Responsibility, Respect and Righteousness – Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)

Do you sometimes get tired of someone who preaches in your ear about his or her special cause? Do you get bored? Do you turn off even if you do not turn away? And then do you feel guilty about behaving that way? And do you hear that preacher playing on that guilt to reinforce his or her message and cry out louder and more often so that the voice not only becomes a bore but becomes a drill as if the bearer of that voice was not just dead to your ears but dedicated to making you deaf and dead as well?

Emor (אֱמֹר) in Hebrew means “speak.” When is an individual, more particularly, when is a Jew obligated to speak to others, to preach, to raise issues and try to proselytize for a cause? Obviously, anyone can speak about any concern to others at any time. But when are all people obligated to speak? And about what issues? And to what end? When and about what are we all obligated to speak? And when are we obligated not to speak? When does speech become blasphemy? And how is the blasphemer to be punished?

This parashah notes the holy days specifically for Jews, but chapter 23 begins with the commandment to everyone to keep shabbat.

ג  שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, תֵּעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן מִקְרָא-קֹדֶשׁ, כָּל-מְלָאכָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ:  שַׁבָּת הִוא לַיהוָה, בְּכֹל מוֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם. 3 Six days shall work be done; but on the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation; ye shall do no manner of work; it is a sabbath unto the LORD in all your dwellings. (Leviticus 23:3)

Shabbat is not just a Jewish holy day. It is a universal holy day. Twelve times the Torah insists that we keep shabbat. Not just Jews. Everyone. Exodus 20:7-10 commands everyone, all peoples, to remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, and not do any manner of work or cause anyone under one’s authority and power to work, for in six days God made heaven and earth and rested on the seventh day. God blessed the Sabbath and hallowed it for all of humanity.

All peoples are commanded to have a day of rest on the seventh day of every week, whether that seventh day falls on a Friday, a Saturday or a Sunday. The Torah does not tell us when the first day of the week shall begin but only that the final day of a week shall be celebrated as a day of rest, as a holy day, separate from the rest of the week. Some days, like shabbat, are holy days for everyone. However, in Exodus 16:22-30 and 31:12-17, God commanded the Israelites in particular to keep and observe the Sabbath throughout their generations. Why? Because the sabbath is a sign between God and the children of Israel forever. The sabbath is a sign that there is a special covenant between God and the Jews.

Some holy days are also only holy for Jews. For example, only Jews are obligated to observe the holy days of the three pilgrimage festivals of Pesach (Passover), Shavuot and Sukkot though also on the holy days of Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). They are of particular holyness to and for Jews. All of humanity is obligated to rest on the seventh day of a week and not to make anyone else work on that day. But while shabbat is a day of rest for everyone, it is also a covenantal sign for Jews.

What does it mean for everyone to have a universal obligation, and where the universal obligation is to rest and not work, but for one people to have a special obligation on that day to keep shabbat as a sign of a covenantal relationship between Jews and Gods? It instructs Jews that they are not only, like all humans, the children of God, that all humans are equal with equal rights and responsibilities, but that Jews have a special responsibility to partner with God in maintaining and improving the world. It does not mean that other people do not have such a responsibility. It does mean that as a Jew, one is obligated to take up that responsibility. Jews have a special burden.

That means that Jews are only a nation like other nations in some respects. In other respects, they have an exceptional duty. The claim for exceptionalism is often resented by other peoples. But it should not be. It need not be. For anyone is entitled to take up the same responsibilities. But Jews qua Jews must assume those responsibilities. Failure to do so is a failure to be a Jew. Further, shabbat itself is a holy convocation.

That means that on shabbat you are obligated not to speak about some subjects. You are obligated not to speak of your work. You are obligated not to speak about business. You are obligated not to carry the burdens and responsibilities for all of humanity on one’s shoulders and carry your words outside your private houses or your houses of worship into other people’s homes and through the city gates. Jews, however, are obligated to speak. On shabbat, they have a special obligation to speak about the future, to be an early warning messenger, to warn one’s children and the children of everyone not to become contaminated with the dead, with those who have given up on the task to preserve and enhance life.

However, there is a corollary to this obligation. Do not be a self-righteous asshole. Do not go around preaching seven days of the week to others about their obligations. There is an obligation for you to speak up on the sabbath but for the rest of the week to give your warnings a six-day rest. Jews have a special responsibility to warn the world about when the world is falling into ethical or natural disrepair. But the rest of the week is reserved for doing your own work and carrying out your own business. Unless your business is specifically to be a town crier, to be a journalist or a politician or an advocate. But everyone else is free of such obligations for the rest of the week so they can pursue their own personal business and their own work to support their families.

Only on shabbat, are Jews obligated to listen to sermons about genocides and famines, about irresponsibility and treachery, about human failures and fissures. The irony is that though they are free from work one day of the week, they are free from any obligation to speak of or listen to the preaching on the righteous or to be a righteous preacher lest one become a bore to themselves and to everyone else.

If someone tells you that you do not care about the rights of animals, that you should not eat beef because of all the methane gas released by cattle that contribute to global warming, that you should drive an electric car or even not drive at all, you can politely ask them to stop burning up your ears for they, the righteous, have an obligation not to be self-righteous, not to try to shove messages down the throats of others, and to leave everyone alone who wants to focus on their everyday responsibilities and duties.

For while we have a responsibility towards the world, and, as Jews, a special responsibility for the repair of the world, we have a divine right to be free of moral hectoring – not of being moral – for six days of the week. That does not mean we are free of our responsibilities on those days of the week. It does mean that we are free of any obligation to listen to speeches and arguments about how to make the world a better place and where and how the world is falling apart. Do not feel guilty when a self-righteous moralist tries to remind you of your failures to humanity on the business days of the week. For the righteous then become self-righteous, so in love with themselves and their own messaging that they forget their obligation to respect another. For though Jews are obligated as a nation to become a nation of priests, every Jew is not obligated to assume such a burden.

The preacher must be righteous but not self-righteous, so caught up with love for his message and his knowledge about a cause that he forgets the concerns and worries of the others. To be righteous is to defend a righteous cause. To be self-righteous is to become indulgent in the pursuit of speaking about that cause. Responsibilities towards the world must be bounded by respect for the other and for the otherness of the Other.

It is one thing to proclaim the word. It is another to claim a superior ownership of the word. It is one thing to be righteous. It is another to be self-righteous. It is one thing to want to repair the world, to eliminate nuclear arms or weapons of mass destruction, to be a peacemaker and a deliverer of vaccines to the rest of the world. It is another to insist that everyone else be an animal lover, a tree hugger, a protector of old growth forests and an opponent of throwing our garbage into the seas. There are as many causes as there are people. We all have obligations about each of these issues, but not an obligation to listen to sermonizing about each and every one of them or even an obligation to listen to even one of them six days of the week.  

My message is simple. It is immoral and unethical to be a self-righteous preacher, to demand and expect an Other to be caught up in your favourite cause. It is immoral to be self-righteous. For one forgets then to respect the Other. One carries forth responsibilities into irresponsibility for not only do prospective listeners turn off their hearing devices, but the preacher in his or her self-congratulation and sense of superiority betrays and undermines his own message thereby contributing to the death and disrepair of the world rather than its healing. The prophet defiles him or herself by that contact with the dead and, in the cause of life, becomes contaminated, becomes a defiler of life. The priest in effect becomes impure.

It is one thing to teach as a witness and another to teach as a prosecutor reminding others of their failings. It is one thing to make oneself available and willing to talk on the subject of greatest concern to you. It is another to insist the same subject should be the major or a major concern of an Other. To be a partner of God is to invite others to be partners with oneself. But an authoritarian posture is not the position of a partner.

There is always a hierarchy of preachers, the high priests or the Kohanim, the Levites who serve to spread the messages of the Kohanim and the Israelites who assume a special responsibility for repairing and saving the world. But the most important of all is the one who has not yet learned to speak. Further, the most important person to listen to according to the Mishnah is the intelligent child of ostracized parents whose insights surpass those of the High Priest of the realm who may be the instantiation of gross ignorance and insensitivity.

To be a preacher, a messenger or a responsible member of a special community may entitle one to speak, but not to speak too often, may entitle one to ask others to listen, but not to ask them when they are busy with their personal business six days of the week. But one is always obligated to listen oneself. If one is a Maoist or a revolutionary, one may demand everyone’s attention and then, eventually command everyone’s obedience in the pursuit of an ostensible goal. But then one forfeits one’s partnership with God to become a monopolistic owner of a moral code. If a people become subservient to singular dictatorial individual, they choose infantilization, to choose not even to grow into children. But if they also submit to a purportedly all-powerful and all-knowing God, they also become infantilized, but this time in subservience to the Other from another rather than this world. In either case, there is no partnership. In one, the person becomes so dedicated to repairing the world in a singular way that he or she contributes to its destruction. In the other alternative, one sacrifices oneself to the other world (utopian or heavenly) at the cost of this one. The world-to-come rather than this world takes priority.

In a true partnership with God, God is a judge independent of power and interests and not an executor. Without a partner, one becomes a blasphemer, an individual who speaks disrespectfully of sacred things. The most sacred thing for God is a human. When the preacher becomes self-righteous, that preacher disrespects God’s creatures and instead of expressing his or her devotion to truth or beauty or goodness, the preacher becomes a profaner of the spirit of God. Speaking is turned into profanity. To speak as a self-righteous expression of pure piety is to speak impiously rather than with piety, to be irreverent rather than respectful and responsible.

We teachers must learn when to speak (seldom), when to hear (often) and when to listen (at all times). When the speaker becomes a preacher, and the preacher becomes a proselytizer, and when the proselytizer becomes a self-righteous bore and borer, metaphorically, others have not only a right but an obligation to cut his or her tongue out.

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