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Skipping Tanach stories with sexual references (w/ children)


Rabbi Ari Shvat

Tevet 10, 5775
I am a teacher of Torah and Tanach (Bible) in elementary school, and am often confronted with the question of whether to skip the embarrassing stories with sexual references which seem very un-tznius (like Lot’s daughters, Yehuda and Tamar, Yoseph and Potiphar’s wife, Reuven and Bilha, David and Batsheva, etc.) or how to teach them to children. What is the halachic and traditional approach?
Our rabbis answer explicitly about 1,700 years ago (Tosefta Megilla, 3, 19): “The account of David and Batsheva is not read [as a haftara in shul- Talmud: out of respect for David (and not out Puritanism), but even that]… the schoolteacher teaches it as normal”. Such is the directive of the poskim (including the Tzemach Tzedek, Netziv, R. Moshe Feinstein etc.), to suit but not omit, controversial chapters of Tanach containing sexual references (although they answered based upon tradition and logic, but surprisingly didn’t mention the explicit, but unknown, precedent source). Historically, we can clearly trace the opposing “skipping” approach to the “enlightened” maskilim who consciously copied the then-considered modern Christian educational custom, without relating to their ideological basis. Compared to Judaism, religious Christians have a surprising lack of commitment to the Bible text, especially towards what’s often seen as a primitive “Old” Testament which they felt required revision in the cleaner “New” Testament. The abundance of divergent translations (even within every language) and numerous versions of their un-canonized canon (ranging from 66-81 books), together with their lack of religious obligation or tradition for laymen to rigorously study the Bible-text in childhood or adulthood, facilitated a possibility and even willingness to skip that which doesn’t “read” well. This relative lack of textual commitment of both Catholics and Protestants, is expressed in the fact that even after the masses achieved literacy, to this very day, Christian curriculum studies illustrated “Children’s Bibles” (sic, not “Children’s Bible Stories”, thus paralleling them with their “real” Bibles, and admitting that their edited versions also aren’t really the original Hebrew, nor so eternal or holy). These contain carefully selected individual “suitable” stories, presented in the words and drawings according to the agenda of the current-day author, in a naively “digested” form which “lock” the student into an immature and singular view of what was originally a multi-faceted text. The illustrations also prevent them from selecting chapters whose drawing would be considered inappropriate, especially in the eyes of a religion which recoils even from marital sexuality. Their lack of various interpretations and commentaries (what we Jews learn from: the classic Mikra’ot G’dolot) inevitably produced a monolithic, simplistic and childish Bible, clean of real challenges or the complexities of life. Accordingly, we should not be surprised by the willingness of the Church to so easily forego the complex stories of the Tanach, but should nevertheless be astonished by religious Jews who unquestioningly adopt this opposing ideological system of omission. Especially since current modern educators are no longer puritan, and to a certain (!) extent closer to the less-naïve traditional Jewish approach, so even the “copiers” of the modern system should update their approach. True, it’s less embarrassing and easier for teachers and parents to simply skip, but we believe that it’s advantageous for the children to be exposed to the more difficult challenges of life, davka (precisely) before their desires and hormones begin confusing them. A child objectively sees the absurdity of Samson revealing the secret of his strength 3 times (!) to an obviously antagonistic Delila, clearly sent by the enemy, just because she’s beautiful. We believe that if Shimshon would have learnt his own story in Tanach class when he was an innocent and objective child, he would have been more equipped and ready with the appropriate reaction when the real challenge appeared in adulthood. As is usually the case, the eternal Jewish traditions precede alternative educational approaches by thousands of years. For more elaboration see: All the best in your important role, responsible for the future of educating Am Yisrael! Rav Ari Shvat (Chwat)
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