I am a blasphemer. Not in how I use God’s name as a swear word. I swear very little if at all. I am probably not a blasphemer in contravention of the Third Commandment that instructs us, “not to bear the name of YHWH in vain.” (Exodus 20:7) However, I am a blasphemer deep in my heart and even deeper in my mind. This is not a charge stated lightly or carelessly. Rather, it is an onerous one and is the main reason I find this week’s portion so intriguing.
What is a blasphemer?
Parashat Emor is primarily about the equation of purity and holiness and, more particularly, how priests are to avoid becoming “polluted”. Yet, incongruously, the portion ends with the stoning of the blasphemer just before the law of retaliation (lex talionis) is repeated. The two sides of the sandwich, rules of retaliation and priestly injunctions against pollution, are critical to my understanding of blasphemy and how it should be treated by a community.
Let me begin with the injunction of an eye for an eye, the injunction to retaliate. Verses 24:19-20 read as follows:
|ויקרא כד:יט וְאִ֕ישׁ כִּֽי־יִתֵּ֥ן מ֖וּם בַּעֲמִית֑וֹ כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֔ה כֵּ֖ן יֵעָ֥שֶׂה לּֽוֹ: כד:כ שֶׁ֚בֶר תַּ֣חַת שֶׁ֔בֶר עַ֚יִן תַּ֣חַת עַ֔יִן שֵׁ֖ן תַּ֣חַת שֵׁ֑ן כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר יִתֵּ֥ן מוּם֙ בָּֽאָדָ֔ם כֵּ֖ן יִנָּ֥תֶן בּֽוֹ:||Lev If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him: 24:20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him.|
This is not an abstract imperative to me. Last Monday I was operated on my left eye. It was injured when I was seven-years old. Doctors removed a piece of lead, stitched up my pupil and for over fifty years I could only discern light and dark; through that eye, everything only looked like various shades of a cloud. Once just over twenty years ago when we were driving north on Vaughan Avenue just south of St. Clair Ave. W. and I was in the passenger seat, I suddenly exclaimed aloud, “I can see! I can see!” For the first time in over five decades on the big billboard on the north side I could discriminate actual shapes with my left eye – blurry though they were. I even saw some sort of difference in colour, though, when I checked, not quite what others saw. But the recovery of some sight in the left eye was “a miracle.” I could see with my left eye, not clearly, but see nevertheless.
Over the years since, contrary to the pattern of most people, my sight in that eye gradually improved so that I began to be able to identify shapes and even read very large print. The improvement was attributed to the fact that the scar tissue on my pupil had gradually become smoother over the years and had become more and more transparent. My retina had never been injured. It was suggested that I get laser surgery and there was a good chance that my vision would improve even more.
When I was first told about this, I was informed that there was a risk, not a tiny one but a significant chance that there would be no further improvement and that the improvement in my vision would even be set back. The main reason was that my pupil had been misshapen by the injury and laser surgery would be riskier. I decided not to take the risk and rather enjoyed the gradual improvement in my sight in my left eye over the last two decades.
Then four things happened. First, I had begun to develop cataracts in my eyes, much worse in my partially-sighted left eye than my right, and my vision in that eye had begun to become more blurred again. Second, laser surgery had improved enormously and the chances of success had changed dramatically. Third, my optometrist, whom I saw regularly, seemed more dedicated to improving my eyesight than I was and “insisted” that I see a surgeon. Fourth, in the test for my surgery, at least in one of the tests, the technician put a blackout lens over my right eye and a dark lens with pinholes in it over my left eye. I was asked to read the letters on the screen.
Miracle of miracles! I could read every single letter, right down to the tiny ones on the final line. Clearly, I could even have perfect vision out of that eye if the light was allowed to reach the retina easier and perhaps more directly and more focused. I joyfully acquiesced to the surgery.
A week ago Monday I had the surgery. This Wednesday I went for my follow-up examination. I could read through the left eye all but the bottom row of letters on the black-and-white screen. I had been rewarded with 20/30 vision. Success!
What does this story have to do with a revenge ethic let alone with blasphemy? The full context of the injury helps clarify the relevance. When I was seven-years-old, fifteen months younger than my late older brother (he eventually became a highly-regarded cardiologist), he had just turned nine. As he did his homework at the kitchen table in our house on Ulster Street, I began to tease him mercilessly for having to take school work home and for not finishing everything at school or even dispensing with it quickly when we got home. Finally, in rage and exasperation at the continual interruptions and the constant teasing, he turned and flung his pencil at me. The pencil hit my left eye and the end piece of the lead broke off and remained lodged in my pupil.
That was on a Thursday after school. We did not know the extent of the damage at the time, or that the lead had been lodged in the pupil. My eye just stung and kept watering. The nurse was not in the school on Friday and I was sent to see her first thing on Monday morning. She immediately called my mother and I was rushed to Sick Children’s Hospital in the old building on College Street that now houses the blood bank. I was operated on the same day and spent the next three weeks in the hospital graduating by steps from a black mask to a Lone Ranger mask and then a black pirate patch over my left eye.
Other than eating salty porridge – sugar was still rationed immediately after WWII – my memory of the hospital in a general ward with about twenty other young boys was that we had had a wild great time over the three weeks of my stay. My blind eye has just become a fact about me. Because I had very dark brown eyes, no one noticed that the left pupil was turned upwards unlike my young friend, Charlie Menkes, who had an external scar over his eye where he had been cut. In contrast to me, everyone knew he was blind in his left eye.
What if the law of retribution had been in effect? Would my brother have lost sight in his left eye because he had thrown the pencil? Even though I had provoked the action? After all, the injunction simply stated that, “The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him.” How unjust that would have been! And my late bother might not have become the brilliant medical diagnostician he turned out to be.
The lex talionis was not nuanced like the Hammurabi Code that only required an eye for an eye if a noble had been injured. The person would only have to pay a few shekels if the victim had been a commoner or even half that value if he were a slave. If he was a Mesopotamian, my brother would have been forced to pay me his earnings for perhaps a few hours of work for I too was just a commoner. But we were not Mesopotamians. We were Jews. And the law in the Torah regarded everyone as equal and requiring the same retributive punishment.
The injunction of an eye for an eye is one part of the narrative, the top slice of the sandwich. I have already written about the other side-story, the bottom slice that occurs in Leviticus, God’s sudden slaying of Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadab and Abihu, for who knows what – because they erred as priests in bringing alien fire into the Holy of Holies, because they might have been a bit tipsy, or for a myriad of other rationales that rabbinic authorities have dreamt up to excuse such murderous divine action without giving the victim a hearing or any due process let alone some slack. Unlike alleged pollution of the holy, at least an injured eye only required injuring the eye of the one who caused the injury and not sudden and immediate death. Thank God my brother had only injured me physically and not polluted the purity of God’s holy place. I regard these rare side-stories as perhaps throwing more light on the law than all the details of that law.
Which brings me to the blasphemer. (Leviticus 24:10-12) In the camp, there was a fight between two boys, presumably young adults rather than young boys like my brother and myself. The two boys were not brothers at all. Both mothers were Israelites, but the father of one was an Egyptian while the father of the other was an Israelite. Had the young lad with the Israelite father provoked the other boy by calling him a half-breed? Had the boy with the Egyptian father responded by cursing the Israelite God?
Whatever the back story, the son of the Egyptian father was put in the stocks to await YHWH’s decision about his punishment. Note, there is no indication that the one boy injured the other in the fight, only that he blasphemed God. But was this a different example of retributive punishment? What happened? Presumably God’s honour was far more important than a blinded eye for God ordered the Israelites to take the lad outside the community and stone him.
|ויקרא כד:יג וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֶל מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר:כד:יד הוֹצֵ֣א אֶת הַֽמְקַלֵּ֗ל אֶל מִחוּץ֙ לַֽמַּחֲנֶ֔ה וְסָמְכ֧וּ כָֽל הַשֹּׁמְעִ֛ים אֶת יְדֵיהֶ֖ם עַל רֹאשׁ֑וֹ וְרָגְמ֥וּ אֹת֖וֹ כָּל הָעֵדָֽה:||Lev 24:13 And YHWH spoke to Moses saying, 24:14 “Bring out the curser outside of the camp and all who heard him will lean their hands upon his head, and the whole community will stone him.”|
Was this similar to the treatment meted out to Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadab and Abihu? The treatment of the son of the Egyptian father seems much worse or, at the very least, much gorier. Nadab and Abihu seemed to be instantly consumed by God’s fire. The son of the Egyptian father and the Israelite mother, Shelomith, clearly suffered a much slower and more agonizing death. However, there is an indication that the blasphemous son of the Egyptian father, is, like King Josiah, the real hero of the story. Like Rebecca, the mother of the son with the Egyptian father was Shelomit, daughter of Divri of the tribe of Dan. Such a description was a lofty honorific.
Was racism involved? Was the son of the Egyptian father really being punished for being of “mixed blood” and, therefore, a symbol of the so-called pollution of the nation through intermarriage, through breeding cattle of one kind with cattle of another kind? Did such alleged “pollution” defile Eretz Israel, the Holy Land itself?
That seems not to be the case. The bloody mob execution was not racist. It appears that the text condemns racism. After all, Miriam got a skin disease for chastising Moses for taking an Ethiopian bride. The following verse is even clearer and reads as follows:
|ויקרא כד:טו וְאֶל בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל תְּדַבֵּ֣ר לֵאמֹ֑ר אִ֥ישׁ אִ֛ישׁ כִּֽי יְקַלֵּ֥ל אֱלֹהָ֖יו וְנָשָׂ֥א חֶטְאֽוֹ: כד:טז וְנֹקֵ֤ב שֵׁם־יְ-הֹוָה֙ מ֣וֹת יוּמָ֔ת רָג֥וֹם יִרְגְּמוּ ב֖וֹ כָּל הָעֵדָ֑הכַּגֵּר֙ כָּֽאֶזְרָ֔ח בְּנָקְבוֹ־שֵׁ֖ם יוּמָֽת:||Lev 24:15 And to the children of Israel you will speak, saying: any man who will curse his God will bear his sin. 24:16 And one who will pierce the name of YHWH will surely be put to death. The whole community will surely stone him, like stranger and like citizen; when he pierces the name he will die.”|
It did not matter who cursed God. Israelite or son of an Egyptian were to be treated the same – stoned and murdered for cursing God. Should we be delighted that in this case egalitarian principles of equality before the law trumped racism? Shawna Dolansky a professor at Carleton University whom I have cited favourably before, seems to think so. I myself find this type of compensatory rationale, however valid in bringing out the principle of equality before the law, to be a distraction from the law that required blasphemers to be stoned.
Dr. Serge Frolov finds this injunction to kill blasphemers to be an embarrassment to the religious and body politic of Israel. I, on the other hand, find it intriguing. Perhaps the one who cursed God was not a reference to him in a racist or nationalist sense, but that he was an Egyptian in his heart, that he belonged to the class of people who prevented the Israelites from being liberated. On the other hand, even though he dissed God, perhaps it was he who at this time lived among the Israelites and now stood on the side of liberation and freedom as well as equality. Perhaps he stood as a foil in contrast to those who stone others for using God’s name as a curse word and who demand an eye for an eye. Perhaps the son of the Egyptian was a symbol of one who challenges the premises of both injunctions and argues that the God of Israel is a God of self-revelation, is a God that learns the lessons of excess zealotry and reverence for purity, is a God who gradually, through intercourse with flawed humans, learned too of His own flaws and learned as well to accept responsibility and to diss His inhumanity.
Ignoring for the moment those who simply deride the barbarism of such laws, this stance is quite different from that of most Reform Jews, who avoid discussing such injunctions that they find embarrassing. Others, supply twisted rationales. Still others, mainly a few evangelical Christians, believe that such demands should be taken literally and enforced. Certainly, in their own way from their own sacred texts, Islamicists from the Taliban and ISIS take similar injunctions literally. What about interpreters like myself who try to understand the plot, the characters and the theme in terms of the textual context and the thrust of the narrative?
The story begins with two boys struggling. Unlike Cain and Abel or Jacob and Esau, they are not blood brothers. But they are at odds. But like those stories, in the struggle, the one favoured by God (Abel) or by Isaac (Esau) is not the one that becomes the carrier of the historical narrative. Cain and Jacob win but carry the wounds of that victory similar to the way Jacob limps after wrestling with the angel. Similarly, after an enraged Moses killed the overseer for his barbaric treatment of the Hebrew slave, the next day when he found two Hebrews fighting (Exodus 2:13) and asked why one Hebrew had struck his fellow Hebrew, the striker bravely retorted and asked why Moses was acting so high and mighty. Then he mocked Moses responding, “Do you think you can kill me like you killed the Egyptian?”
This story of the stoning of the son of an Egyptian father and an Israelite mother echoes that one, for the son of the Egyptian God, like Moses, acts out of rage, not to kill as Moses did, but to use God’s name as a curse word. But unlike Moses, the Israelites do not flee for they are now on their own land. Further, it is the Israelites who perform the unseemly violence, not Moses, and not in wrath, but in a cool-headed and cold-hearted belief that they were just inflicting a divinely sanctioned punishment for simply using God’s name in vain.
This fighting (נִצִּים) that takes place in both cases is not simply a physical fight, but a struggle to find the correct path and the norms. And like the pattern throughout the Torah, somehow, the choice originally taken seems the worse one, whether the injunction flouted is one of protecting the purity of the Holy of Holies or the name of the Holy One Himself. It will take humanity to soften and amend the harshness of God’s pristine and inflexible commandments.
That is reason enough to be a blasphemer.
Note that, unlike the case of Aaron’s two sons, towards whom God took umbrage, it is the Israelites who arrest the son of the Egyptian father and Israelite mother for cursing God. God simply delivers the verdict. But God does not get off the hook so easily. We all know the nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never hurt you.” Just as it is totally unjust to take an eye for an eye, it is far worse to take a life simply for dissing God. Unless – an important unless – the name of God is His life essence. Blasphemy is not simply using God’s name as a curse word, but abusing God’s name, God’s reputation.
Is this not like Putin punishing dissidents or Erdoğan arresting Turks for insulting the highest authority in the land or Donald Trump insisting that dedicated civil servants be fired for besmirching the name of The Donald. After all, what else is Trump, for better or for worse, but his brand? Isn’t that true of God? And is it not much more of a blasphemy than using God’s name as a swear word to comparing YHWH to Putin, Erdoğan and Trump? Does that not make me a blasphemer in my heart and mind much more deserving of being stoned than the son of the Egyptian father and Israelite mother who used God’s name as a curse or my brother who, in justified anger, threw a pencil at my eye?
All the twisting of the story to turn it upside down and inside out to insist it is a warning against the Israelites insulting anyone’s god, is a lesson against religiously inspired violence based on the belief that insulting the divine name is a most serious and egregious transgression, is not only beside the point, but a more repulsive apologetic in the name of higher principles than all the Talmudic rabbis who try to justify the injunction.
I am more worthy of being cursed because I challenge not only God’s holiness as giving Him an immunity, but the whole idea of separating the holy and unpolluted from the profane and unpolluted. For the nitty-gritty of ethics is to be found in the profane rather than in any abstract vision of purity or perfection. That is why rabbinic Judaism was superior to either the puritanism of the Essenes or the priestly ritualism, even if it often slipped back into the errors of its close predecessors and contemporaries.
Hail to heartfelt and mindful blasphemers!