Jake Berman finds it painful to speak about the bullying and abuse he suffered as Jewish student in the Carroll Independent School district of Southlake, Texas, near Dallas. It’s been twenty years – but it’s still very raw. The antisemitic abuse was so unbearable, he says, he contemplated suicide. “I received everything from jokes about my nose to gas chambers, all while studying for my bar mitzvah,” Berman says. His parents eventually pulled him out of the school system.
Jake Berman finds it painful to speak about those days – but he gathered up the courage to do just that, in a very public forum this week. It was a school board meeting Monday night – the first at which the public had a chance to respond to a horrific event that has sparked international outrage in the pitched battle over what teachers can teach their students.
The state of Texas recently passed a law that requires teachers to present multiple perspectives when discussing, as the law says, “widely debated and currently controversial issues.” The law is part of a much broader national movement of parents, lawmakers and political advocates who oppose classroom lessons on things like racism in American history, as well as school programs focusing on diversity and inclusion. They believe it leaves white students feeling guilty, responsible, and bad about themselves.
So during a teacher training session earlier this month, a Carroll school district administrator, Gina Peddy, focused on that part of the bill that says teachers essentially have to grade the books they have in their classrooms as acceptable or not, based on whether they present a single, dominant narrative, quote, “in such a way that it . . . may be considered offensive.”
Teachers, according to NBC News, had complained that the rules would force them to get rid of children’s books that focus on racism. So Peddy tried to clarify the rules for them with this example:
“Make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust, that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives.”
The teachers were horrified that anyone would suggest there’s more than one way to describe the most horrible genocide in modern history. One asked Peddy, “How do you oppose the Holocaust?”
Peddy’s response: “Believe me, that’s come up.”
But that, of course, is not an answer. Not to parents. Not to teachers. Not to students. Not in a school district with a history of anti-semitic bullying. Not in any school district, anywhere.
Which left Jake Berman to remind the Carroll School Board and everyone else in attendance at the meeting, and everyone else hearing about it on the national news, what happens when you try and manipulate history:
“The facts are,” he told them, “that there are not two sides of the Holocaust. The Nazis systematically killed millions of people. There are not two sides of slavery. White Europeans enslaved Black Africans in this country until June 19, 1865, a moment we’re barely 150 years removed from.”
There are not two sides. And there is no excuse for laws being imposed on school systems throughout Texas, and other states, that try to excuse, whitewash, or minimize systemic racism, overt sexism or widespread antisemitism by suggesting otherwise. But there are specific goals for these laws.
Many people have come to the side of Gina Peddy and other teachers and administrators throughout Texas and elsewhere who are trying to figure out how to implement new laws about what they can and cannot teach about history and society. Clay Robison, who is a spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association, told CNN he isn’t surprised by what happened with Peddy. The law, he says, is ambiguous enough to “encourage that kind of reaction.”
So let’s be clear – that ambiguity is by design, not by accident. The authors and enactors don’t want to be seen as promoting racism, misogyny or antisemitism. But that’s exactly what they’re allowing – if not encouraging – with these laws.
The state senator who wrote the troublesome bill in Texas, Republican Bryan Hughes, says that his bill does not require balanced perspectives on what he calls issues of “good and evil” – that the school system has it all wrong. But one teacher in the Carroll system says they have been given very specific instructions that prove otherwise.
“We’re not being asked to have opposing views on colonization, we’re not being asked to have opposing views on Christopher Columbus Day or Thanksgiving.”
Asked by CNN what they are told to teach opposing views on, the teacher responded “Civil rights movement, Holocaust, the Civil War, slavery, women’s rights.” Check. Check. Check. Check. And check.
Let’s be honest. The real reason for these laws is not to confuse teachers about what they can teach about our country. The real reason for these laws is to make them so afraid to teach anything, that they will teach nothing. And that opens the door for others – including racists, misogynists and anti-Semites – to promote their own narratives. It’s not only wrong, it’s also very dangerous.
The truth is that history is messy, disruptive, and at times ugly. The truth is that the white men of the landed gentry who are described as our nation’s “founding fathers” – many slaves owners among them – created the foundational legal structure of our nation with no rights for women and no freedom for slaves. The truth is that indigenous peoples were wiped out and their land colonized. The truth is that, because of our past, many people of color today continue to struggle with worse schools, more dangerous neighborhoods, relatively poor medical care, and less opportunity to change all that.
Now, historic racism, the oppression of women and hatred of Jews certainly don’t tell the whole story of our country. There are so many other factors that shape our nation, and our world — from economics to climate change to scientific advancements. And it’s wrong for anyone to insist that we see our nation – or any nation – only through the lens of race. That’s an oversimplification that’s both untrue and unfair. But it’s a part of the story that has to be told – and has to be taught.
Our Torah portion this week provides us with a look at how ugly history can be . . . and how we have a responsibility to struggle with it, not to hide it.
The Akedah – the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac – has become such an important part of our founding story as a people that we read it every year in the regular Torah reading cycle after we already have shared it on Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest days on our calendar.
As I mentioned this year on Rosh Hashanah, the story is not referenced anywhere else in the Torah, even though it also becomes foundational to the two other faith traditions that sprang from Judaism – Christianity and Islam. The redactors may well have seen it as something to be hidden, or glossed over, even though they included it in the final version of the Book of Genesis.
And yet the rabbis are not content with glossing over its details or its meaning. The midrash they created –- a huge body of literature designed to illuminate meanings that may not be obvious in the Biblical text — shows how the rabbis struggled. And it forces us to struggle with what God commanded, what Abraham heard, and what Isaac suffered.
On the one hand, the rabbis believed that Abraham himself struggled to fulfill God’s command – and even tried to talk God out of it. They find it impossible to believe that the same man who argued with God about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, trying to negotiate for their lives, would consign his son to the fire without raising a single objection. They see an opening in the text. When the Torah tells us that God said: “Take your son, your only one, the one whom you love, take Isaac,” they conclude that God would not have wasted so much time and so many words. So they read this, not as a command from God, but as half of a conversation with Abraham.
Take your son – I have two sons. Which one should I take?
Your only one – Well, but they are both only ones, this one the only son of his mother and this one the only son of his mother.
The one whom you love – Well, a man loves his children equally. How can I do otherwise?
So, on the one hand, the rabbis want to believe that Abraham must have tried to dissuade God as he did with Sodom and Gomorrah. They want to believe Abraham sees his God as different from the gods of the Canaanites, who require the blood of children – sacrifices that he and Isaac may well have viewed up close in the valley of Gehinnom as they approached Mount Moriah.
But on the other hand, they have to acknowledge that Abraham did try to go through with the sacrifice. The angel, they realize, had to call his name twice to get his attention, as focused as he was with the knife in his raised hand. So here is one rabbinic explanation of what happened next.
In the Torah, the angel says: “Abraham, Abraham, do not put forth your hand to the lad!”
But what follows in the Midrash is this response from Abraham: “But at least let me draw a few drops of blood. If I stop now, all by preparations, both physically and mentally, will have been in vain. At least let me draw enough blood to sprinkle on the altar.”
The rabbis suggest Abraham wouldn’t lay down the knife until he heard directly from God and not from an angel. And in one version of their story, Abraham chastises God for changing the rules on him all the time and demands a promise that it won’t happen again.
That, the rabbis say, is why we read the Akedah on Rosh Hashanah. Abraham does get his Divine promise that Isaac will live and prosper – and that in the future, when Isaac’s descendants sin, they should sound the ram’s horn – the shofar – and God will recall this test and treat them with mercy.
The rabbis rightly force us to face our history, the ancient world from which our faith traditions sprang. It is ugly, it is disturbing, it is fraught with peril, with unspeakable violence, and with death. The Written Torah may choose to ignore the Akedah. The Oral tradition of the rabbis cannot.
We learn from the rabbis that all history has lessons for us. And that we cannot learn those lessons by creating false analogies or false equivalencies to make elements of the past that may be personal to us more palatable.
Ancient child sacrifice was what it was, just as modern-day genocide is what it is. The system of slavery that many of our nation’s founders not only tolerated but profited from was what it was, just as modern systemic racism is what it is. The political, economic and sexual subjugation of women continues to be what it always was. And no attempt to silence teacher– s to suppress that history, or equivocate over it — can be justified.
We could remove the entire chapter of Genesis that contains the Akedah, and the narrative would be smooth. But the fact that it was included – and the fact that the rabbis force us to face it and struggle with it – teaches us some important things about ourselves.
We are wise enough to acknowledge the truth, and nobody has the power to take that wisdom from us.
We are strong enough to handle the truth, and nobody has the authority to weaken our resolve.
We are human enough to struggle with the truth – to learn from it, to grow from it, and to make this world better because of it. There are not two sides. And for the sake of our world, there are not two choices.
Kein yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin
 Midrashim taken from Yalkut Me’am Lo-ez, The Torah Anthology, Genesis-II, The Patriarchs, translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (New York: Moznaim Publishing Company, 1989).