Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Would Naftali and Ayelet have chopped down the Tree of Knowledge?

Adam and Eve, Rubens

Last week two members of an advisory committee on Israel’s national curriculum resigned over the Education Ministry’s decision last December to override the committee’s recommendation to include Dorit Rabinyan’s novel Borderlife on a recommended reading list for Israeli high-school students. Instead, the novel will be on an optional advanced level reading list.

Set in New York, Borderlife tells the story of a love relationship between an Israeli Jewish woman and an Israeli Arab man. Rabinyan has said that it was inspired by an episode from her own life.

A Ministry spokesperson justified its rejection of the advisory committee’s recommendation with an appeal to identity. “The identity and the heritage of students in all sectors” is threatened by “intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews”, she said. Furthermore, “adolescents don’t have the overarching viewpoint that includes considerations of maintaining the people’s national identity and the significance of miscegenation [the mixing of racial groups through marriage, sexual relations and so on].”

The first point boils down to this: We don’t want to expose the vulnerable minds of children, whose views and ideas can be unformed and in flux, to works that could make them question the values that form the foundation of their religious and national identities. The Ministry of Education correctly recognizes that good, let alone great literature can change minds, if not the world.

The second point is that, according to the Ministry spokesperson, adolescents are not sufficiently mature to see the tension between what happens in a novel and the values that underlie their own society. Their attraction to an intense personal drama, for example, could blind them to its wider consequences.

When I was growing up in England, and perhaps still, most high school children read Romeo and Juliet; Shakespeare set the benchmark for stories of love across the tracks. Needless to say, the play is subversive. The young lovers’ tragic deaths underscore the self-destructiveness of their parents’ longstanding feud. Most readers, especially those aged 15, are firmly behind Romeo and Juliet. Tribalism sucks.

The world is full of parents who hope their children will marry someone of the opposite sex within their own particular tribe, ethnic, religious, national, or social. That’s understandable, but I don’t think it justifies shielding children from the knowledge that there are alternatives.

No doubt my views about children and reading reflect my own experience. Reading beyond my knowledge was the story of my childhood. They also reflect my experience as a teacher of children during my fourteen years as Head Teacher of a Reform Synagogue Hebrew School.

I recall only one occasion (though perhaps there were others!) on which a parent complained to me about something I taught. Every session opened with an assembly: about 80 pupils aged 5-13; 20 post-Bar and -Bat Mitzvah teaching assistants; some parents and younger siblings; and an assortment of people who were there for adult Hebrew classes. Mostly we spent that half hour singing, but it was also an opportunity to talk as a mixed-age community about world affairs or the next event in the Jewish calendar.

Once, when Yom HaShoah was approaching, I opened the assembly with a question: Who were the victims of the Shoah? The first answer, of course, was Jews, and we talked about that. Who else, I asked? Mentally and physically handicapped people, someone said, and we discussed that. Gypsies, someone else added, and I said something about that. Homosexuals, said yet another.

Most couples are made up of a man and a woman, I explained. Homosexuals are men who prefer to spend their lives with other men or women who would rather spend their lives with other women. Nazis did not want homosexuals in their society and they too were victims of the Shoah.

Afterwards, an upset parent — not a particularly observant one, I should add — came up to me. You shouldn’t have given a neutral explanation of homosexuals, she said. You should have made it clear that homosexuality is wrong.

Had I been discussing homosexuality in general terms, I probably would have outlined the range of Jewish perspectives. But I was talking about people not principles — actual victims of the Nazi regime. In my mind, right or wrong has nothing to do with it. You may be thinking that this could only happen in a Reform synagogue, and you may be right. But for me it’s an approach that’s very traditional.

The Bible has various ways of letting its readers know what’s right and wrong. First and foremost, its values are expressed as laws: do this, don’t do that. The absolute centrality of law in communal life is emphasized by threats of collective punishment if laws are broken, and promises of reward for all if they are kept.

When it comes to individuals, though, the picture is less clear. Sometimes biblical figures are punished for bad behavior — directly or indirectly, explicitly or implicitly, immediately or in the long-run. Jacob deceives his father and is deceived in turn by his father-in-law. David commits adultery with Bathsheba and their illegitimate son dies. Ham sees his father Noah’s nakedness, and God informs him that his descendants will be forever slaves.

But what doesn’t happen much in the Bible, especially in the Torah, is explicit verbal evaluation of individuals. Unlike the rabbis, who used epithets such as Bilaam ha’rasha, ‘the evil Balaam’, or Yosef ha’tzaddik, ‘Joseph the Righteous’, the Bible avoids labels. As Erich Auerbach famously pointed out in the first chapter of Mimesis: A History of Representation in Western Literature (1946), we don’t have a ‘Wily Jacob’. Biblical characters, unlike those in the Greek literature (Auerbach’s point of comparison), are not fixed from birth to death, but develop.

In this respect, and in many others, the Bible holds up a mirror to life. To be sure, people can be truly evil or truly righteous, but the vast majority lie somewhere in between, doing good deeds and bad, behaving well and … less well.

It’s this nuanced view of human nature that makes the Bible an unlikely source for role models. Its moral and ethical values emerge mainly from its laws, not from the people it describes. The New Testament, by contrast, which is negative about law, does teach behavior through role models. Christians are encouraged to ask themselves what Jesus would have done in such and such a circumstance. When do Jews ask what Abraham, Moses or David would have done?

Returning to where I started — love across the tracks — the Bible sends a clear message that we are destined to wrestle with it.

Hot on the heels of the command in Deuteronomy to destroy the existing inhabitants of the Promised Land is a prohibition against marrying them. Temptation, like the poor (another example of the same phenomenon), will always be with us.

Of the Ten Commandments, only the last addresses internal inclinations as opposed to external behavior. Do not covet, that is, don’t long for something that belongs to someone else. The task is not to eliminate inappropriate objects of desire, but to control desire itself. Our neighbors’ wives and donkeys are here to stay.

And right at the very beginning, God put temptation, in the form of a tree with forbidden fruit, in the middle of the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve were expelled for failing the test, the problem just got worse. Henceforth, temptation won’t be concentrated in a single location; it will be everywhere.

Adam and Eve - Cranach the Elder Lucas
Adam and Eve, Lucas Cranach the Elder

I wouldn’t characterize the Ministry of Education’s justification for excluding Dorit Rabinyan’s Borderlife from a list of recommended reading in Israeli high-schools as un-Jewish. There are plenty of precedents for shielding people of all ages from literature and life experience that challenge community values.

I would, however, characterize it as unbiblical. And since the Bible is the best guide we have to the challenges of living in our own land, and Education Minister Bennett represents a National Religious party, I’m concerned. Is it possible that Naftali and Ayelet would have taken an axe to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil if they’d been Adam and Eve?

About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.
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