This is the kind of text that gives the Hebrew Bible such a bad press in some quarters. It’s the sort of text that when you first hear it – let’s say you’re Professor Richard Dawkins (I know, it’s hard to imagine, but have a go) – you say to yourself, or you publish a book and say, ‘What kind of a primitive religion is this, stoning to death someone for blasphemy? And what kind of vengeful morality is this that says if you kill someone, then you have to be killed, or that whatever has been done to you justifies you doing it back to them in exactly the same way, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”? What kind of God do you people believe in that says this is the necessary and right thing to do, that this is ethical ? How can you follow, and praise - how can you worship - a God who wants you to engage in this violence? Aren’t you just using your imaginary God in order to justify your own worst impulses?’
The problem with this kind of knee-jerk dismissiveness is that it prevents you entering any further, any deeper, into the text. It is a form of prejudice - prejudice as in ‘pre-judging’ what something might mean, or be trying to say, or symbolise, or point towards. It’s an easy option and involves the unthinking condescension that believes that we are somehow morally superior to those who crafted these ancient narratives, or that we inheritors of the Enlightenment, such proud possessors of a finely-tuned intelligence, obviously have superior insights into life than those crude, unsophisticated storytellers in the long-distant past...
Jewish creativity never stopped elaborating on, and imaginatively adding to, the narratives - in the recognition that all texts have an endless number of ways of being understood; and that no one single way is ever the only and correct way. Judaism as a religious tradition always looked at its primary texts and said: ‘You can read it this way, or/and you can read it that way, or/and you can read it this other way; and you don’t have to choose.’ You honour the text by keeping on reading it and opening out the innate undecidability of meaning inherent in written texts.
It can sometimes be hard for uninformed readers of these texts to recognise the ways in which when we read the Hebrew Bible we are dealing with a literary tradition consisting of narratives that were probably never intended to be read literally, that were already written with allegory and metaphor embedded in them, with their symbolic meanings hinted at in various verbal clues and cues in the text. (cf. A.J.Heschel: ‘As a report about revelation, the Bible itself is a midrash’ : p.185, God in Search of Man). So for example in relation to that famous phrase ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ – which has so often been used historically as a polemic against Judaism and Jews, that Jews believe in revenge, that the Hebrew Bible advocates acting out one’s aggression, measure for measure, that if someone hurts you and causes you loss you are permitted, required, to cause them the same loss – that kind of literal, reductive reading of the text was not how Jews over the centuries actually read and understood this text.
They read it with an alertness first of all to the way the storytellers chose to frame it in a story about ‘Shelomit, daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan’ – names which in Hebrew are a kind of play-on-words: the woman’s name (as the Biblical scholar and anthropologist Mary Douglas has suggested) can be translated ‘Compensation, daughter of Law-suit, of the tribe of Judgment’. Of course you don’t get that in our translations - but when you know what these names mean it creates for the reader a knowingness, a resonance, that reverberates into what follows.
So when we come to the sentence that describes an ‘eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ we are already primed to understand that within a society the concept of retribution/recompense can’t be based on a tit-for-tat acting out, a sort of Lord of the Flies morality of the playground; retribution is removed from the realm of personal vendettas and blood feuds and placed within a system of justice: within Judaism this text has always been understood as being about financial compensation, legal compensation – that the value of what someone had lost had to be thought about and then honoured in a corresponding material or monetary way. The text is not there to be acted out literally, it’s to be interpreted symbolically. And there’s a world of difference between the two.
The rabbis of the Talmud and midrash – who interpreted these texts in the thousand years after the Bible was written – were always perfectly clear about this. They paid great attention to creating a system of justice and legal processes in order to bring the vision of the Torah into daily life. They were trying to refine people’s moral sensibilities. So sometimes they developed clues and hints and ideas embedded in the text of the Torah itself. But at other times they read against the grain of a plain meaning of the text, guided by an evolving sensitivity to the underlying moral vision of the Torah: a concern for the sacred nature of all human life. All of which is to say that Judaism as an evolving culture came to depend on not reading texts reductively. The rabbis, interpreters, commentators, were not, in other words, fundamentalists.
Because they knew, as we know, that if you read sacred scriptures from a fundamentalist perspective – that there is only one meaning, unchanging through all time – if you read and live that way, the likelihood is that your religion turns toxic. And all religions historically can become, and have become, and do become, toxic – that is anti-life, anti-humanity, destructive of human potential rather than creating more possibilities for fuller human lives.
There is a straight line from some of these texts - if you read them literally, without any process of evolving interpretation - a straight line from their brutality to the brutality of ISIS, and to the murdering of the so-called ‘blasphemers’ at Charlie Hebdo, and to the savagery of parts of the contemporary legal codes of Saudi Arabia and Iran and Pakistan, where people do get stoned, and hands of thieves do get chopped off, and eyes do get blinded.
Within parts of the ummah of Islam, the world community of Islam, there is a problem with literal interpretations of scripture; just as historically in Christianity the trial and persecution of witches, or pogroms against Jews, were based on ahistorical and literal readings of texts in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. And – because I’m an equal-opportunities critic of bad religion - lest you think I’m suggesting some kind of moral superiority for Judaism, I’m not. Because I can point in corresponding fashion to how the systemic mistreatment of Palestinians on the West Bank is rooted in, amongst other things, a literalist and highly selective reading of religious texts by Jewish fundamentalists.
All three of the monotheistic religions have strands of destructive thinking encoded in their DNA – they are all prone psychologically to splitting and projection, to attributing their darker impulses to the others, non-believers - or even people who believe differently within their own religion (think Wolf Hall) - they are all shadowed by fascistic impulses to dominate and suppress: women, homosexuals, those who believe differently, behave differently, think differently, who are not one of ‘us’...
People will ask: why should we trust these texts when they seem so antithetical to the values we hold dear? If by ‘trust’ one means ‘submit to’, then I’m on the side of the dissenters. We don’t have to ‘trust’ these texts, if trust means abdicating our critical faculties or our deeper human sensibility. When it comes to reading Torah, making Torah part of a living faith, we need to be trouble-makers, questioners of the status quo, disrupters of lazy assumptions about what texts ‘mean’.
When George Orwell in 1984 talked about ‘group-think’, and Henrik Ibsen in An Enemy of the People named as the real enemies of truth and freedom the ‘compact majority’ in any society with their unthinking repetition of the mantras of the hour, they were alerting us to the importance of the kind of independent thinking that characterises rabbinic Judaism at its best...
Try questioning in the UK today the alleged need for austerity and see what you get for your troubles. But blessed are the trouble-makers – as someone famous didn’t say, but should have – because inequalities and injustices go unchallenged when we stop questioning and start taking things on ‘trust’.
The Torah teaches that words have power – to hurt, and to heal. We know this from our own lives. I always think that the saying ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me’ is completely wrong. Physical injuries heal, but we probably all bear the mental and emotional scars of things said to us that were deeply hurtful at the time and have never left us.
And the words of Torah can be used to hurt, to oppress, to justify the unjustifiable, to excuse the inexcusable, they can be used to sanction callousness and murder and hatred. And when they are, that is blasphemy. Blasphemy is using one’s religious tradition in ways that are antithetical to that tradition’s emphasis on compassion and justice and righteousness and peace, on charity and love and concern for other human beings and for the planet itself. From a Jewish perspective God is present in those qualities. The Torah is full of descriptions of God as representing and advocating compassion and justice and righteousness and peace - so when we enact in our lives those virtues we are bringing the divine into the world.
But the words of Torah need to be lived, they need to move from words into actions. It’s through actions that the words come alive and the divine is made present. The Hebrew Bible talks a lot about justice and compassion and loving the stranger, the outsider, the immigrant, the asylum seeker. The text we read in our Finchley community this week just didn’t happen to mention any of these things. Though there was one line that was easy to skip over: that you have to create a society that has one law that embraces both outsiders, strangers, and citizens alike (Leviticus 24:22). Nobody is outside the reach of the law – or the protection of the law.
Which is why the inclusion of the Human Rights Act within the framework of British law was such a significant advance – though it is under threat from those who still haven’t caught up with the moral vision of the Hebrew Bible. From this perspective too, the cuts that have been made to legal aid in the UK are morally wrong. To see these cuts only as a financial issue is, from a Judaic religious perspective, an ethical failure.
So: words have power. Blasphemy is when we use words to diminish, attack, denigrate other human beings – because in doing so we are attacking God’s creation. In this sense we are all caught up in blasphemy. Because it can be hard to see the face of God in the stranger, the immigrant, the homeless, those who depend on the state to get by, those who are disadvantaged by fate or impoverished by circumstances.
And we have all thrown stones – verbal stones – at our enemies. We are surrounded by a culture that loves to throw stones – the media is full of it, the Daily Mail couldn’t survive without it, internet trolling is vicious – hurt and more hurt, and we revel in it. Let’s not judge the Bible’s stone-throwing crowds too quickly. They are us. Just as the blasphemers are us, attacking the presence of God in others not really any different from us. These ancient texts have still got life in them.
[loosely based on the themes of a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, May 2nd 2015]