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Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת מטות-מסעי, תש״פ

Parshat Matot-Masei, 5780

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, July 18th, 2020

Tricky Texts and Kubler-Ross' Five Stages

Take a moment and think about a text in Torah or Talmud that really makes you upset, angry, embarrassed, or sad… Raise your hand if you can think of a story or tradition that fits that mold.

I will let you know in advance, my examples are troubling for the ways in which the Torah and Talmud talk about women and sexuality.

For the final exam of one of my Talmud classes in rabbinical school, each student taught a text that she found compelling. One classmate shared the story of the dynamic Talmudic duo, Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish. Resh Lakish is a thief who, while walking through the woods, happens upon the figure of Rabbi Yochanan bathing in the river. Rabbi Yochanan is so beautiful that Resh Lakish jumps in after him. “Your beauty is for women!” Resh Lakish exclaims. “Your strength is for Torah!” says Rabbi Yochanan, and the two became fast friends and study partners. Although I had heard this story before and always loved the lessons about friendship that develop later, this time, my thoughts and emotions were fixed on Resh Lakish’s initial leap into the river. Although it is not explicitly stated, it is clear in the story that Resh Lakish leaps into the river to take advantage of the woman he sees, and for this, Rabbi Yochanan invites him into the Rabbinic fold.

Later in the class, another student presented a Talmudic story about a Rabbi who has trouble controlling his sexual urges, this time with the punchline: “Whoever is greater than his fellow, his yetzer [his drive, or inclination] is greater.” Some students saw this as a lesson in the acceptance of our own humanity, while others of us saw this as an example of an ancient text that helped to build the all-too-forgiving nature of the world we have now, with the assumption that even - maybe even especially - the best men cannot contain themselves. Therefore, women should be the ones who are modest and careful. Although I can normally distance myself from my emotions or interpret problems away when I encounter problematic texts, this time, I was stunned by my anger. I could not handle thinking about these texts as Divine, knowing the assumptions they may have inspired.

In the double parashah of Matot-Masei, I am similarly struck by the passage in which the Israelites invade the Midianites and leave the women alive. Here, since the Midianite women were the ones who provoked the Israelites to immorality and idolatry a few parshiyot ago, the Israelites are reprimanded by God and are told to kill the rest of the women, except for the virgins. In the following chapter, 32,000 virgins are included in the list of objects that make up the Israelites’ spoils of war. These women are saved not because of their humanity, but rather, because of their use.

How does this violence reconcile with the statement from the same parasha: “You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land.” (Numbers 35:33)? If killing pollutes the land, and God does not want the land defiled with blood, why does God command so much bloodshed of the other? How can I teach and revel in a Torah that treats foreign women as objects? When I read texts like those from my Talmud class and like the violence present in Matot-Masei, my vision of Judaism as a religion centered on love of God and others is challenged in a way that makes my head and heart hurt.

Torah is inherently challenging; we are the people Israel - a people destined to wrestle with God and God’s words. When we are expected to actually live by this tradition, it does not feel like enough to discount a text as being from another time or to explain away a text as just another instance of how we cannot possibly know the intentions behind God’s words. It can be even harder when oftentimes, those we interact with do not find the same challenges in a text as we do. As a result, Judaism is a tradition that both embraces our texts as holy and leaves space for frustration and argument.

In a podcast on Parshat Pinchas, Rabbi and life coach David Levin-Kruss speaks about different ways to deal with what he calls “yucky, icky, toxic, problematic” texts. He speaks in terms of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of mourning: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. As these stages don’t necessarily progress in this order in the mourning process, there is no specific order to these phases in the process of looking at a tricky text. Different people might use different methodologies or a combination thereof at different moments in time. As demonstrated throughout the Torah and Talmud and by historical and modern Rabbis, each of these methodologies has the ability to lead to a sacred, renewed relationship with the text at hand.

When we speak about “denial” in terms of dealing with Jewish text, we can speak about it in the extreme, in terms of denial of the Jewish tradition in general. However, as I would like to see you all next week, I will add that we can also speak of denial as denial of the text in question. We can declare, “This is not my Torah right now. In order to be engaged with and a part of this Judaism, I need to set this particular teaching aside, at least for the time being.”

When we speak about approaching a text with one of the next two stages - with anger or depression - we speak about the importance of sitting with the emotions that stem from a text and asking ourselves why this text is so personally frustrating. Have I gone through a personal experience that makes this text trigger a deeply set emotion in me? Does this text conflict with my core values, or does it imply that my way of thinking about the world might be wrong or misguided? Anger or depression might be an ending point, or it might contribute to the drive towards other stages of dealing with a challenging text.

Through the stage of bargaining, we can pick up on the Rabbinic process in the Talmud, Midrash, and later law codes. As I’ve spoken about before, the primary project of the Talmudic Rabbis was to reinterpret the Torah text in ways that kept it relevant and holy in their eyes, in their time. Today, we can analyze a text, using literary and historical context and choosing the themes we wish to highlight in an effort to argue that text into a state about which we feel more confident teaching and learning.

Eventually, when dealing with a challenging text, we may come to the possibility of acceptance. Sometimes, this is as simple as acknowledging that a law or statement is part of the Torah, and thus, as Jews, we stick to it. Often, though, when we as individuals or community, encounter a text that is too painful, we cannot stay in this place of passive acceptance. Sometimes, acceptance has to mean shifting how we see Jewish theology - how we perceive the divinity of God and Torah, who we personally define as the author of this text, what that means for the way we live our lives. And of course, at the end of the day, that acceptance of a particular text may be unavailable.

Simply by being in this room or participating online today, we are showing that, time and again, we have each come to some sort of an acceptance of our tradition as a whole, regardless of where we are with individual stories and practices. When I first read the Talmudic and Biblical texts I mentioned a few minutes ago, my initial reaction was denial; I could not keep these texts as part of my Torah. However, my personal theology of Torah as the word of God and Talmud as a set of texts that we as a community have affirmed as divine does not allow me to stop at denial forever.

Now, every time I come across these texts, I start with anger and depression. I think about my personal experiences with people coming to the door or calling on the phone and asking for my husband or father when I answer. I think about the wider issues of women still fighting to be believed when we speak, for that fundamental right not to be seen as someone else’s property. With the text in our parashah today, I currently find myself stuck at anger and depression; however, I plan to come back to this text each year to figure out how to proceed past my hurt and into a lesson I know is inherent in our sacred text. With the Talmudic texts I mentioned earlier, I have found the ability to set my personal biases aside for a moment and acknowledge the Rabbinic lessons of friendship and humanity present in those bits of Talmud.

Even with such bargaining and apologetics, my anger and sadness are valid and need addressing. Like the Rabbis of the Talmud do throughout their wisdom, I can teach that as time changes, our interpretation of text and tradition must change as well. Today, we live in a world in which such attitudes about women are known (hopefully) to be absurd, and therefore, the category of women as second-class citizens that exists in Torah and Talmud must no longer exist today. From such a realization, I can teach that women should no longer be relegated to second class status in Jewish ritual practice. I reread these challenging texts in order to positively reread our tradition. Here, through a complex combination of denial, strong emotion, and bargaining, I can come to a fuller view of this text and tradition than I had beforehand - a stronger acceptance.

Think back to that text that you mentioned just a few minutes ago. Where are you among the stages of denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance? How can exploring some of the other possible stages evolve your view of that text? How might such an evolution influence your Jewish practice?

When we find texts painful - when we give ourselves space to cry about them, yell about them, sometimes even reject them, and hopefully come back to them later - we give ourselves the opportunity to learn more about what makes Judaism ours. More importantly, it gives us space to ask, who is this God who, according to our parsha, dwell among the Israelite people, and how do we look at God’s authority in a way in which we can be productive partners? With God’s positive responses to those who challenge God in Torah in terms of justice, and with the stories of our Rabbis who found it honorable to challenge Torah and each other, I believe that engaging with challenging texts is like having a discussion with God. God lives among us not just to watch over us but to listen to our ideas of righteousness in judgment. When we engage with difficult texts, we learn more about ourselves and our Judaism, and we engage in meaningful conversation with, even criticism of the Divine. When we act on that engagement, we help God in developing a Judaism that responds to the challenges of the world at large with righteousness and loving-kindness.