Sacred wrestling with the Bible’s “harsh passages”

That God would fight for Israel is meant to elicit horror.

Encouraged by a minister friend to respond to Matthew Schlimm’s article this summer on violent scriptural texts, I write with humility and respect as an eavesdropper on a conversation that is of critical importance to me. I am a Jew, a rabbi, and a pacifist who has wrestled for years with violence in the Tanach, especially in the Torah. Reading with both children and adults, I have sought ways to navigate what Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, so helpfully called the “harsh passages.” As I continue to wrestle, I approach Torah as a sacred context in which to encounter violence and learn the ways of nonviolence.

With respect for all who do such wrestling, I honor Dr. Schlimm and his daughter—who asked him why Deuteronomy 20 “talk[s] about killing the boys and girls”—as I offer here a Jewish approach to the harsh passages. I write, in part, to help soothe the pain of both father and daughter—and to make of our shared wrestling a bridge of interfaith connection.

For all of the pain elicited by her question, the response of this child on encountering violence in the holy pages of her first Bible is exactly the response that I believe God seeks of us each time we encounter the harsh passages. I would exclaim with tears of pride and pain to this young person, and to all who engage in such holy struggle, “Yes, this is exactly how we should respond, just as you are, crying out, asking why is this here?” How can we read such words and respond in any other way?