A Facebook post by a congregant highlighted a controversy around an initiative called #DisruptTexts, and my response to it was going to be much longer than a typical FB comment. #DisruptTexts as a specific project isn't something I had heard of, but as I skimmed the website the other day it certainly doesn't seem brand new. This is an initiative for literature education in schools that aims to "challenge the traditional canon" both by bringing in more representative texts and by putting new texts and perspectives into dialogue with "traditional" ones. I'm posting partly because the congregant said she wanted all her child's teachers to be involved in this kind of pedagogy, and I am/hope to be one of those teachers.
I don't know why this approach would be controversial at all. I mean I do, of course. But I would think even people with suspicion ought to be cheered by the idea of critical thinking about texts and literature, and by the idea of pairings and conversations centered around both traditional and new literary texts.
Anyway my mind went immediately to an experience I had as a first-year rabbinical student in just this kind of pedagogy at an adult level. As a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I had access to the Protestant institution across the street, Union Theological Seminary. I enrolled there in a course about the book of Hosea taught by Professor Phyllis Trible, one of the pioneering feminist critics of the Hebrew Bible. I had read from a couple of Professor Trible's books. One of them was called Texts of Terror, to give you a sense of her work. Her scholarship there was about women such as Hagar, Tamar, and the brutalized concubine of Gibeah in the book of Judges. Professor Trible was looking both to document the treatment of women by the (male) authors and editors of the Bible and to listen for women's voices somehow in the same texts.
I had studied the opening chapters of Hosea in religious school during high school with my terrific teacher Earl Schwartz. Hosea takes to heart the prophetic metaphor that images Israel's straying from God as an unfaithful wife. So he marries a prostitute and his book opens with a graphic revenge fantasy put in God's mouth/mind, leading to reconciliation. It's pretty horrifying.
That's where Professor Trible opened the course. I figured, based on what I knew of her, that the course would critique Hosea and unearth all the factors behind taking an already-problematic metaphor too far back in his time. Instead, she opened by saying even so, she wanted to see whether there was a way to reclaim Hosea and to have his book in the canon. It was a generous and tentative opening -- Professor Trible presented this as an open question. We would work through the text of the book and see.
The students were paired off and each group had to prepare a particular section in depth to present to the class -- to translate, analyze, and suggest issues and interpretations. I asked for or ended up with a passage that is read traditionally in the synagogue as a haftarah, a section of the prophets paired with the week's Torah reading. My partner was a Southern female Protestant seminarian who was also lesbian and married (this was the first half of 1991).
I am sure we compared Hosea to other places in the Torah and prophets that talk about Israel's unfaithfulness or betrayals, straight up or in metaphor. Hosea was also an innovator in the idea of teshuvah or "repentance"/personal change in Jewish thought. How do we hold both sets of his words?
My engagement with Hosea continued. A number of years ago, I was in the synagogue and listening to the chanting of the first couple chapters of Hosea by a thirteen-year-old girl on the occasion of her Bat Mitzvah. I was horrified. How had I let that happen? Somewhere in between that moment and Professor Trible, I had sat in horror while the students in the Jewish day high school I worked at presented "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" as the school play. So much leering at women in the play, being staged by young girls being watched by young guys, and we the faculty had somehow let that happen. Here it was again, and just as bad even though I'm sure relatively few people were paying close attention to the English translation of Hosea in front of us in the synagogue.
I resolved that one way or another, no girl would chant this passage in the synagogue again. I thought about this for a few months and learned that the haftarah readings were not as fixed as our Bibles in the pews would lead us to think. Then I remembered too a section of the Mishnah, the early code of Jewish law that is the foundation of the Talmud, that lays out a series of texts that are not to be publicly read and/or not to be publicly translated in the synagogue, even though they can be encountered in a process of Torah study. (Before print, during services biblical readings were in some places translated out loud into the vernacular.)
I proposed not just that young girls would not read this for Bat Mitzvah, but that no one should hear this passage read out loud in the synagogue. We would substitute another reading for the opening of Hosea. The first year, I took time the week before to explain what I was doing and why. I taught a bit about Hosea, and both Earl Schwartz and Professor Trible. The next week I gave out xeroxes of an alternative text. In succeeding years, I make note of what we are doing and why. This is how I keep Hosea in the canon. He's there, not as loud as he once was, and always now framed by and along with other voices including new ones, including my own.
This is hardly the only example of its kind in my own life of texts and canons and teaching literatures. A whole section of my very first education course at the Seminary was about "difficult texts." But I describe all of this about Hosea to say that there are many dimensions to encountering texts, and all kinds of ways of staging or framing those encounters. We read privately or with others; we listen or we debate; we study intimately or we share ritually. There is more than canon-or-cancel. #DisruptTexts is about the classroom, the place where students and teachers read together and learn how to read. It's part of what we should be doing as teachers and parents, sharing stories and literature with our students and children.