The Elusive Benefits of Objectionable and Outdated Texts
My reaction to this problematic pasuk (verse), which, in its anger, dehumanizes the enemy, is the same as my reaction to other pesukim in the Tanakh or in our tradition at large that are absolutely out-of-sync with our deepest-felt moral sensibilities today.
Balancing Tradition with Morality
On one hand, we are formally bound to the pesukim of the Torah as our foundational text, despite recognition that its vision of morality is often colored by the general standards of its time.
At the same time, we also cannot and should not ignore our deeply felt moral sensibilities when these collide with the literal meaning of the Torah, as per R. Kook (Orot HaKodesh 3, Introduction [#11], p. 27):
אסור ליראת שמים שתדחק את המוסר הטבעי של האדם
Fear of God must not over-ride a human being’s sense of natural morality.
The Combined Effect
To the extent that these moral sensibilities are self-evident and especially when consensually accepted, we may even regard the new cultural climate that imposes such conflicts of conscience as a heaven sent trigger, inducing us to maneuver around the literal meaning of the problematic verse and circumscribe it. This is the task of the Torah she-be’al peh—the oral law—and all the theological, legal and hermeneutic tools provided by tradition for just this purpose.
Although the residual influence of the original terminology will not tally with our current notions of “politically correct,” we may harbor the hope that the combined effect of retaining the objectionable language along with the practical brakes imposed by our new interpretation will bear an elusive benefit that lies beyond the sum of its parts. In the case of the particular verse in question, this might be the preservation of a sense of patriotic loyalty plus healthy rage in the face of evil, despite temperance by more refined norms that mandate empathy for the Other and revulsion for indiscriminate revenge.
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February 28, 2015
February 6, 2020
Professor Tamar Ross is Professor Emeritus of the Department of Jewish philosophy at Bar Ilan University. She continues to teach at Midreshet Lindenbaum. She did her Ph.D. at the Hebrew University and served as a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard. She is the author of Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism. Her areas of expertise include: concepts of God, revelation, religious epistemology, philosophy of halacha, the Musar movement, and the thought of Rabbi A.I. Kook.
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