Many verses and commands in the Torah sound, to modern sensibilities, harsh and inhumane. We cannot renege on our moral, ethical standards. As our father Abraham said (Gen 18:25), “Shall not the judge of the world do justice?” How can we sing about a fantasy in which babies’ heads are smashed upon rocks, even if they are our enemies’ babies?
The apologist will respond by saying that thousands of years ago things were different. There may be some truth to that, though even today mafia dons and religious fanatics think little of doing such to their enemies. But defending the Torah by comparing it to dregs or primitives is unsatisfying.
The Need to Express Primitive Sentiments
A more satisfying approach is to recognize that the Bible contains texts of more than one genre, and that poems and songs—then as now—often express sentiments we find primitive and barbaric and would normally suppress.
Psalm 137 is a response to terrible pain. Parents seeing their children tortured and killed, wives and daughters raped. Who would not want, in their hearts, to see the perpetrators repaid in kind? The Babylonian exiles all saw Jewish lives brutalized in ways we find inexpressively horrible. What parent having seen a child speared would not want to curse the brutes who carried out these acts?
Admittedly, thoughts are not actions, but expressing such thoughts/feelings is a double-edged sword. On one hand, we “civilized” types learn not to give vent to our feelings. We call for impersonal justice. We are conditioned to recite the mantra of forgiveness. On the other hand, we have learnt from Freud that it can be good to release and bad to hold back our true feelings. The value of poetry is to express the un-expressible, to scream and rail against the gods and God. Poetry is therapeutic as well as well as art.
The songs of Moses and Deborah contain phrases of relief and delight at seeing those who have oppressed us experience the pain they inflicted. That was Samuel’s justification for killing Agag, king of Amalek (1 Sam 15:33),
כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר שִׁכְּלָ֤ה נָשִׁים֙ חַרְבֶּ֔ךָ
כֵּן־תִּשְׁכַּ֥ל מִנָּשִׁ֖ים אִמֶּ֑ךָ
As your sword has bereaved women,
so shall your mother be bereaved among women.
Cursing Enemies as a Symbolic Form of גואל הדם (Blood Redeemer)
Psalms is all about emotional responses to God, life, tragedy and others. So I understand the emotion even if I cannot identify with it. I am embarrassed but I accept the cries of the victims. The גואל הדם (“blood redeemer”), who is given theoretical leave to avenge the death of his relative, has at least a symbolic role in halacha.
I can understand those who, having experienced the agony of loss and torture, say things, feel things, and sing things they ought not to. The Torah recognizes that under battle conditions one loses normal constraints. If one has seen a close friend’s children murdered, would one not experience desires for revenge? But the civilized, genuinely spiritual person controls them.
The Nexus between Thought and Action
There is a huge chasm between thought and action. Psalm 137:9 lives in this nexus. The Psalmist is saying, “I have seen horrible things. I want horrible things to happen to the perpetrators.”
But it is enough to say it, not to act on it. And whereas poetry has its function, Halacha and the concept of justice prohibit us from turning the thought into the deed.
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February 28, 2015
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Dr. Rabbi Jeremy Rosen is the rabbi of the Persian Jewish Community of Manhattan and the Chairman of the Faculty for Comparative Religion in Wilrijk Belgium. He is a graduate of Cambridge University and yeshivot in Israel including Be’er Yaakov and Mir from whence he has his Smichot. He has worked in the rabbinate, education and academia.
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