A sto­ry: The sur­vivor of a glob­al dis­as­ter, bur­dened by survivor’s guilt, drinks him­self into a stu­por. His youngest son comes upon him sprawled and naked on the floor. Rather than cov­er his father, he mocks him. The father is not com­plete­ly uncon­scious; when he awak­ens, he remem­bers what his son did and is furi­ous. This is how you treat me? I’ve kept you alive, fed you, giv­en you every­thing — and you do this?” He curs­es his son: May you know grief from your own son, may he be a slave his whole life!”

This sto­ry might sound famil­iar. The father is Noah; the son, Ham; the set­ting, moments after the Flood has reced­ed. And the sto­ry could have end­ed here, but for one thing.

A lat­er bib­li­cal verse tells us that the accursed son’s son is the ances­tor of the Ethiopi­ans. And so it is that this sto­ry, first recount­ed in Gen­e­sis, became the source of the shame­ful Hamitic Myth, which states that Noah’s curse is the rea­son — a bib­li­cal­ly-approved one — for the enslave­ment of black peo­ple from Ethiopia, and, by exten­sion, elsewhere.

In the late 1800s, South­ern preach­ers in the Unit­ed States used this sto­ry to argue that slav­ery was God’s will and the nat­ur­al order of things. Chris­t­ian mis­sion­ar­ies brought the tale with them on their trav­els to African coun­tries. One such mis­sion­ary, a Bel­gian preach­er with a radio show, poi­soned Rwan­dan soci­ety with the myth, turn­ing Hutu against Tut­si (he used the myth to sup­port his the­o­ry of eugen­ics, in which Tut­sis were clos­er to the white race” than Hutus). This led indi­rect­ly to the 1994 Rwan­dan geno­cide, when Hutu neigh­bors slaugh­tered between 650800,000 of their Tut­si neigh­bors over sev­er­al months.

When we stud­ied this sequence of events — the Gen­e­sis sto­ry, the Bel­gian mis­sion­ary, the radio show, the geno­cide — in Elie Wiesel’s class, I was dis­traught. How could the Bible, the urtext of my youth, the portable home­land” of my peo­ple, be the cause, how­ev­er indi­rect, of such horror?

How do we deal with dis­turb­ing and degrad­ing reli­gious texts? What do we do with tex­tu­al inter­pre­ta­tions that have caused so much harm? The ques­tion is dif­fi­cult if you are a believ­er and can­not reject the sacred text entire­ly. It is much eas­i­er to argue that the texts were writ­ten by wrong-head­ed men in wrong-head­ed times, and that now, in our more enlight­ened age, we must rel­e­gate them to the realm of muse­ums and curiosi­ties. But for a believ­er, or a lover of sacred text, that is not an option.

Believ­ers have two choic­es. They can accept the valid­i­ty of even the most egre­gious­ly offen­sive ideas in their sacred canon, and live their lives and orga­nize their col­lec­tive poli­cies accord­ing­ly. Or, they can engage with dis­ci­plined yet rad­i­cal­ly sub­ver­sive hermeneu­tics. The first option was employed by Chris­t­ian min­is­ters in the south­ern states like Samuel How, who wrote in 1856:

Our sec­ond proof that slav­ery is the pun­ish­ment of sin is drawn from Gen. 9:24, 25, where the sacred his­to­ri­an hav­ing men­tioned the wicked­ness of Ham, the father of Canaan, says, And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan, a ser­vant of ser­vants shall he be unto his brethren.’ The term ser­vant of ser­vants’, means a ser­vant of the low­est and vilest kind.

A min­is­ter like How draws upon his Bible to cre­ate a world that accepts slav­ery. He takes the text at face val­ue; his is a pas­sive read­ing of the text, unin­ter­est­ed in wrestling with the con­flict between text and life — or per­haps ful­ly com­fort­able with the idea of slavery.

It is the oth­er option which saved my faith.

In our week­ly meet­ing, I asked Pro­fes­sor Wiesel about the ter­ri­ble link between Gen­e­sis and Rwan­da and the chal­lenge of find­ing an eth­i­cal way to inter­pret holy books. This is a prob­lem the ancient rab­bis already iden­ti­fied,” he said. They taught that the Torah itself can be either an elixir of life or a poi­son, depend­ing on how it is used. If it is made into a weapon, it is the worst weapon of all.”

But if we pre­fer an inter­pre­ta­tion, even for moral rea­sons, does that nec­es­sar­i­ly make it true? What if it con­tra­dicts the sim­ple read­ing of the text? And if it is true to the text but is immoral, what are we to do?”

If even the most author­i­ta­tive teach­ing, the most sacred text, leads to dehu­man­iza­tion, to humil­i­a­tion, to harm, then we must reject it. Remem­ber, the Bible itself shows us how to do this: Abra­ham argues with God on behalf of Sodom. Moses breaks the tablets of law — yes, even the law must be bro­ken when it threat­ens human­i­ty. Job refus­es to accept easy answers that false­ly ren­der him a sin­ner and God a vin­dic­tive god. We need courage in read­ing scrip­ture, courage and com­pas­sion. Remem­ber also: This is what the rab­bis did with so many of the leg­ends they taught, so many inter­pre­ta­tions. They worked to align the text with their moral under­stand­ing. And in doing so, they gave us per­mis­sion — no, an oblig­a­tion — to do the same.”

Our dis­cus­sion about Gen­e­sis and Rwan­da con­tin­ued, and I begin to under­stand his approach. When we encounter dif­fi­cul­ties in the text, when we feel the dis­tance between words on a page and our deep­est moral intu­itions, we allow the text to ques­tion us; per­haps our intu­itions require refin­ing. At the same time, we begin to chal­lenge the text, to demand that it live up to our eth­i­cal instincts. When a text dis­ap­points us with an anti-human mes­sage, we will avoid the sin of pre­ma­ture for­give­ness, of let­ting the text off the hook too eas­i­ly. A bib­li­cal verse seems to con­done hatred? Well, it’s an old book, after all, from a dif­fer­ent time, we might be tempt­ed to think. But our role in read­ing sacred scrip­ture is to ask two ques­tions: What does the text say?” and Who may be harmed by this text?” In seek­ing an eth­ic of inter­pre­ta­tion that remains true to the text and to our lives, we bal­ance fideli­ty and con­science and attempt to make our reli­gious tra­di­tions sources of blessing.

Adapt­ed from WIT­NESS: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Class­room by Ariel Burg­er. Copy­right © 2018 by Ariel Burg­er. Reprint­ed by per­mis­sion of Houghton Mif­flin Har­court Pub­lish­ing Com­pa­ny. All rights reserved.

Ariel Burg­er is a writer, artist, teacher, and rab­bi whose work com­bines spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, cre­ativ­i­ty, and strate­gies for social change. A life­long stu­dent of Elie Wiesel, he spent years study­ing great wis­dom tra­di­tions, and now applies those teach­ings to urgent con­tem­po­rary ques­tions. When Ariel’s not learn­ing or teach­ing he is cre­at­ing music, art, and poet­ry. He lives out­side of Boston with his family.