Against Interpreting Text Violently

For anyone engaged in interpreting Torah for others, caution should be our watchword. These texts have become sacred because people have endowed them with ultimate meaning. Continuing to do so enriches millions of people’s lives, but also carries with it a risk. Pouring part of myself into a text and the religion that is formed around that text means that I am bound to take it personally when that text is read is a way that offends me or those I love. When it comes to Judaism, the ways in which even the smallest interpretive move can have drastically offensive consequences are myriad.

As a Jewish leader, this cautionary approach to interpreting text is even more important when considering texts that deal with gender norms. All too often in Judaism’s sacred canon, social and religious norms were dictated by the male elite, leaving no room for women or countless other minorities to enter into the conversation. As the text below will highlight, that has led to some troubling conclusions about the gender dynamics normatively etched in Judaism’s sacred texts.

Ensuring the survival of Judaism is one of the most important responsibilities that any Jew has, one that Genesis 1:28 (or 9:7) makes clear is a universal imperative (whether such a responsibility holds today, in light of the current human population, is an important, and separate, topic). However, the Rabbis were uncomfortable with this heady responsibility being the province of all Jews equally. Instead, the majority opinion in the time of the Mishnah (Yevamot 6:6) states that only men are responsible for bringing the next generation into the world. The proof brought for this position in the Talmud (b. Yevamot 65b) is based on reading a key word in the verse without a vav. In other words, by taking one letter out of a word, the Rabbis are able to enact a social reality where (heterosexual) men are the locus of all sexuality and women’s needs come second, if they are addressed at all.

Now, it must be said that this interpretive move is not only acceptable, but lauded, at least in form, given that Rabbinic culture (following Rabbi Akiva) generally assumes that every single letter of the Torah has (many layers of) meaning. However, we also have ample precedent for the Rabbis exhibiting just the kind of caution I think is necessary when interpreting texts in violent ways. The paradigmatic example of this involves a discussion between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael about the death penalty that is due to the daughter of a priest for harlotry. Rabbi Akiva, again using an extra vav in the verse under discussion, rules that the woman should be burned to death. Rabbi Ishmael is incredulous, and yells at Rabbi Akiva: “And because you interpret ‘daughter’ [and separately] ‘and a daughter’ [Lev. 21:9], should we send this one to be burned?” (b. Sanhedrin 51b)

I would therefore like to follow in the footsteps of Tosafot, the 12th century school of Talmudic exegetes, and argue that the Talmud in Yevamot was not sufficiently conscious of the caution that must be employed when interpreting text, as Rabbi Ishmael reminds us in Sanhedrin. This is crucially different from the easier move that non-Orthodox Jews have at their disposal when confronted with a morally repugnant text. We could simply dismiss the Yevamot text as antiquated, knowing full well that there are many things that the Rabbis believed about gender that we do not believe today. However, for the text of the Torah, and, by extension, the Talmud, to continue to hold sway over us as sacred texts ought to, I prefer to discount the precedent that the text is setting in classical Rabbinic fashion, through the use of a counter-example.

Just as Rabbi Ishmael negated the minutest interpretive move of Rabbi Akiva when it could lead to a more violent death, so too must we negate the interpretive move that leaves only men responsible for child-bearing (a biological irony that cannot have been lost of at least some of the rabbis who instituted the rule). We must also keep Rabbi Ishmael’s example in our minds as we interpret Torah for our times, keeping our ears open to the priest’s daughter who is being figuratively burnt by the ways we interpret Torah.

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