Making the Slave Bible

Have you ever wanted to simply “cut out” a part of the Torah? There are many parts of the Torah we find very hard to read because we find them uncomfortable, because they clash with our modern day sensibilities, because we find them morally objectionable or simply because we find them irrelevant.  Surely many of us would like to eliminate some parts of the text.  For example, this week’s Torah portion is called “Metzorah”. Its subject matter is how the Kohen, the priest, is to deal with diseases of the skin, molds in the walls of a home, and discharges from the sexual organs, all of which cause ritual impurity. Woe to the bat mitzvah student who draws this as their parasha and must write about it for their D’var Torah!  You will see tomorrow that Alyssa does an excellent job!  There are other parts of the Torah that we might be equally tempted to eliminate if we could. Take the story about Jacob’s sons slaughtering all of the men of the city of Shechem because their prince abducted their sister Dina. That story puts the Jewish people in a bad light. That same group of siblings seems to have learned nothing when they plot to kill their own brother, Joseph, only to settle on selling him into slavery and misleading their father about what happened. It’s embarrassing to read about our ancestors acting this way. Moses himself kills an Egyptian when he sees him beating an Israelite. One has to ask – was that really necessary? And if it was, does it have to be in the Torah? The account of the building of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the desert, goes on seemingly interminably, with excruciating detail. It takes up the entire second half of the Book of Exodus! Can’t we cut that down to a few paragraphs? We no longer perform sacrifices, but a good deal of the Book of Leviticus describes the minutia of the sacrificial system. Too much talk about blood and kidneys and livers and entrails for modern sensibilities. Can’t we just have a summary or an excerpt? We struggle with the Bible’s apparent condemnation of homosexuality – what do we do with an outlook which is so at odds with our modern, scientific view of human sexuality? Can’t we just get rid of those passages? Can we at least skip over them when we come to them in our weekly Torah reading? The Book of Numbers describes what is called “The Ordeal of the Bitter Waters”. A jealous husband can demand that his wife goes through a demeaning ritual to determine if she has been unfaithful, as he suspects. Needless to say, there is no corresponding ordeal that a wife can put her husband through if she suspects he has been unfaithful. The Torah is relentlessly patriarchal – women play an important, but usually supportive and even subservient role as wife, mother, daughter or sister of the patriarch. The rabbis determined 2000 years ago that the Ordeal of the Bitter waters was inoperative. They forbid performing it. Yet we still have it in our Torah, and we still hear about it every year when that part of the Book of Numbers is read in our synagogues.

Yet, we don’t tamper with the Torah. We don’t remove texts we don’t like, because the Torah is considered sacred. Some believe that each word, each letter, even the “crowns of the letters” – the scribal decorations that adorn some of the text – were given to Moses by G-d at Mount Sinai. We therefore cannot remove or skip over what we do not like. We cannot edit out what does not conform to our sensibilities. Everything is the direct word of G-d, and G-d would not abide an editor. Others believe that the text is not divinely given but, rather, divinely inspired, and is therefore holy and not to be changed in any way.

To us, revising the text of the Bible would be unthinkable.  Yet there is historical evidence that some groups have tampered with the Bible. That evidence is on display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC through September 1. The exhibit tells the story of how Christian Missionaries manipulated the text of the Bible to meet the economic needs of the British Empire.  These missionaries wanted to convert African slaves in British Caribbean colonies in the late 19th century. So they edited the Bible to meet their needs. The so-called “Slave Bible”, printed in London in 1807 retains those parts of the Torah that teach about slaves’ obedience to their masters and what their duties toward their masters were. It eliminates those parts that teach about the responsibilities of a master toward their slaves. It conveniently removes parts of the Book of Exodus and Psalms that might have given the slaves hope for freedom and encouraged dreams of equality. Examples of passages that are eliminated:

“He who kidnaps a man — whether he has sold him or is still holding him — shall be put to death.” (Ex. 21:16)

“You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master. He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill-treat him.” (Deut. 23:16-17)

“If a man strikes the eye of his male or female slave, and destroys it, he shall let him go free on account of his eye. “And if he knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth.” (Exodus 21:26-27)
“He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death.” (Exodus 21:12)
And from the Book of Leviticus — On the fiftieth year you shall “Proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof.”

We Jews have an entire holiday dedicated to remembering our slavery and how we were freed. We will begin that celebration next Friday night when we sit down to our Seders. It seems unimaginable that anyone would remove this story from Scriptures deemed holy by both Christians and Jews. Yet this is exactly what happened. The text was doctored in order to manipulate and oppress. It was edited in order to maintain the status quo. This teaches that although we may struggle with the holy text that has come down to us, we are not free to eliminate those parts that do not understand, like, or agree with. We can challenge it and question it, but we dare not ignore it or suppress it. As Ben Bag Bag, a Jewish sage who lived around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple says referring to the Torah, “Turn it and turn it again, for all is in it; see through it; grow old and worn in it; do not budge from it, for there is nothing that works better than it.

Shabbat Shalom