In 1971, the famed Mr. Snuffleupagus made his first appearance on Sesame Street. “Snuffy” and Big Bird quickly became good friends. Their friendship was tender and charming, but for 14 years, no one believed that Big Bird’s friend was real. Adults on the show would be told about Snuffy, but every time Big Bird was ready to introduce them, Snuffy, coincidentally, disappeared. The ambiguous nature of Mr. Snuffleupagus’s existence likely meant different things to different children, as did many of the show’s running storylines. To some, he was similar to, and so normalized their imaginary playmates. To others, as Martin Robinson, who performed Snuffy since 1980 put it, “He was shy, he had bad timing, and the joke was, he’s big, you can’t miss him, but adults being the way they are – preoccupied, going to work, you know – they miss those little details. And Snuffleupagus just happened to be one of those little details that they kept missing year after year.”
Snuffy’s persona was an invaluable part of the classic show, and yet in the early 1980s, producers slowly began building up to the “Snuffy reveal,” in which Snuffy was finally accepted by those around him as real, and not imagined. The decision came as a reaction to the growing focus, and number of exposes on child abuse. As Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente said, “The fear was that if we represented adults not believing what kids said, they might not be motivated to tell the truth. That caused us to rethink the storyline: Is something we’ve been doing for 14 years – that seemed innocent enough – now something that’s become harmful?” The reveal was slow, and psychologically strategic, and in Sesame Street’s 17th season, cast member Bob McGrath tells Big Bird “From now on, we’ll believe you whenever you tell us something.” It was not the first, nor would it be the last time the producers of Sesame Street reflected on the gravity of their role in children’s lives and reconsidered the messaging their plotlines were conveying. The producers of Sesame Street understood that education goes way beyond the ABCs.
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Imagine the scene. A young, fresh, idealistic teacher walks into the classroom and tells her students to open their Bibles up to the second book of Samuel, chapter 11. They are going to pick up where they left off the week before, with King David’s impressive defeat of local enemy militias, and ascent to the throne in Jerusalem. Chapter 11 recalls the infamous story of David’s sighting of Batsheva on the roof, and his sleeping with her, even though she was a married woman. Batsheva becomes pregnant with David’s child, and after less violent attempts to cover up the affair fail, David has his chief military officer send Uriah, Batsheva’s unsuspecting husband, to the front lines. The memorandum David sends to his officer is explicit — Uriah is not to come back alive.
It is not an easy chapter to get through, and many of her students, as anticipated, have questions. But this teacher has come prepared. After they finish reading the texts, she guides the students to the handouts on their desks and calls on the boy that waves his hand eagerly wanting to read aloud for the class. “Anyone who says that David sinned [with Batsheba] is nothing other than mistaken.” The quote the student reads is excerpted from the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbos 56a) and is at home with a string of texts that prove why those biblical personalities whom we may assume to be sinners are, in fact, anything but.
The Talmud employs creative prooftexts, and in the case of David, ingenious legal argumentation, which the teacher delves into during the 40-minute class. One girl, pipes in with a tradition she remembers that blames Batsheva for her lack of tzniut, modesty. “Her bathing on the roof,” the girl offers, echoing what she had learned in camp the previous summer, “enticed David to do what he did. It’s almost like she did it on purpose because she wanted to be queen.“ Some of the students are convinced, others voice their skepticism. The teacher creates a space for all the questions and comments, but makes sure to leave time for her closing argument on the matter. “The people we read about in the Bible were on a different level than we are,” she says, inculcating the dogma she had absorbed as a student, into her own teaching. “If they were chosen by God, that means they were righteous. God knows more than we do, and it’s not for us to judge the actions of tzadikim, righteous people.” The bell rings, the students rush off to their next lesson. Most don’t give another thought to what had been discussed. Except for one.
You see, what the well-meaning teacher doesn’t know is that the girl in the yellow turtleneck, who sits towards the back of the classroom on the left, wrestles with a dark reality that her smiling friends know nothing about. She wrestles with shame, and self-disgust, and terror every time the man who makes her feel that way walks into the room. She’s terrified of where he might be, or when he might show up. And yet somehow, he always does. And he always finds a way to get her alone. She’s thought, in her angriest moments, of getting up the nerve to tell someone about what he does to her. But she doesn’t know how anyone would believe her. He is, after all, as her father often mentions in passing, “a real tzadik.”
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Biblical interpretation is as old as the Bible itself. The library of interpretive literature is rich, and it is valuable. It adds color to otherwise bland stories, fills narrative gaps that left the reader wondering, and adds unforgettable detail to characters, allowing readers to connect to the text in thrilling ways. But it goes beyond that. Interpreters use the text of the Bible as a springboard for all sorts of didactic purposes. Being a “people of the book” implies the notion that our beliefs, our legal code, and more broadly speaking, our worldview, derive from an ancient text that has been preserved. For traditional Jews, the text itself is believed to have been written with varying degrees of Divine Revelation, and, as a result, all the truths humans are to discover, can be found embedded in the text’s holy, multidimensional words.
Most of the interpretations, if approached with intellectual honesty, are thought-provoking. Many are deeply beautiful. Some are humorous; others outrageous. All have a context.
And context is so much more than provenance. Context implies the conscious and unconscious beliefs that feed into an interpreter’s reading of the text. It implies political considerations, views on race and gender, and it implies motivation. And that’s important. Because when we understand context, we don’t make the mistake of confusing interpretation, for the text itself. We understand that there is a difference between the Bible, and the way people, in ensuing centuries read the Bible. That there is a difference between the original text, and the way that text was analyzed, expanded upon, and adapted for various ideological and theological purposes. That type of understanding allows people to incorporate simultaneous truths. Like the truth that the Bible doesn’t comprise a single perfect person. And the truth that later interpreters needed to create models of perfection to make the values they were espousing come alive. The truth that, in contrast to its neighbors, Biblical Israel did not see its king as any sort of demi-god, but as a person, who will inevitably make mistakes, and be punished for them. And also the truth that years after the Davidic dynasty was no more, its earliest kings morphed into larger than life figures in the collective imagination of those that so badly craved renewed independence under a Jewish monarch. The truth that a prophet of God told David that he sinned, and in the biblical text, David confessed to that sin. And the truth that biblical interpreters firmly believed that a community that respects the heroes of its past will have a future to look forward to.
Being able to hold on to partial, simultaneous truths is not simple, but it can be learned. It requires subtlety and nuance in a world where both seem scarce. But flattening biblical characters in the hopes of garnering reverence for them, whether we realize it or not, has the potential to communicate a very dangerous message, specifically by undermining one of the Bible’s most important morals.
Imagine, if that teacher, had presented the same quote from the Talmud, but contextualized it for her students. Imagine if she had said, “The Bible holds David accountable. David thought he could sin in secret and get away with it, but the Bible is clear about the fact that no one, not even God’s anointed, should ever get away with abusing power and preying on the vulnerable. Nothing replaces the biblical text. But now, let’s move on and see how the story of what happened is used as a starting point for discussions about piety, and about divorce rites in the ancient world.”
Imagine how differently things might have felt for the girl in the yellow turtleneck.
*Source: “A Brief History of Sesame Street’s Snuffleupagus Identity Crisis,” by Marissa Fessenden. Smithsonian Magazine, November 20, 2015.