Emor: Saying It

May 1, 2011 at 11:05 pm | Posted in Emor | Leave a comment

This week’s Torah portion, Emor (Say), begins:

God said to Moses:  Say to the priests, the sons of Aaron—you will say to them:  he (a priest) shall not become ritually impure for a dead person among his people.  (Leviticus/ Vayikra 21:1-2).

Priests devote their lives exclusively to serving God, so they must minimize times when they are ritually impure and therefore cannot enter the sanctuary.  Contact with human death is the primary source of impurity in the Torah, so priests are forbidden to go near dead bodies, or even to engage in mourning for anyone except their closest family members.

The Torah portion Emor ends with the whole assembly of Israelites (except, presumably, the priests) stoning a man as they execute the death sentence for saying something that denigrates God.

What a contrast! At the beginning, one person speaks according to God’s instructions, and decreases a group’s contact with human death.  At the end, another person speaks against God, and his sentence causes the whole community to have an especially horrific contact with death.

Who is this person who says something awful about God?

The son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man went out among the children of Israel; and they quarreled concerning the camp, the son of the Israelite woman, and an Israelite man.  The son of the Israelite woman denounced the Name (of God), and he vilified it; so they brought him to Moses.  And the name of his mother was Shelomit daughter of Divri of the tribe of Dan.  And they put him in custody, to get themselves a clarification through the mouthpiece of God.  God spoke to Moses, saying:  Remove the vilifier to outside of the camp.  Everyone who heard shall lean their hands upon his head, and then the entire assembly shall stone him.  And you shall speak to the children of Israel, saying:  Any man, if he vilifies his God, will bear his guilt.  … foreigner or native alike, if he denounces the Name, he shall be put to death.  (Leviticus/ Vayikra 24:10-16)

vayekaleil = and he vilified, demeaned, belittled, treated with contempt, declared a curse on

My first reaction to this story is sympathy for Shelomit’s son, the young man with the Egyptian father.  No matter what he said about God’s name, or God’s reputation (another meaning of “name” in Hebrew and English), how could he deserve a death sentence?

The Torah does not explicitly say what the quarrel was about, or why Shelomit’s son was so upset.   The Hebrew in Leviticus/Vayikra 24:10 could mean either that they quarreled concerning the camp, or merely that they quarreled in the camp.  The traditional commentary says they quarreled concerning the camp, and follows the idea in Sifra (a collection of comments on Leviticus from the third century C.E.) that reason behind the quarrel was that the half-Egyptian wanted to camp with his mother’s tribe of Dan, instead of staying with the erev rav (the “mixed multitude” or “riff-raff”—  those who left Egypt and followed Moses along with the Israelites,  even though they were not of Israelite blood).

Why can’t the young man camp wherever he pleases?  In the book of Numbers/ Bamidbar, God tells Moses where everyone should camp during their journey through the wilderness.  All Israelites must camp with their tribe, “the house of their fathers”.  The tribe of Levi camps in the center, right next to the Tent of Meeting, the portable sanctuary for worshiping God.  The other Israelite tribes camp in a ring around the Levites and the Tent of Meeting.  The tribe of Dan, which the half-Egyptian’s mother belongs to, always camps on the north side.

Since the instructions do not say where the erev rav camped, early commentary concluded that everyone who was not of Israelite ancestry camped around the periphery of the Israelite circle, farther away from the Tent of Meeting.  In some contexts the erev rav seems to be “outside of the camp”, where ritually impure objects are dumped, people with tzara-at disease pitch their tents, and criminals are stoned to death.

Prejudice by the in-group against  the out-group is common.  Yet the Egyptians and other people in the erev rav freely chose to march into the wilderness with the Israelites, under the leadership of Moses and his God.  They are like converts to Judaism.  Yet they have to camp outside the charmed circle of those who were born Israelites.  Why should they be treated as second-class citizens?

And why should Shelomit’s son be treated as second-class?  He’s even an Israelite on his mother’s side, but according to Sifra and others, he still has to camp with the erev rav.  (Ironically, Jewish law for the last 1,800 years or more says a Jew is anyone with a Jewish mother, or anyone who has converted to Judaism.  Shelomit’s son would be a Jew on both counts.)

I can imagine the young man longing to be accepted as an Israelite, perhaps even longing to camp closer to the place of worship, instead of remaining an outcast because of his father’s ancestry.  I can imagine the man who picks a fight with him calling him the ancient equivalent of “half-breed” and insulting his Egyptian father.   I picture Shelomit’s son as a young man full of testosterone, lashing out in rage over the other man’s insults.  Maybe the full Israelite says God has chosen only the children of Israel as His people.  Then Shelomit’s son rails against such a narrow-minded god.

Clearly his mixed ancestry has some connection with his vilifying the Name of God, or the Torah would not mention it.  But Moses, as the mouthpiece of God, states that the punishment is death for anyone who says bad things about God, regardless of ancestry.

Of course God itself cannot be harmed by human speech.  But the issue here is harming God’s name, God’s reputation among human beings.  Is God’s reputation really so important that denigrating God deserves the death penalty?

The ruling Moses hands down from God declares that after the vilifier’s guilt is confirmed, the entire assembly shall stone him.  The implication is that his blasphemy harms the whole community.  Some of those who hear malicious talk will be unable to resist passing it on, and eventually everyone will hear it.  Then even those who reject the vilification will think of God somewhat differently.

To me, this seems like a normal part of life.  In the present day, we’ve all heard God vilified, belittled, and declared non-existent.  (When I was a teenager, and the only “God” I knew about was the beard-in-the-sky variation, I said things like that myself.)  In the United States, we value freedom of speech, and we accept anti-God comments without calling for drastic punishment.  But the Torah treats blasphemy as if it were murder.  Why?

One possibility is that the ancient Israelites (and  some fundamentalists among Jews, Christians, and Muslims today) make no distinction between  religion and morality.  The Torah mixes together laws for religious rituals and laws for behavior toward fellow human beings. Therefore, turning away from God is automatically lumped with turning away from moral standards.  Saying something that makes others have doubts about God could lead to an explosion of selfishness and cruelty.  No wonder vilifying God seems like a terrifying crime against humanity to people with that approach.

Personally, I’m grateful to live in a society that uphold moral standards regardless of religion, a society where atheists are just as likely as religious people to have high moral standards.  Vilifying someone else’s concept of God is a bad idea, since it belittles the person who holds that concept.  But it’s a common moral lapse; even the Torah does it when referring to other religions.  It doesn’t destroy ethics or civil society.

Is there any other reason why denigrating God in public is a horrible deed?  One possibility, suggested by Sefer HaChinuch (an anonymous book from 13th-century Spain), is that denouncing God is the same as denying that God is present inside us.  If we think we have no inner divinity, we become less than human.

I don’t know what the Torah means when it says that humans are made in God’s image, or that God will dwell among us.  But for at least the last thousand years, some Jews have been associating our inner divinity with such things as inspiration, creativity, compassion, and the intuition of interconnectedness.  If denigrating God means denigrating these gifts, it’s a tragedy indeed.

But we can’t reverse dehumanization, or de-divinization, by stoning people.  I think the only way to restore a sense of inner divinity is by saying something different:  showing delight in creativity, saying kind words, speaking as if we’re all parts of a whole.

The half-Egyptian man in this week’s Torah portion may have had every reason to feel like lashing out at the full Israelite and insulting God.  His mistake was not what he felt, but what he said.

The Torah hints that he had an alternative to vilifying God’s name.  His mother’s name is Shelomit, which means “Peaceful” or “Complete”.  Her father is Divri, which means “Speaker”.  Their tribe is Dan, which means “Judgment”.  If you seek peace and wholeness, you speak in a way that leads to good judgments.

Even when we don’t have to worry about being stoned to death, may we all remember that what we say matters.

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