Teaching and Preaching Difficult Texts

Dr. Christopher M. Leighton

Scriptures contain material that can prove hazardous to our neighbor’s health and our own tradition’s integrity.


There are no warning labels affixed to sacred writings. There should be. Scriptures contain material that can prove hazardous to our neighbor’s health and our own tradition’s integrity. For the past twenty-eight years, the ICJS has struggled to come to terms with disturbing legacies of reading. Our holy books remind us that religious communities more often than not were forged in the heat of conflict. Communal identities emerge in oppositional relationship with surrounding cultures. There is an almost irresistible tendency to elevate the identity of one’s own group by pitting it in adversarial relationship with the neighboring cultures. The polemical patterns are etched into our sacred texts, and the ICJS has provided a venue where Jews, Christians, and Muslims discover the distinct pitfalls into which each community has all too often stumbled. The challenge is to mine each of our traditions for the wisdom and beauty that enriches our communal lives, while identifying toxic verbiage that is easily twisted and placed in the service of hate.

The ICJS will profile examples of scholars, clergy, and communal leaders who confront troublesome and dangerous passages from their scriptural traditions. These short essays and sermons will demonstrate the creative ways in which adherents from different religious communities identify and then neutralize menacing scriptural material.

Dr. Marc Saperstein has generously given us permission to post a sermon that he delivered on the Sabbath immediately preceding Purim (Sabbat Zakhor) that underscores the imperative to “Remember.” There is a special addition Torah reading that includes the verse “Remember what Amalek did to you…” Deuteronomy 25:17.

Dr. Saperstein is the pre-eminent authority on the history of Jewish preaching. He recently served as the principal of the Leo Baeck College, and he has taught at George Washington University, Washington University, and Harvard Divinity School. 

Dr. Saperstein's sermon can be read here.