Bring on the Difficult Texts!

September 13, 2019

Read the full Ta Shma, Beit Rabban's weekly email, here

Dear Beit Rabban Community,

I love our challenging texts, those that come into direct conflict with my ethics, and even those that present as incomprehensible. I especially love studying difficult texts with children. Children raise my questions anew, they add their own questions, and they approach all these questions with an open-minded sincerity. I believe we strengthen our relationship with Torah when we struggle to understand its meaning.

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Teitzei, is the gift that keeps giving in terms of difficult texts. We learn that the spoils of war can include women from warring tribes; that we have a system for stoning defiant children; that a child born of an illegitimate relationship is marked for life, and so on. In all fairness, the Parasha also teaches: “ do not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless or take a widow’s garment in pawn” (לֹ֣א תַטֶּ֔ה מִשְׁפַּ֖ט גֵּ֣ר יָת֑וֹם וְלֹ֣א תַחֲבֹ֔ל בֶּ֖גֶד אַלְמָנָֽה). As educators, it is easy to skip our Parsha’s uncomfortable passages in favor of the more genteel ones.
I understand why educators glide over our most challenging texts. In fact, much of the Torah does not seem developmentally appropriate for small children. How scary it must feel for a small child to learn the story of the akeidat Yitzchak (the binding of Isaac), let alone that this week's Torah portion permits their parents to subject them to a public stoning for being rebellious. Frankly, our teachers also do this when teaching Torah: picking which “sipurei Torah” (Torah stories) we do and do not share with our preschoolers and early readers. But all bets are off once our seven and eight year olds open their Chumashim in second grade and are given the loud and clear message that “this is yours, you will learn to read it, you will learn to chant it, you will learn all of it!” We start with Creation and then go right into fratricide.
It is a privilege and a great responsibility to steward children through their early and formative relationship with Jewish texts. We are committed to learning Torah without skipping sections and we are very intentional in how we learn different portions with children of different ages. There is no way around violent stories in the Torah, and we learn those texts with our students with heavy attention to emotional reactions. We navigate even more cautiously through stories with sexual content, and specifically sexual violence. Our fourth graders do read the stories of Yehuda and Tamar and Dinah and Shechem, but we do not probe those stories or study them in depth. In contrast, we go for it 100% on the moral questions. Most of the time, our students don’t need a prompt to start those conversations. If our students have not asked questions, we provoke a conversation by simply asking “what do you think about this story?” That is generally sufficient enough to prompt rich and meaningful study. 

When our students start learning Navi (Prophets) in fourth grade, the first stories they study are of Yehoshua conquering Canaan city by city. A couple of years ago the fourth grade class expressed complete shock that Yehoshua was actually instructed to wipe out full cities of people. One student asked “why would Yehoshua do this, doesn’t this sound like genocide?” The teacher took this question as an opportunity to dig deeper with the students. They first considered what might be driving Yehoshua, they looked back at the texts throughout the Chumash promising the land of Canaan to the Israelites. The next day, the teacher returned with a Midrash explaining that Yehoshua was instructed to warn each city before the invasion, offering the inhabitants three options: make peace and join the Israelites; leave before the invasion; or stay and fight. She asked students what they thought about these three options. Then they discussed why the Midrash might add this layer to the story that is not included in the text of the Navi. Finally, students had a homework assignment to put themselves in the shoes of an inhabitant of one of these cities on the brink of invasion. Each student wrote a persuasive letter to the king of their nation encouraging the king to choose one specific option, using examples from their previous study to bolster their argument.

This story of a fourth grade Navi class illustrates the way we approach difficult texts with our students. We work on cultivating the habit of curiosity, encouraging and supporting children to ask questions from their earliest days at Beit Rabban. The moral question in this story was raised by the students. We emphasize empathy. We try to put ourselves into others’ shoes and think deeply about why they they acted in a certain way. Before answering the question raised in this class, students were asked to empathize with Yehoshua, and they later empathized with the people being conquered. We work to highlight multiple possibilities in answering the question, starting with the opinions in the room. One friend argued than the besieged people should fight until death, while another thought they should make peace. All students had to substantiate their opinions, and each perspective was discussed. We model questioning as a Jewish value and emphasize than even asking whether a respected ancestor's actions were moral is squarely within our tradition of Torah study. This Navi teacher brought an ancient text grappling with this story to show students that when they question they continue our tradition, rather than distancing themselves from it. Finally, we do not end these conversations with a neat answer perfectly wrapped in a bow. We believe our students should experience the joy and growth that comes with engaging and re-engaging with our texts and stories. 

This approach is actually quite accessible. Tonight at Shabbat dinner or at any point over the next day when your family participates in a Shabbat ritual, open the Chumash or take out the weekly Parasha study sheet included in this email. Read it with your children in any language. Ask questions and listen to each others’ questions. Empathize with the characters. Share your perspectives and solicit those of others. And, most importantly, don’t close the conversation. Remember and remind your children that the conversation continues as we continue to live in conversation with our holy texts. 

Learning Torah is a mitzvah, arguably “כנגד כולם”. Learning Torah with a child seems to me fall within the elite category of mitzvot for which we know the reward- it is immediate and palpable. So, thank you for the incredibly rewarding privilege of entrusting us to learn Torah with your children.

Wishing all a restful and rejuvenating Shabbat,