Last week, I raised the question of whether or not it’s appropriate to teach morally problematic texts such as Psalm 137:9 (“happy is the one who takes hold of the enemies’ infants and dashes them against a rock”) which describes a vengeful wish of the psalmist. I asked to guest teach a class of grade 11 students and see how they would react.
My feeling was that it’s better that students discuss problematic issues in an environment where they can avail themselves of a collective struggle for meaning than to confront these texts and historical episodes solo or, worse, be blind-sided in some hostile context.
When I introduced the text and the circumstances surrounding it (the murder this past summer and the wedding during winter break), the students first were shocked or incredulous that religious Jews could act this way and that our sacred tradition could ostensibly canonize a wish to do violence against children. The students grappled with the text and came to terms with the problematic verse by contextualizing it. They understood the psalmist to be living at a time after the destruction of the first Temple and, in the words on one student, “writing with his emotions.” “He was exaggerating,” noted another. One student added, “people go through stages of mourning, one of which is anger. The writer was angry and in pain. He was lashing out. He didn’t mean for his words to be taken literally.”
I added that the psalmist states ambiguously “happy is the one who grabs hold of infants…” without identifying the subject of the verb. He does not say, for example, “happy is the person.” He, the psalmist, will not be the one to take vengeance; perhaps God will. “What goes around comes around.”
Some students knew enough Tanach to evince other morally problematic texts. They recognized, however, that Judaism today relies on an interpretive tradition, and in some inexplicable way, there are values that transcend the text that guide us and steer us away us from acting on verses like Psalm 137:9.
After I finished my guest lesson, I asked the students if they thought that it was appropriate for me to have taught them this psalm. Initially, some said that it is appropriate only for students in older grades. They felt it might not be so responsible to burst the naiveté of students in grades 9 and 10. Another challenged that view and said, “I hate being taught that Jews and Judaism are perfect. It’s not realistic.” To this, one student said “some teachers are worried we’ll close the book (the Tanach) if we are exposed to problematic passages. I think I’m more likely to open it.”
I don’t know if students are more likely to open the Tanach if they learn a more balanced perspective, but I do know that a balanced perspective will expose them to important enduring questions. Grappling with these questions can be a source of joy and will help ensure they will be guardians of our tradition.