Today’s daf (Megillah 25a-b) contains two Mishnaic teachings that – on first glance – are contradictory, while – at the same time – just one of these teachings is regularly cited as the basis for educational policies in numerous schools and communities notwithstanding the fact that this teaching is almost always misinterpreted.
We begin with the first teaching (Mishna Megillah 4:9) which states that המכנה בעריות משתקין אותו – ‘someone who deliberately misreads or who, instead of teaching verses literally, offers euphemistic interpretations to Torah verses about forbidden (eg. incestuous) relationships should be silenced’. As the Aruch explains, by doing so a person is being disingenuous about Torah because they purport to say words of the Torah that Moshe Rabbeinu did not say.
Admittedly, such behaviour would be equally wrong when misreading or misinterpreting any verse of the Torah. Nevertheless, as numerous commentaries point out, the Mishna specifically mentions verses concerning forbidden relationships since there is a greater sense of unease felt by many people in discussing these laws than necessarily any other laws in the Torah. Yet notwithstanding this, from here we learn that we should approach and explain all the laws of the Torah honestly and transparently.
Yet immediately following this, we are taught in a further Mishna (Mishna Megillah 4:10) that מעשה ראובן נקרא ולא מיתרגם – ‘the episode of Reuven [who bedded Bilhah, his father’s concubine – see Bereishit 35:22] is read but not translated’ – which is often mistaught to mean that there are parts of the Torah which we should overlook, not address, not explain, and not translate.
However, what many people fail to quote is the words of the Mishna that immediately follow these: מעשה תמר נקרא ומיתרגם – ‘the story (told in Bereishit Ch. 38) of [Yehuda having sexual relations with his daughter-in-law] Tamar [who he presumed was a prostitute] is read and translated’. Of course, this then begs the question of why the former story is ‘read and not translated’, while the latter is ‘read and translated’?
The answer, it seems, is that it was feared that a simple translation of the first story could lead to a misunderstanding of what occurred between Reuven and Bilhah. Therefore, rather than misrepresenting the story with a faulty translation, it was read in synagogue but not translated. However, as no such fear existed for the story of Yehuda and Tamar, this story was both read and translated.
What we see from here is that instead of the second Mishna justifying avoiding difficult biblical stories, what it does is try and prevent those stories being mistaught and misrepresented. Still, having explained this, two important points must be made: Firstly, even the verses involving Reuven and Bilhah must be read out loud in a synagogue. What this means is that we don’t pretend that events don’t occur even if there is some debate about how to interpret them. And secondly, while the second Mishna refers to the Torah reading in a synagogue, no such limitation exists in homes or in schools. As such, it is the responsibility of parents and educators to help their students understand every word of the Torah including – and especially – those which are not sufficiently explained and addressed elsewhere.