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Today we read Parashat Emor. Emor, like most of the book of Leviticus, contains priestly laws and rules of sacrifice. Emor specifically addresses the Kohanim, a subsection of Levites who are the direct descendants of Aaron. The Kohanim, or priests, are held to higher standards than the rest of Israel, just as Israel is held to higher standards than its neighboring nations. Emor discusses the standards of purity for the Kohanim, their instructions for performing sacrifices, and details about holidays and festivals. Emor also dictates use of the olive oil for the Temple menora and the showbread to display each Shabbat as an offering to God. Then, at the end of this parasha, in contrast to all of the rules of sanctity, appears a story of an offensive man who blasphemes God.
The Torah tells us that the son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man goes out in the midst of a camp and a fight breaks out between him and a certain Israelite. The son of the Israelite woman, Shlomit, daughter of Divri, blasphemes God, and he is brought to Moses for judgement. The man is kept in custody until his fate is decided. God tells Moses to take the man out of the camp and let all who heard him stone him to death. Moses then recites the law of blasphemy to the Israelites.
Though Moses tells the Israelites they must not blaspheme God, we do not know exactly what the man in this story did to warrant such a severe sentence. It is also surprising that Moses does not seem to know the punishment for blaspheming. We are given the name of the mother of the blasphemer while he remains anonymous. Lastly, this story seems to randomly appear among priestly laws and rules of sacrifice, being the only narrative in all of Emor. In the following discussion, I am going to address these points using text, writings of ancient sages, and thoughts of contemporary rabbis. But first, we need to understand what blasphemy is.
The American Heritage Dictionary says that blasphemy is “irreverent or impious activity, attitude or utterance in regard to something considered inviolable or sacrosanct.”. Going back to the Torah, prior to this story, blasphemy is only mentioned once, in Exodus 20:7. The citation is vague, saying that one “shall not swear falsely by the name,” which in this case is the Hebrew “Elohekha.” There are many disputes about this, for Elohekha, or Elohim, can refer to God, or it can mean king or judge. Onkelos, the translator of the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic, wonders if the use of elohim means judges or rulers. The Hellenized Jewish philosopher Philo questions, since the law of blasphemy in Emor says that whoever blasphemes his God—meaning his own God—shall bear his guilt, is it only our God who we should not blaspheme? What of deities of other nations? And can people of other nations blaspheme God, if God is not their God? Philo answers this question saying that God also does not want us to revile deities of others.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says blasphemy is pronouncing the “ineffable” name, which is a mystery, and unknowable. In the text, the ineffable name is represented by the tetragrammaton, which is four Hebrew letters, yud hei and vav hei. We do not speak the tetragrammaton aloud, but instead replace it with Adonai, HaShem, or other acceptable substitutions. Contemporary Rabbi Simon Glustrom says that blasphemy is similar to hillul HaShem, as opposed to qiddush HaShem. Qiddush HaShem is to sanctify and hallow God’s name, while hillul HaShem, like blasphemy, is the opposite. The unpronounceable name, as revealed to Moses, is passed on to Aaron, and then passed on to other priests, to be said once a year at Yom Kippur by the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, but, so that no one could hear it, the Kohen Gadol pronounces the ineffable name while other priests are singing. So, whether blasphemy is pronouncing the ineffable name, or the tetragrammaton, or using any of God’s names or attributes irreverently, is uncertain.
It would seem then that blasphemy implies a public utterance, so can we then say the name in private, if no one else is listening? Rabbis say that in public, it is a more serious offense, but people need to be consistent. Speech elevates us above animals and is a gift that enables us to worship God and pray to God. We should not abuse our privilege by blaspheming, and when we do blaspheme, it makes us as low as the beasts, whether done in private or in the company of others. Rabbi Glustrom says that pronouncing the name in public is much more serious, because if one person says the name, it begins religious breakdown of others. Not only does disrespect injure the spirituality of Jews, but it misrepresents God to members of other nations. Rabbi Heschel says human wisdom is taken for granted. Humans forget that God gave us wisdom, and God can take it away from us. Rabbi Telushkin says that our ability to demonstrate ethical behavior and display honorable character represents God well, and if we blaspheme and ridicule God, we misrepresent Him.
What exactly does the blasphemer do in this parasha? We don’t know. Some rabbis say that the blasphemer gets into a fight with a certain Israelite of the tribe of Dan. That Israelite would not let the blasphemer put up his tent with all of the other tents, because the blasphemer’s father was not of the tribe of Dan. The blasphemer becomes angry and curses God. Ramban differs, saying that his blasphemy is only a reaction to the laws stated before his story. Rabbi Berekiah, writing in Midrash Rabbah agrees, saying that the man was arguing about the showbread, saying, “What priests want to eat stale bread?” There are many other opinions as well. Regarding punishment, why does blasphemy require death? Many rabbis agree that the punishment for this offense is so severe because if the man is allowed to live, he may blaspheme again in the future. There is also a law stating that one who curses his parents should be put to death, so it would be logical for the same punishment to exist for insulting God.
Why doesn’t Moses know what to do? There is a Midrash that says, when the Israelites were in Egypt, Pharaoh put foremen and administrators over them. The foremen were Israelites, while the administrators were Egyptians. Each foreman was in charge of ten Israelites. If the Israelites did not do their job correctly, the administrators beat the foremen, so they would make the Israelite slaves complete their task. Every morning, the administrators would wake the foremen early, so they had time to gather the slaves. One morning, an Egyptian administrator went to the house of Dathan, an Israelite foreman. Dathan’s wife was beautiful, and the Egyptian desired her. The woman’s name was Shlomit, daughter of Divri, of the tribe of Dan. Later, when Dathan had left to see to his work, Shlomit became pregnant with the child of the Egyptian administrator. This child is said to later become the blasphemer. Now, it is also said in this Midrash that the Egyptian whom Moses killed and buried was the father of the blasphemer—the Egyptian administrator. So, when the blasphemer is brought to Moses for judgment, Moses knows the punishment is death. However, he does not want to tell that to the blasphemer, his reason being that he-Moses-had killed the blasphemer’s father. If he sentences the blasphemer to death as well, people may think that Moses does not like the family, and therefore the Israelites will not trust him. Rabbi Heller differs, suggesting that maybe Moses did know the punishment is death, but he did not know what manner of death.
In some ways, this story is similar to one about a stick gatherer, where again Moses deliberates before pronouncing a punishment. A man goes out among the tents of Israel, collecting sticks on Shabbat. God had previously told Israel not to do work on Shabbat. When the man is brought to Moses for judgment, some think Moses knows the punishment is death, but hesitates and decides to hold the man under guard while consulting with God, because he does not want to be known throughout Israel as merciless. Some say Moses wants to check with God, to make sure, because he is unsure or uncertain. Some, like Abarbanel, the 15th century Spanish scholar, say that Moses does not know what to do, since he does not know if that man is considered a Jew or not. Others propose Moses’ hesitancy is because the punishment is so severe, and he needs to be certain before ending a life.
With all this debate, why then is the name of the blasphemer never revealed, while the name of his mother, grandmother, and tribe are? In the words of Rabbi Telushkin, “Why do we need such a lengthy presentation of this anonymous punk’s family and kin?” The Midrash above states that Shlomit, the mother of the blasphemer, thinks that when she was pregnant, she was pregnant with her husband’s child, not the child of the Egyptian administrator. Nevertheless, she is still referred to as a prostitute. Some feel the blasphemer’s evil is natural, since he comes from ‘evil roots.’ This Midrash also states that the name Shlomit comes from the word ‘Shalom,’ and Shlomit was too friendly, going around and saying ‘Shalom’ to everyone. Notice that Shlomit’s mother’s name, Divri, comes from the word diber, or ‘speak.’ It appears that Divri, also, was overly friendly with people. Rashi says the wicked bring shame upon themselves, their parents and their tribe. So, whenever someone does something evil, such as blaspheming God, the people who influenced them to do so must be mentioned, to make them ashamed. It is likewise if someone does something wonderful for his/her tribe. Another possibility of why the names of his mother, grandmother, and tribe are mentioned, but his and his father’s are not, is that his father is dead. In those days, people were called, “Emma, daughter of Robert, son of Benjamin, of the tribe of whomever,” but the blasphemer’s father had been killed, so instead his mother’s name was mentioned.
Why does this story seem to randomly appear among priestly laws? Rabbis agree that the story of the blasphemer teaches us not to revile God. It is there to show us that if we do not follow the rules of God, we will be severely punished.
Rabbi Heschel notes the difference in punishment between the stick-gatherer and the blasphemer. The stick gatherer is destroyed with stones, in the plural, indicating that the many different stones represented many different opinions. In the blasphemer’s story, all who heard him blaspheme stone him, in the singular form, since they all agree on the punishment. Heschel also states that the evil serve as great teachers, setting an example of evil, and teaching others, by example, what not to do.
The Women’s Torah Commentary says that the blasphemer does something only priests were allowed to do, challenging the privilege of priesthood. The Women’s Torah Commentary also says that later, when the land of Israel is finally reached, the tribe of Dan had their own kind of priests, not really following the rules. They say this story is here to shame the tribe of Dan and warn others to respect the privilege of the Levites.
Now I would like to present my own opinions about this story, beginning with the term blasphemy. I believe that blasphemy is either uttering the tetragrammaton, or using any name of God inappropriately or withour reverence. The pronunciation of the tetragrammaton may have been widely known in biblical times since it was revealed to Moses and the priests. I think the punishment for the blasphemer is so great because the blasphemer is misusing his gift of speech. God gave people speech to worship Him, and to elevate Man above the level of the beasts. Speech should not be used to curse God, and the blasphemer abused this privilege.
I do think Moses knew that the punishment for the blasphemer was death, but he wanted to check with God, to make sure he was doing the right thing. Moses did not want to be accused of taking an innocent life. As a bat mitzva, I recognize that I am now responsible for the mitzvot, which Heschel calls “the antidote to evil,” and my actions as a Jew reflect on my family, this congregation, and the entire Jewish community. I also appreciate the privilege of speech and the responsibility I have to use it wisely.
I think the name of the mother, grandmother, and tribe are only following the tradition of that time, but I also agree with Rashi—the evil bring shame upon themselves, their parents, and their tribe. My name identifies me, my family, my heritage and religion, so as I must not abuse the privilege of speech. My behavior must appropriately represent those in my community.
I think the story should be thought of as simply defining a law. My reason is that if there was merely a law stating, ‘do not revile or blaspheme God,’ would everyone follow it? No! The story of the blasphemer is here to indicate that if we revile God, we will be severely punished. A story like this is likely to be remembered more than a simple statement of law. For instance, I was intrigued by this story and its placement, and decided to discuss it today. Perhaps its position in Leviticus is meant to make us question and give it attention. If so, it worked for me, and I enjoyed the variety of opinions and the privilege to decide for myself what I choose to believe.
I recently saw the Broadway play Wicked. The author of the book Wicked, Gregory Maguire, writes books based on the point of view of an alternative character. In Wicked’s case, this character is the Wicked Witch of the West from L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. What would the story about the blasphemer be like if told from the perspective of the unidentified man? Would we learn that he was provoked, abused or misunderstood, or discriminated against because he did not have a Jewish father? Obviously we will never know, and we must hope the witnesses were honest, but I wonder what Gregory Maguire’s story about the blasphemer would be like….
Now, before I melt, I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank my tutor Ruthie Greenblatt for helping me prepare for this day, making my tallit, and for preparing her delicious cocoa. I would like to thank my parents and my sister Anna for their support and patience, and my family and friends who made such an effort to be here today. Last, I would like to thank the BEKIcommunity and Rabbi Tilsen and his family for being so welcoming. Thank you.