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Does the Bible need a trigger warning?

13 August 2022
Rabbi Lea Mühlstein
Sermon Parashat Va-etchanan

You can watch a recording of this sermon on our YouTube channel.

It isn’t very often these days that the Bible makes it into regular British newspapers and radio call-in programmes. However, many of you will have seen this week that an investigation by The Times found that universities have applied trigger warnings to more than 1,000 texts, including the Bible. At York University, students who are assigned the Bible are warned that it contains “shocking sexual violence.”

While conservative commentators were quick to dismiss these trigger warnings as misguided saying that we cannot airbrush history, I think it is worthwhile for us to look at the example of the Bible to see whether trigger warnings are necessarily a bad thing.

The journalist Elissa Strauss writing in the American Jewish publication The Forward agrees that the Bible is brimming with much worse than some of the books now presented with a warning label. Yet, while she says she lacks the vitriol some feel against those who are applying trigger warnings, she nonetheless disagrees with the suggestion of adding a warning for readers of the Bible. According to Strauss: “The bible is a raw, sometimes bleeding text, pulsing with fear and bitterness and the crumbling of will in the face of temptation. I believe that this very rawness is responsible for its endurance.”

Well, I must respectfully disagree with Strauss – in reality, the Jewish people have attempted to gloss over much of the rawness, not just in the last few years or decades but through the millennia of Jewish tradition.

For example, there is a tradition to read the curses found in Deuteronomy as quickly as possible so that nobody could really understand. Our commentators likewise went out of their way to produce apologetic explanations for many of the brutal passages found in our most sacred text. And of course, contemporary Jews are further contributing to glossing over the rawness. Especially in congregations like ours, where we read only a small selection of the weekly portion, the most difficult passages tend to get skipped. Just think of this week: should we have read about the instruction of God to the Israelites to utterly destroy the seven Canaanite nations that were inhabiting the Promised Land, rather than hearing the words of the Sh’ma?

I would argue that we have in fact been so good at glossing over the rawness that even those who consider themselves well-versed in the Bible are largely unaware quite how horrific our sacred texts can be and maybe we would at times benefit from a trigger warning to open our eyes.

Let me pick just one example for you – and this comes with a trigger warning of shocking sexual violence: the story of the unnamed woman in Judges 19-20 known only as the Concubine of the Levite.

In this story, a Levite and his concubine are travelling – afraid to rest for the night in an area not inhabited by Israelites, they reached Gibeah in Benjamin at nightfall but no one took them in for the night. This is where Judges 19:16 picks up:

In the evening, an old man came along from his property outside the town. (This man hailed from the hill country of Ephraim and resided at Gibeah, where the townspeople were Benjaminites.) He happened to see the wayfarer in the town square. “Where,” the old man inquired, “are you going to, and where do you come from?” He replied, “We are traveling from Bethlehem in Judah to the other end of the hill country of Ephraim. That is where I live. I made a journey to Bethlehem of Judah, and now I am on my way to the House of the LORD, and nobody has taken me indoors. We have both bruised straw and feed for our donkeys, and bread and wine for me and your handmaid, and for the attendant with your servants. We lack nothing.” “Rest easy,” said the old man. “Let me take care of all your needs. Do not on any account spend the night in the square.” And he took him into his house. He mixed fodder for the donkeys; then they bathed their feet and ate and drank. While they were enjoying themselves, the men of the town, a depraved lot, had gathered about the house and were pounding on the door. They called to the aged owner of the house, “Bring out the man who has come into your house, so that we can be intimate with him.” The owner of the house went out and said to them, “Please, my friends, do not commit such a wrong. Since this man has entered my house, do not perpetrate this outrage. Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. Let me bring them out to you. Have your pleasure of them, do what you like with them; but don’t do that outrageous thing to this man.” But the men would not listen to him, so the man seized his concubine and pushed her out to them. They raped her and abused her all night long until morning; and they let her go when dawn broke. Toward morning the woman came back; and as it was growing light, she collapsed at the entrance of the man’s house where her husband was. When her husband arose in the morning, he opened the doors of the house and went out to continue his journey; and there was the woman, his concubine, lying at the entrance of the house, with her hands on the threshold. “Get up,” he said to her, “let us go.” But there was no reply. So the man placed her on the donkey and set out for home. When he came home, he picked up a knife, and took hold of his concubine and cut her up limb by limb into twelve parts. He sent them throughout the territory of Israel. And everyone who saw it cried out, “Never has such a thing happened or been seen from the day the Israelites came out of the land of Egypt to this day! Direct your heart to her, take counsel, and speak.”

The feminist bible commentator Phyllis Trible rightly calls this a “text of terror.” The traditional commentators interpreted the horror of the tale as representing the extreme disorder that existed to be rectified only by the establishment of monarchic rule over the Israelite tribes.

But Trible observes that the terror of the text runs deeper. As the story clearly illustrates, the rules of hospitality in Israel protected only males. Unlike the story of Lot and the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, when Lot was the only guest, in our story the old man also has a female guest, but no hospitality safeguards her.

As Trible notes “Raped and tortured, the violence against the unnamed woman continues – dead or alive, she is in the end no more than the oxen that King Saul will later cut into pieces and send throughout all the territory of Israel as a call to war.”

So how are we to respond to stories such as these? Are trigger warnings the right way forward? The story orders us, its listeners: “direct your heart to her, take counsel, and speak.”

Maybe students should be warned about the brutality that the Biblical text contains so that they read stories such as these and pay attention, so that they can direct their hearts to her and speak. To speak the truth that even more than 40 years after Phyllis Trible’s important book “Texts of Terror”, misogyny belongs not just to the Biblical age but to our age.

Woman as object is still captured, betrayed, raped, tortured, murdered, dismembered and scattered – not just in war but right in the midst of our society.

The cry of the unnamed woman in Judges echoes throughout time to us in the cries of all the women who share her fate and as long as that’s the sad truth, we must continue to study especially the most difficult passages of our sacred text. And if a trigger warning about explicit sexual violence allows the unnamed woman to be heard, I am in favour.

Pikei Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors, teaches us: Lo aleicha hamlachah ligmor, v’lo attah ben chorin libateil mimena – you are not required to complete the work but neither are you free to desist from it.

With or without trigger warnings, if we are to tackle violence against women in our society, we must begin by seeing it so that we can speak on behalf of the many, many named and unnamed women to create a world where women can feel just as safe as men.

Ken yehi ratzon – may this be God’s will.