God as a Wife-Beater

Does this text (or any text) deserve to be excluded from the larger category of Jewish teaching


In his article on "troubling texts," Aryeh Cohen does not include the source citation for the problematic parable to which he refers. Here is the original text in translation, along with a commentary reading the text in the context of the Biblical texts it purports to interpret.  The Tanhuma dates from approximately the 6th-7th century CE.

Midrash Tanhuma, Parashat Mishpatim: 11

A parable to a king who beat his wife. Her guardian said to him: “If you want to divorce her, beat her until she dies. But if you plan to return to her, why are you so beating her so harshly?”
He said to him: Even if my palace were to be destroyed, I would not divorce her
Thus Jeremiah says: “If you want to divorce us, beat us until we die, unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure" (Lamentations 5:22). "But if not, why have you struck us down so that there is no healing for us?" (Jeremiah 14:19).
The Holy Blessed One responded to him: "Even if I destroy my world, I will not divorce Israel, as it says, “Thus says the Lord: If the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth can be explored, then I will reject all the offspring of Israel because of all they have done, says the Lord”" (Jeremiah 31:36). "Rather, even so, I have set a condition with them, that if they sin, the Temple will provide surety for them, as it says, ‘I have placed my Tabernacle (mishkani) in their midst’" (Leviticus 26:11), [read this as] I have placed my surety (mashkoni).


This text is certainly troubling. Cohen presents a three-step approach to evaluating difficult texts. His second-step asks “Is this mashal, this parable, representing a relationship between man and woman that is consonant with that found in rabbinic literature in general, or is this text an aberration?”
Clearly the language of the guardian, who stands for the Israelite prophet Jeremiah, indicates that God’s behavior in punishing the people with the destruction of the Temple, the death of thousands, and the exile of the people to Babylon, is aberrant.  Sometimes the artist needs to choose the most potent and oppressive image in order to express his point.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.

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