How Can We Approach Difficult Texts?

שירו לה' שיר חדש

Sing unto the Lord a new song.

Every morning, as we complete the set liturgy of P’sukei D’zirmrah, the verses of praise, we recite these words from Psalm 149. We have just spent five, or ten, or fifteen minutes reciting and singing ancient words, ancient songs that our ancestors have recited and sung for thousands of years. And as we get to the end, we challenge ourselves to sing a new song. We should each find our own words, our own way of singing a song to God.

The words of our tradition are important and essential, but we each have a responsibility to add our own perspective, our own stamp to our worship in order to make it our own. This is an important idea, and it is inspiring to see the psalms that make up part of our liturgy acknowledge it.

Obviously, the psalm doesn’t end there. It continues:

Let the people Israel rejoice in their maker; let the people of Zion delight in their sovereign. Let them dance in praise of God, celebrate with drum and harp. The people of Adonai are cherished, the humble are crowned with triumph. Let God’s faithful sing exultantly and rejoice both night and day.

These verses describe an ecstatic nation, praising God without inhibitions. We should all hope to feel such unrestrained joy and gratitude in our lives. But the psalm is still not over; it concludes:

Let praise of God be on their lips, and a double-edged sword in their hands to execute judgment on the godless, to bring vengeance upon the nations; to bind their kings in chains and put their princes in irons—carrying out the judgment decreed against them. This is glory for all of God’s faithful. Hallelujah!

How can our psalm singing about the loving praise of God transition so suddenly and completely into verses that praise violence and revenge; the complete domination and defeat of our enemies?

The idea of religious violence is nothing new. As Jews, we have been on the receiving end of this type of violence for most of our history, and have seen a terrifying upswing in such violence in recent years. Statistics show that Jews are still the most frequent victims of religious hate crimes in the United States. We must also acknowledge the fact that Jews have been the perpetrators of religious violence – both in America and abroad, both recently and in the past. We must condemn the Jewish perpetrators of such violence as thoroughly and as universally as we condemn the violence that is perpetrated against us.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that this was also true in the Biblical period, when nation and religion were even more closely intertwined than they often seem to be today. But just because this existed in our history – as it has existed in the history of all nations and religions – doesn’t mean that we should glorify it. Why do we read this psalm each and every morning, reminding ourselves of this period in our past? What else could we do with this psalm?

I am not the first to ask this question, and the editors of different siddurim and mahzorim have each been forced to engage with it in one way or another. In the case of the two previous Conservative mahzorim – Mahzor Hadash, which we used to use, and the Harlow Mahzor – they included two versions of P’sukei D’zimrah, a complete version, and an abridged version. Not surprisingly, in the abridged versions in both of these Mahzorim, Psalm 149 – our psalm – is conspicuously absent. The Silverman Mahzor, which was the dominant Conservative mahzor throughout most of the second half of the 20th century, took a different approach. P’sukei D’zimrah appears in full, including Psalm 149; however, the translation presents only “selected from Psalm 149,” and draws only from the first 4 verses, ending before any of the violent language or talk of revenge.

Both of these approaches, removing the psalm entirely and editing the translation, treat the psalm as problematic and remove it from our service. This protects our conception of Judaism as a non-violent religion, one that only ever goes to war out of self-defense. But it comes at a cost. In the case of Mahzor Hadash and the Harlow Mahzor, that cost is the traditional structure of the liturgy. In the case of the Silverman Mahzor, the liturgy is preserved, but the cost is our understanding of the words that we sing.

We will face a similar problem tomorrow afternoon. That service will begin with a Torah service, just as the standard Shabbat mincha service does. However, while on a Shabbat afternoon we read a preview of the coming week’s Torah portion, tomorrow we will read a passage that our ancestors specifically chose for Yom Kippur: Vayikra, Leviticus, chapter 18.

This passage lays out what are known as the arayot, the forbidden sexual relationships. This chapter focuses primarily on incestuous relationships, relationships that today we would still consider inappropriate and sinful. But in verse 22, we read וְאֶת־זָכָר לֹא תִשְׁכַּב מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman,” an apparent prohibition against homosexuality.

The passage in the Talmud that mandates the reading of this chapter on Yom Kippur offers no explanation for it, leaving us to find our own reasons. The most basic and straightforward explanation is that the afternoon reading picks up less than a column after the morning reading concludes, so we don’t have to roll a Torah in the middle of our fast. As simple and as plausible as this might be, questions of this significance require a more powerful explanation than convenience.

Our mahzor links this reading to a discussion in a different tractate of the Talmud, one that describes Yom Kippur afternoon as it occurred when the Temple still stood in Jerusalem. It was an opportunity for the young people to gather and meet one another hoping to find a partner. Accordingly, a reminder of the prohibited types of relationships would be appropriate. However, no text that dates back to the time of the Temple has any reference to reading Leviticus 18 on Yom Kippur, and so it is pure speculation to think that this was the reason.

The Silverman Mahzor introduces the Torah reading similarly, it reads: “The retention of this passage from the Bible was prompted by the desire to inculcate on the most sacred day of the Jewish calendar, the paramount duties of self-control and connubial purity, which have proved such potent factors in the survival of the Jewish people.” In both of these explanations, the force behind the Torah reading is a reminder of appropriate and inappropriate partners generally, and it is coincidental that the chapter concludes with a condemnation of homosexuality.

Like Psalm 149, this text has inspired several different reactions. There are those who are able and willing to accept this verse at face value. We have all come across people who are comfortable condemning homosexuality because “the Bible says so.” For those who are unable to reject a significant portion of our community, the task is more difficult. The simplest choice is to say “that was then, and this is now.” But that is also unacceptable for us, as traditional Jews, because we believe the Torah speaks to us across generations, and should not be rejected as “out of date.”

We are left then, with reinterpretation. Our mahzor proposes that this verse is only discussing the context of rape or cult prostitutes; that it could never conceive of a consenting, loving relationship between adults. Another interpretation proposes that this verse was concerned with social status: one should not degrade a man to the status of a woman – and that a modern relationship that would not have this effect is not under discussion. But basing our interpretation on the belief that women are of lesser social standing than men solves one problem in the Torah by creating another. Finally, the most radical interpretation that I have seen intentionally re-reads the entire verse, and interprets it as prohibiting two men from raping a woman.

Each of these interpretations can help us solve the halakhic difficulties that arise out of this verse as we work to make our community as welcoming as possible. But while the legal issue might be resolved, it doesn’t change the words that we will read tomorrow, and it will not change the emotional reaction that many in our community will have as we read them.

The most common solution, for those, like the PJC, that reject the exclusion of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters from our community, is to read a different Torah portion entirely. In our Mahzor, as well as the older Mahzor Hadash and Harlow Mahzor that I mentioned earlier, an alternate reading is provided for us. It comes from the next chapter in Leviticus, commonly known as the Holiness Code. It seems to have first been introduced as an alternative in the middle of the 19th century by Rabbi Abraham Geiger, a Reform rabbi in Germany.

As you can see if you read this alternate portion, it fits very well with Yom Kippur. It lays out the moral life that we are expected to lead, emphasizing the values of respect and common decency that we must show to every person. We must support the poor, we must be honest, we must be fair. We cannot put a stumbling block before the blind, and most important of all – the reading concludes – we must love our fellow as ourselves ואהבת לרעך כמוך. A powerful text, and one that should guide us as we move back into the world after the shofar is blown tomorrow night.

And yet, we don’t read this alternate portion, and we don’t omit or edit Psalm 149 in P’sukei D’zimrah. When I read about the double-edged sword in the hands of Israel “to execute judgment on the godless, to bring vengeance upon the nations,” I am forced to struggle with the meaning of these words. They shout out to me that my history has had its dark moments, its periods of violence and intolerance. When I read the Torah’s words that homosexuality is an abomination, I am forced to work to understand the ways in which these words continue to impact people today. They open my eyes to the ongoing harm that can be done in the name of faith and religion.

And all of this, is, for me, exactly the point. When I open myself up to the possibility that our tradition and history have had moments that cause me pain or discomfort, then I am also able to open myself up to the possibility that I have had those moments in my life. If Judaism is not perfect, then how can I expect myself to be?

I am forced now to recognize that my actions over the course of my life, and over the course of the past year, have not been perfect. Sometimes I have acted out of ignorance, or out of haste, and that has caused people harm. I haven’t taken the time to fully understand a situation before acting, and have plowed through people’s emotions and needs. Sometimes, the pain I cause is accidental, and sometimes it is not.

That is not to say that my intention is to cause someone pain, but there have been times when I have known that saying something, or doing something would hurt another person, and I have done it anyway, because I was convinced that it is the right thing to do. In those moments, I prioritize the action over the emotions of another person. Sometimes, I am right. Sometimes the right thing to do is the right thing to do, even as it causes pain. But sometimes I am wrong, and my well-thought out choices are not worth the harm.

That is how I can engage with these texts. I can look at the glorification of violence and revenge in Psalm 149 and recognize that my ancestors really believed that this was not only the right thing to do, but it was the Jewish thing to do. I can understand that their sense of self-preservation and justice required them to call for the defeat and destruction of their enemies.

I can read Leviticus 18:22 and see the ways that gender identity and gender dynamics influenced society and law in the ancient world. I can try to understand the values that informed this law, and the religious, moral culture that it was trying to create.

I can do these things, understand these texts, and still acknowledge the harm that they have caused, and can continue to cause – if we allow them. I can read them, and I can declare to myself: That’s not Jewish! Those are not the values that inform my faith. Those are not the basis for any political, social, or religious community that I want to be a part of.

But what right do I have to do this? What right do I have to decide what’s Jewish? Who gets to decide what’s Jewish and what isn’t? We do. We always have. And we always will. But we can’t do it, we can’t shape our religion, our beliefs, and our community, from a place of ignorance, willful or otherwise. We need to engage with our past, with our tradition, with our eyes wide open.

We need to be able to admit who have been, and what we have done. That does not mean that my past actions define who I am as a person, any more than Psalm 149 or Leviticus 18:22 define who we are as a community. When I face my past, I can choose to move beyond it, to acknowledge what I have done, and choose to act differently in the future. We can do the same as a people. We can shape ourselves and our community, articulating the values that we want to guide us moving forward. Reflecting on our past, both personal and communal not only helps us to atone for our mistakes, it also helps to see the way that we would like to be. And that is a powerful, powerful gift.