And It May Keep You Up All Night

by Arliene Botnick, December 2, 2015

In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Ben Bag Bag is quoted as saying, “Turn it and turn it for everything is in it. Reflect on it, and grow old and grey with it.” Perhaps he could’ve added “and lose sleep over it.”

At the recent URJ Biennial, I attended a fascinating presentation by 4 outstanding scholars on texts that we study (or just read) but are disturbing and often appear to be contrary to the values we assert are our Jewish values.

I’d like to share a couple of the “problem texts” with you; and one that disturbs me.

1. Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5

Commenting on Cain’s murder of Abel (Gen 4:10)

“As it says of Cain, who killed his brother, “Your brother’s blood (actually it is the plural bloods – damei) is crying out to me …”

For this reason (the Mishnah goes on) mankind was created from one individual, to teach that the Torah considers one who destroys one [Jewish] life as having destroyed the whole world and one who saves one [Jewish] life as having saved an entire world. Yes, some editions suggest that murder is only a heinous act when it applies to Jews! Is it only a Jewish life that we should care about? Are there Jews to-day who still act that way? Troubling?!

2. Deut. Chapter 20 Ki Teitzei

“When you go out to battle against your enemies …”

God – a soldier – God is on “our side”. What if other religions are going to war with the same assertion? Their God is on their side. Both assertions – Troubling!?

3. Novel by Bernard Malamud “The Fixer” (page 69)

When the “fixer”, Yaakov Bok is accused of murdering a Christian child, he confesses – Here is his confession: He confesses he is a Jew, otherwise he is innocent.

Yaakov’s crime and the one he feels he must confess to, is that he is a Jew. Do any of us (or others) see ourselves/Jews not as people, like other people, but rather as “Jews” that somehow are to be judged/treated differently? Must we confess to being Jews as if that were a crime? Is that what’s happening in Israel? Is Israel being judged differently because it is not just a country, like other countries, but it is a “Jewish” country? Something to think about!

And finally, my troubling text, The Akedah!

Does God really want Abraham to sacrifice his son. Is that what the text really means, that to show our loyalty to God, we must be ready to do the unthinkable! Think about it!

What texts keep you up at night?

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