As we approach the High Holidays I recall a passionate debate I recently engaged in with a good friend of mine regarding the meaning of King David’s interaction with Bathsheba in the Bible. The Biblical narration (2 Samuel 11) reads:
One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, “She is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her. She went back home. The woman conceived and sent word to David, saying, “I am pregnant.”
We both had very strong opinions on opposite ends of the Orthodox Jewish spectrum. There are in fact three interpretations of King David’s actions in Orthodox Jewish Scholarship.
One view is based on the primary source of the Talmud that states: “Anyone that says David sinned is mistaken” (Shabbat 56a). Another view, on the other end of the spectrum, is based on the Talmud that states: “A person should never set himself or herself up to be tested, for behold King David set himself up and failed” (Sanhedrin 107a). One of the Rabbis who are in line with the first source in the Talmud (Shabbat 56a) is Rabbi Aaron Kotler who wrote:
The holy forefathers – who were the most luminous, loftiest and purest personalities, the holiest creatures – represent the foundation of eternal spiritual vitality, the wellsprings of Chessed (kindness) and the full range of positive attributes, for the entire world, for all of mankind…anyone who disagrees with this is guilty of Chillul Hashem Shomayim (desecration of G-d’s name).”
One of the Rabbis who concur with the second Talmudic source (Sanhedrin 107a) is Rabbi Yoel Ben Nun who taught:
Without Tanach BeGova Eynayim (seeing the Biblical men and women as holy but real people) it would be impossible to draw our youth closer to the Bible. This is in order that they should feel a part of it – literally its essence and its physicality – and that they should genuinely love Eretz Yisrael (The Land of Israel)… her stones and her dust, all her views and places.”
There are also Rabbis that attempt to bridge the difference and find a middle path, such as Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein:
We generally find within the Jewish world two extreme and opposing approaches to this problem. Most secular Jews adopt the approach that relates to The Biblical characters as ordinary people. They sinned, very simply, because they were fallible human beings just like us… By contrast, many in the religious camp adopt the opposite approach, namely that Biblical characters are superhuman. One cannot draw any comparison between them and us…
We must adopt a different approach. On the one hand, we cannot overlook the sins of Biblical characters, but at the same time, we may not look at these sins in isolation from their specific context… the broader context of our sages overall attitude to these exceptional personalities. These are giants who sinned, but whose sins do not diminish their greatness”
I think we need to take a step back and be inspired by the words of Rabbi Lichtenstein. He taught us that because the Talmud in Sanhedrin 111a has criticism of Moses’s lack of faith this might lead people to draw one of two conclusions, either that:
Extreme a: Biblical characters are ordinary people
Extreme b: Biblical characters are superhuman
However there is a middle path. We need to remember the Rabbi’s reverence for Moses and the other men and women in the Bible. They view them as giants who sometimes sinned, but their sins don’t diminish their greatness. The famous Bible commentator Abarbanel stated:
If scripture called him (King David) a sinner, and he confessed to his sin, how can a person be in error if he believes him? It is better to say that he grievously sinned and greatly confessed, and fully repented, and received his punishment, and thus his sins achieved atonement.”
This is an important lesson for us to internalise during this time of year leading up to the High Holidays. When King David was confronted by the Prophet Nathan and told, “you are that man” (2 Samuel 12:7) he responded by confessing, “I have sinned against the Lord.” (2 Samuel 12:13). We can all learn from, and be inspired by, King David and the men and women in the Bible to lead our own lives in purity and goodness.