professionalize Jewish teaching in Chicago’s reform, reconstructionist, and Conservative schools. Lecturers from university education departments and thinkers on the spiritual and moral development of children met with us on a weekly basis. Best of all I got to hang out with some fine American and Israeli teachers, and learn about their schools, and their philosophies of instruction, and their motivation for doing what they do. I wanted to publicly thank the congregation and Sally Brown Winter in particular for giving me this opportunity.
During the CFJE institute I heard this story from a veteran teacher at one of the biggest North Shore synagogues--which I won’t name. Teachers at this school are explicitly prohibited from teaching 2 things--Bible stories which involve miraculous or supernatural events (which leaves out big stories from Genesis on up--no more creation story, no Chanuka miracle, no more parting of the Red Sea, and you could eliminate Daniel and so on and on.) And stories involving a vengeful, punitive or scary God (No Abraham & Isaac story, no Sodom, Lot’s wife, Jonah, nothing that might make God seem mean or cruel). (One more reason to thank God we’re not on the North Shore!) Here I have to make clear that at Oak Park Temple, we teachers are never told what or what not to say within the broad and basic parameters of the OPT curriculum.
Having said all this, I can no longer delay the inevitable. We have to look at this parsha. A few months ago I finally looked up the parsha in my Tanach. Like most of Deuteronomy, I found this parsha is full of minutiae about counting the (male) noses of the Jewish tribes and ordering the society--setting up the mechanisms of governance as they prepared to cross over to the promised land.
It wasn’t a democracy they were setting up. This was a time of kings. Slavery was a perfectly acceptable social convention--unless you happened to be one of the enslaved. So if many of the rules and regs which are set forth in Deuteronomy have been discarded by modern society, the question is--what can we take from these chapters?--besides some insight into the history of our forebears--what can we find here about how to live in the world?
On first reading, it struck me that a lot of this content felt new to me. When you consider our school year calendar it makes sense. This parsha is about stuff that happened AFTER the Exodus -- and AFTER the giving of the Law at Sinai. 38 years after, to be precise.More to the point, these are chapters that take place during our summer months--when Religious School is on vacation. These are chapters and stories that our school children never read or hear, because we STOP each year at the same point in the Torah cycle...in early spring, after Pesach or Shavuot. And we resume with Bereshit in the fall.
A lot of stuff happens in between, in Torah, that we don’t study. We never hear the whole story.
So, think back now to your Jewish education. What were YOU told happened to us in the desert? Okay. We got out of Egypt, pursued by Pharoah’s soldiers. We escaped by God’s intervention. We got to the other side, we partied, and were chastised for celebrating the drownings. Right away, we started grumbling about the conditions. We get fed mannah from heaven. We tell kids it tastes like each person’s personal favorite food. You like pizza, it tastes like pizza. Moses heads up the mountain to get the word. Then there’s that whole messy business with the golden calf, but eventually we build the ark according to God’s specs.
When God decides, at last, that the people are ready, everybody except Moses gets to go into the Land. At least that’s how I remember it.
Actually, a few more things happen. In fact, this parsha basically chronicles a military campaign, in which the Israelites fought their way across the Sinai, conducted by Moses with firsthand instructions from on high. It lasted nearly 40 years, we read, "until that whole generation of warriors had perished from the camp." God was waiting until the generation of rebellious, whiny, and disobedient men had died off.
Most of the second chapter of Deuteronomy discusses the military conduct in relation to various tribal territories. Some are to be treated with respect, paid for their food, and not disturbed in any way.
But others are to be annihilated, brutally and unequivocally, by the Israelites as they pass through. Here are some of God’s instructions as cited by Moses in this chapter:
"This day I begin to put the dread and fear of you upon the peoples everywhere under heaven,s o that they shall tremble and quake because of you whenever they hear you mentioned." (Translation: You shall be the baddest dudes in the desert.)
When King Sihon resisted, the narrator notes, we retaliated: "At that time we captured all his towns, and we doomed every town--men, women and children--leaving no survivor."
Moreover, "Not a city was too mighty for us.
The army of the wandering Jews moved on, making its way toward the promised Land. "So the Lord Our God also delivered into our power King Og of Bashan, with all his men, and we dealt them such a blow that no survivor was left...60 towns,...we doomed them as we had done in the case of King Sihon of Heshbon;[again] we doomed every town --men, women and children--and retained as booty all the cattle and the spoil of the towns."
To various tribes of the Israelites, Moses apportioned tracts of land. Finally, "we seized the Arabah, from the foot of the slopes of Pisgah on the east to the edge of the Jordan, and from Kineret down to the Sea of Arabah--the Dead Sea."
Moses sends the leaders out saying: "The Lord Your God has given you this country to possess. You must go as shock-troops, warriors all, at the head of your Israelite kinsmen..." It will fall to Joshua of Nun to complete the conquest of Canaan, immortalized in song ("Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho," a gospel tribute to a military event.)
Not a pretty picture, is it? We squirm at the notion of our ancestors behaving like Huns and Visigoths. We imagine Moses as a spiritual beacon, a man above men. This is a hard pill to swallow.
And to our modern ears, these passages evoke many unpleasant and terrible contemporary images. We recall modern scenes of civilian slaughter, not only of the Shoah, but also of My Lai, of "ethnic cleansing." And yes, of Deir Yassin. We don’t like to find these images of mass, indiscriminate killing and pillaging in our Book. But they’re here.
I don’t know about you. But I never thought of the wandering in the desert in terms of armed assaults on the towns in our path. I never imagined a God of justice endorsing the killing of every man, woman and child we encounter on our way. And I know I never heard this story in all my years in Sunday School. Or told this story.
What are we to make of this? I have to ask myself this question as a Jew, a teacher and a parent.
As a teacher and a parent, I want a school that nurtures the Jewish community of the future, a school that encourages critical Jewish thinking. And I also want to retain a sense of history, to understand the historic context in which these events occurred.
Recently I attended a bat mitzvah service at which the student was sharply critical of her parsha; an earlier desert passage which seemed to invent and perpetuate caste and class distinctions, assigning permanent rank and privilege to members of certain gender and tribal groups. Afterwards, I sat next to a guest who is a distinguished anthropologist. The scholar was indignant that the bat mitzvah child "didn’t understand the context"--slavery was simply the prevailing social and economic order of the times, he argued, and it was arrogant for a child to criticize or disagree with the Torah portion, and worse, irresponsible of her teachers not to have prevented it.
This young woman, whom he wished to shush, was arguing, "I don’t want to live my life like that. And I’m a Jew." It is obvious that a 13-year-old may lack the historical perspective to analyze these matters in context of the times in which they were written. But at 13, of course, iconoclasm is a badge of honor and of intellectual boldness. And rightly so.
We want our kids (and ourselves) to be able to take this material apart and put it back together again in a way that makes sense to us in our time. We’ve got to distinguish between disrespect and respectful dissent. We Jews are not dogmatists by heritage. Discursive inquiry and argument is our stock in trade.
Yet when it comes to study of Torah, especially with children, we are highly selective.
We police ourselves..We silence ourselves. At some developmental levels, it’s perfectly appropriate to skip certain stories and graphic, gory details. In my own work with young children, I try to steer away from the bloodthirsty.
But as kids mature, we need to challenge them and encourage them to embrace our tradition of inquiry. This is the fulfillment of our obligation to study, our obligation to use our minds well.
But there’s still that pernicious tendency to silence ourselves. To silence by not welcoming the inquiry of children and young adults. To steer away from the difficult, the unpleasant. The challenge for us as parents and teachers is not just to stay one step ahead, or just to be very entertaining in our teaching. We can’t get by with pat answers to probing questions.
In all other domains, don’t we want kids who prod and poke and question? In our Jewish school it must be safe to question, to dissent, and to reject as well as to embrace.
I am in the midst of Thomas Cahill’s new book, The Gifts of the Jews. Here, we learn anew that the Torah is a quilt--not a "crazy" quilt. There’s a distinct pattern. But pieces came to Torah from the Sumerians, the Ammonites, from Mesopotamia, and so on. The Hebrew tribes were not all one thing. Torah has roots in a number of significant regional civilizations. Torah embodies an evolved, unified tradition of faith and a distinctive world view. But there’s a lot of stuff in it that represents differing viewpoints and voices.
So, turning again to this parsha: That’s what we’re hearing--conflict. To my ear, this week’s parsha is a dangerous parsha. This passage can be misused as a contemporary mandate for annihilating or at best relocating people who stand in the way of expansionism today. This was the call to arms of a Baruch Goldstein, of a fanatic who justified a genocidal act by quoting Torah. So, this is a parsha that should not be overlooked; understanding this piece of our story is vital; being able to hear it and turn it over is part of the completeness we want our children to have. We need to get better at this.
Today, the literalists, the fundamentalists, in Israel’s religious right seek their mandate in scripture. They are the dogmatists, who have selectively abandoned our intellectual tradition of debate and inquiry, and the mitzvah of study, when it serves their purpose.
Today, our congregation is on the cusp of a major expansion and renewal of our school. As we imagine together and consider what our school might become, I hope we will leave some empty spaces, places for our children and young adults to express themselves, to question and explore. Empty walls on which they can paint murals--the world through their lens--or publish a literary magazine uncensored and unvarnished--of their Jewish reflections on Torah and Jewish life, their dreams for a world of peace and justice. I hope we will find new ways to study Torah in its fullness, the entire Torah, with our children, to deepen our understanding together.
This is a legitimate, valid pedagogy. It’s real study, not make-work. We are a modern, thinking, inquiring people. We want to shape curious, caring, thinking and wide-awake Jewish kids. At times, this process can be risky and loud, messy and uncomfortable. But it’s living Judaism. And that’s what we’re about