Over the last several years, I have attended annual clergy seminars held at Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, North Carolina (my first home). The purpose of these seminars is to promote the understanding of Judaism among other denominations.
The subject of this year’s seminar was “Violence in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament”.
I thought that this would be very useful for me since my Biblical literacy is minimal and I cringe with incomprehension when reading some of the passages in the Old Testament (OT). I have always gotten something out of attending these seminars in the past and was ready to do so again.
Two Jewish Biblical scholars from Duke, Professors Carol and Eric Myers, and Rabbi Daniel Greybar, from Durham’s Temple Beth El, comprised the presentation panel.
Eric Myers led with the idea that a 2,500-year-old text, with portions that are even older, is bound to be challenging to people today who may have difficulty engaging with it in a meaningful way.
He acknowledged that the OT is replete with violence, genocide, and wholesale slaughter. He cautioned that it is important to avoid a literal interpretation of the text. Biblical stories are there to illustrate some lesson. The Jewish tradition of biblical analysis and commentary has produced, and continues to produce, deeper interpretations of the text.
Eric Myers suggested that different readings of the OT produce greater insights – redemptive readings, liberation readings, readings of justice and righteousness.
Carol Myers scholarship looks at the OT from a feminist perspective. She pointed out that violence against women in the OT has been used to justify subordination and violence against women. She sees stories in the OT as literary constructs – not historical accounts.
She gave examples of how particularly horrific OT accounts such as Judges 19 that contains mob violence, sexual assault, gang rape, and dismemberment must be read in context of the first and last passages that book-end this section. The first section reads – this is what happens when the nation is not united. The last section reads – this is what happens without a united support of the monarchy. Read this way the passage becomes a warning rather than a chronicle of actual events.
Carol Myers followed this with other examples, some with analysis of the societal traditions of that time.
Rabbi Daniel Greybar spoke of the challenges of steering communities that consider these texts to be sacred. His approach is that we must be claimed by these texts, balancing this commitment with the potential for abuse. It is necessary to reclaim scripture from those who use it to justify violence.
All of the panelists dispelled the stereotypical understanding that the Hebrew Bible is a nasty piece of work that has been superseded by the New Testament, the simplistic trope that the Old Testament God is Violent and the New Testament is Loving. It is more nuanced and complicated than that.
My understanding of violence in the OT was broadened by the panel’s presentation. I remain puzzled by the power that ancient words and the traditions they have produced have on contemporary people. Saddled with horrific biblical passages, scholars and clerics have found ways to understand historical context and come to different interpretations. I suppose that there is little choice given the material that they have to work with.
Afterwards, I began reflecting on my Humanist/Ethical Culture tradition and what shortcomings exist in our literature and practices.
Ethical Culture’s congregational movement began in the late 1800’s. It’s founder, Felix Adler, introduced some new ideas about universal human worth and dignity, social justice, and societal reform. Unfortunately, Adler also had a traditional Victorian view of women’s roles and limitations. It was many years later that Ethical Culture recognized the equality of women and had women serving as Ethical Society Leaders. Although Ethical Culture always affirmed the worth and dignity of everyone, only recently have people of color assumed leadership roles in Ethical Culture.
The Humanist Manifesto (1933), Humanist Manifesto II (1973), and Humanism and Its Aspirations (2003) are other sources that I look to for inspiration. Full of ideas and commitments about making a better world these documents were written by Americans, mostly men, and reflect this bias – not so much by what they include but by what they leave out. Voices of oppressed and marginalized groups were not included.
I may be at an advantage in not needing to explain the moral values contained in iron-age stories, but there is much to be done in Ethical Humanism to fully live out my values. I am heartened that there are many women Ethical Culture Leaders and that there are people of color in our Leader Training program. This diversity in leadership has expanded my humanist outlook and is creating a more inclusive humanism. Ethical Humanism is expanding by incorporating new humanist perspectives. It is exciting to be part of this process.