Friday, April 26, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Emor 5773-The Half-Israelite Blasphemer

Emor is a particularly full parasha. It contains so many things. It starts with rules that regulate the lives of the priests. Next we get a calendar of holy days and festivals. Then we are told about the continually burning lamps for the sanctuary, and the showbreads. Finally, we have laws that deal with profaning G”d’s name, murder, and injury to others (the lex talionis.)

I have addressed most of these topics in some form in previous musings. Today I’d like to explore one that I haven’t examined before.

The rules regarding profaning G”d’s name are expounded using an illustrative event. Immediately following the description of the showbread, a man with an Israelite mother and Egyptian father “comes forth” and gets into an argument with another man (presumably a “full-blooded Israelite.) During this argument, the “son of an Israelite mother,” that is, a presumed “half-blood” utters G”d’s name, the Tetragrammaton, which is blasphemy. He is brought before Moses, who orders him taken outside the camp to be stoned (to death.) Moses than issues a decree that anyone who curses (blasphemes) G”d shall bear their guilt, and anyone who actually says G”d’s name in blaspheming shall be stoned to death. This then leads to a restatement of the lex talionis – life for life, tooth for tooth, eye for eye, etc.

I don’t even know where to begin in describing my utter contempt for this bit of Torah. I’m not even talking about the lex talionis, with which I certainly have issues, but this incident with the blasphemer.  It starts from the beginning when the blasphemer is labeled as less then 100% pure Israelite. He is “son of a woman who is an Israelite, and son of a father who is Egyptian” is a reasonably direct translation of the Hebrew.   It has surely been emphasized enough times that the Israelites and the mass multitude who traveled with them would be treated to the same justice and expected to follow the same rules. Moses, in point of fact, tells the Israelite that, Israelite or stranger, the blasphemer is subject to the same punishment. Why, then, was it necessary to identify the blasphemer as not “fully” Israelite?

“Son of an Israelite woman” is the Torah’s politically correct way of giving his status. There is no mistaking what that means, for the verse right before it is the one that says he is son of a Israelite woman and Egyptian father. Well, the son of an Israelite woman and the son of an Egyptian. It’s a subtle distinction. Every time the Torah says things like “between this and between that” rather than “between this and that”  or “son of x and son of y” instead of “son of x and y” we should take notice. Yes, some of it is a peculiarity of ancient Hebrew syntax, however, we cannot be certain this is always the only reason.

So why couldn’t this story have been told differently, simply involving two men (or even women,) or two Israelites? Why mention the blasphemer’s status at all? The rabbis have fun with this, spinning wonderful little midrashim. The midrash identify this blasphemer as the son of the Egyptian overseer that Moses had killed after observing him treating an Israelite harshly. The midrash says that the woman identified in the Torah as the blasphemer’s mother, Shlomit bat Dibri was a woman who was immodest and too warm and friendly. The Egyptian overseer encountered her overly friendly (flirtatious?) manner when coming to call her husband to work on morning. He then snuck back and had his way with Shlomit. Her husband observed the overseer leaving his house later that day. Fearing discovery, the overseer harshly beat the husband, and it was this that Moses saw and stopped by killing the overseer. The blasphemer, it seems, was the son of this overseer, and, in his blasphemy, was merely living up to the expectation of his ignominious siring. Observing that the laws for the showbread would likely result in stale bread to be eaten (the showbread was prepared before Shabbat, and left on display for the week, and then following the next Shabbat, distributed to the priests) he mocked G”d. That wasn’t enough for the rabbis. They go on to say that the blasphemer, who actually preferred living outside the main encampment among the “impure” decided to move his tent to inside the encampment, and pitched it within the area of the tribe of Dan.  A man challenged his right to do so, saying that the order of tribal encampment is dependent upon lineage from the father, thus he had no rights here. He went to the Beit Din, and they ruled against him. Apparently not being fully aware of his own lineage, the blasphemer asks “who was my father” and is told that he was the Egyptian killed by Moses. Not only that, but Moses killed him simply by pronouncing the Divine name. It was then that the blasphemer said G”d’s name and was brought before Moses for punishment.

So the midrash provides an interesting rationale for why the blasphemer said G”d’s name, but it doesn’t really address the issue of why it mattered that he was only “half Israelite” except as an explanation of why he might have been inclined to do so by nature. Surely no full-blooded Israelite would be similarly inclined. Right. Nice bridge in Brooklyn available for a decent price.

If there was ever a piece of text that betrayed humankind’s handiwork in the creation of the Torah, this is surely one. For all we know, the story may have been altered from the original. Perhaps originally the blasphemer was an (full-blooded) Israelite. Or perhaps the blasphemer, because he was not fully Israelite, was given a lesser punishment (or a greater punishment) just be virtue of that status.

It’s ugly, ugly, ugly. Especially when Moses goes on to clearly say that anyone, Israelite or resident stranger, who blasphemes, gets the same punishment.

In today’s Jewish world, we hear terms like “half-Jewish” bandied about all the time.  Some view the very term as oxymoronic, or offensive. Others were it proudly. (There’s a site called, and a book entitled “Half-Jewish: A Celebration” among other manifestations of the proud “half-Jewish” movement.) The whole thing is further complicated by our own history, in which patrilineal descent was originally normative, until that was changed by the rabbis in the Mishnah. Further complicated today by disagreements among the various movements in Judaism on the matter of mixed parentage and matrilineal descent.

Since the rabbis changed descent to matrilineal out of pure practicality, why cannot we, in our own time, change things yet again and accept either patrilineal or matrilineal descent. Isn’t having fewer Jews the last thing we want to make happen? I recognize this is controversial, and I respect the opinions of Jews who disagree with my understandings and interpretations. However, I do feel very strongly about this issue. There is simply no good reason to exclude anyone born of a even one Jewish parent (even if that parent is male) who wishes to be included, from the Jewish community . (I won’t even begin to tackle the subject of conversion. That’s for another day.)

Then, of course, we have to deal with the rabbi’s ease in declaring Shlomit bat Dibri a wanton woman. Oh, her son is a blasphemer, and her husband was an Egyptian. She must have loose morals. (It’s like Aaron getting away with complaining about Moses’ Cushite wife, while Miriam gets punished. Just more misogyny in the Torah.) Did it ever occur to the rabbis that maybe the blasphemer was the son of a rape victim? Actually, it probably did. They pretty much considered every possibility. It likely made them too uncomfortable to talk about, so they found another explanation. Blame the victim. She wanted it. She shook her patooties at the Overseer, so she got what she deserved.

I pretty much even skirted around the question of why the blasphemer’s mother’s name is even mentioned at all. It presented a nice puzzle for the rabbis to address, but it still doesn’t make much sense. So few women are even mentioned in the Torah, so why is this one included, especially when her son was a blasphemer stoned to death?

One other point that gets overlooked (although some of the rabbinic and medieval commentators do mention it in passing) relates to the rabbinic understanding that one must be warned in advance of committing a capital punishment crime of the potential consequences of that crime. As the decree proclaiming blasphemy and uttering the Divine name was made after the incident of the blasphemer, how could he have known. Under the rabbinic understanding, this man should not have been put to death. Yet he was. I guess that’s because G”d trumps all, and because we don’t see the Torah as linear. How convenient.

My head is just spinning and whirling with thoughts and ideas about this bit of troubling text in our parasha. I know I shall spend a good deal of my Shabbat continuing to engage with it an trying to come to terms with it. I heartily recommend the same activity to you.

Shabbat shalom,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Emor 5772-Eternal EffortII: We Have Met the Ner Tamid and It Is Us
Emor 5771-B'yom HaShabbat, B'yom HaShabbat
Emor 5770 - G"d's Shabbat II
Emor 5767-Redux and Revised 5761-Eternal Effort
Emor 5766 - Mum's the Word (Redux 5760 with new commentary for 5766)
Emor 5765-Out of Sync
Emor 5764-One Law for All
Emor 5763-Mishpat Ekhad
Emor 5758-Gd's Shabbat
Emor 5759-Lex Talionis
Emor 5760-Mum's the Word
Emor 5761-Eternal Effort


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