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Blaming the Blasphemer – Parshat Emor 5774

For a printable Pdf click here: Parshat Emor -Blaming the Blasphemer

The ‘Blame’ Culture: Freud v Adler

We live today in a ‘blame culture’. We see it in the news, we hear on talk shows, we even feel it in our homes from our children. Often I hear my children discussing school and talking about the fact that this and that child behaved badly because the teacher picked on them, or the Principle treated her badly. In London a few summers ago there were serious riots that involved the looting and destruction of many shops and buildings, and even caused some deaths. It was caused mainly by the youth of society. The initial response by the media and politicians was to blame the events on what they called ‘bad parenting’. They claimed that lack of parental control and boundary enforcements were responsible for the behaviour that caused these events. I was totally flabbergasted by some media outlets that sought to understand why these youth would behave in such a uncouth way through holding the government accountable for not ‘helping’ the parents to financially provide for their children. They attested that the unstable financial environment was the key to understating why the correct moral education and basic ethical principles had not been installed in their children. Months later once research had been done on the age of the youth involved and their backgrounds investigated, it was proved that the majority of those who looted were age 18 and over, hence legally responsible for their own actions.   In many cases the rioters and looters came from stable and middle class families, some of whom were university students.[1] The initial impulse to ‘blame’ the teenager’s behaviour on their unfortunate circumstances or parental lack of control, was not consistent with reality. For some reason society today is scared to turn round to the youth and say ‘Your circumstances and upbringing do not determine who you are. Our future is made by the choices we make in the present, not the choices our parents made in the past’. We must engage with the children of today, teaching them that they and only they are responsible for their behaviour.

Two renowned psychotherapists, Sigmund Freud and Arthur Adler, the latter a student of the former, disagreed on this principle. Whilst Freud’s thinking was deterministic, believing that future behaviour was determined essentially by the past and hence man had little control over his present choices, Adler disagreed. His belief was that whilst of course our past is important and may determine elements of our makeup, it need not be the foundation of understanding our current actions. Instead his therapy focused on the present, alerting the person to his continuous ability to make choices and decisions that are not determined by the past. This week we marked Yom Hashoa – Holocaust Memorial Day. What I think makes the day so poignant and remarkable living in Israel, is to simply look around us. Surrounded by a state less than 66 years old, developed in ways that continue to astound and amaze the world, it is truly a lesson in the aptitude of the human mind to recover. The survivors of the greatest atrocity committed did not bury themselves in grief, blaming, accusing and playing the victims. They focused instead on becoming builders, dreamers, dedicated to freedom and rekindling the light of the Jewish future for their children and grandchildren. Instead of ‘blaming’ the past they invested all their energies into ‘building’ the future.[2] I believe that this tension between being the victim of our pasts or the creator of our future, is one that is explored, perhaps subversively, in this week’s Parsha, specifically related to the strange narrative of the blasphemer.

The Incident of the Blasphemer:

Parshat Emor explores topics such as the laws of Terumah, the defects that prevent a person or Kohen from sacrificing and the correct type of animal for sacrifice, the prohibition of desecrating God’s name and the obligation to sanctify it and the Chagim (which have been mentioned before but never in the context of kedusha). The common thread that ties these topics together is that they all relate to a means through which we create relationship with God. In other words they describe the conditions that must be met in order that the item (animal/time/festivals) or person (Kohen/ordinary man) is used as a vehicle through which to relate to and worship God. To engage in a relationship with an ephemeral being means we are obligated to meet all the relevant requirements and conditions through which to connect to Him, be it the animals we sacrifice, our physical bodies or the festival/time. Each vehicle must be sanctified, elevated and correctly constructed so that the relationship created between Man and God is precisely balanced.

With this in mind we move to a strange narrative that is presented at the very end of the Parsha. Besides the story of Nadav and Avihu, it is the only other narrative in Sefer Vayikra – the story of the blasphemer. In the same way that the story of Aaron’s sons is cloaked in ambiguity and mystery, this story too is enigmatic, lacking details and context, hence making it difficult to decipher its exact significance. The story is described in the following manner:

יוַיֵּצֵא,בֶּן-אִשָּׁה יִשְׂרְאֵלִית, וְהוּא בֶּן-אִישׁ מִצְרִי, בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵייִשְׂרָאֵל; וַיִּנָּצוּ, בַּמַּחֲנֶה, בֶּן הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִית, וְאִישׁהַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִי. יאוַיִּקֹּב בֶּן-הָאִשָּׁה הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִית אֶת-הַשֵּׁם, וַיְקַלֵּל, וַיָּבִיאוּאֹתוֹ, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וְשֵׁם אִמּוֹ שְׁלֹמִית בַּת-דִּבְרִי, לְמַטֵּה-דָן. יבוַיַּנִּיחֻהוּ,בַּמִּשְׁמָר, לִפְרֹשׁ לָהֶם, עַל-פִּי יְהוָה.  {פ}יגוַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה,אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. ידהוֹצֵא אֶת-הַמְקַלֵּל, אֶל-מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה, וְסָמְכוּ כָל-הַשֹּׁמְעִיםאֶת-יְדֵיהֶם, עַל-רֹאשׁוֹ; וְרָגְמוּ אֹתוֹ, כָּל-הָעֵדָה. טווְאֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל,תְּדַבֵּר לֵאמֹר:  אִישׁ אִישׁ כִּי-יְקַלֵּל אֱלֹהָיו, וְנָשָׂא חֶטְאוֹ. טזוְנֹקֵב שֵׁם-יְהוָה מוֹתיוּמָת, רָגוֹם יִרְגְּמוּ-בוֹ כָּל-הָעֵדָה:  כַּגֵּר,כָּאֶזְרָח–בְּנָקְבוֹ-שֵׁם, יוּמָת. יזוְאִישׁ, כִּי יַכֶּה כָּל-נֶפֶשׁ אָדָם–מוֹת, יוּמָת. יחוּמַכֵּה נֶפֶשׁ-בְּהֵמָה,יְשַׁלְּמֶנָּה–נֶפֶשׁ, תַּחַת נָפֶשׁ. 

10 And the son of an Israelites woman, whose father was an Egyptian, went out from the children of Israel; and the son of the Israelites woman and a man of Israel strove together in the camp. 11 And the son of the Israelites woman blasphemed the Name, and cursed; and they brought him unto Moses. And his mother’s name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan. 12 And they put him in ward, that it might be declared unto them at the mouth of the LORD. {P} 13 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 14 ‘Bring forth him that hath cursed without the camp; and let all that heard him lay their hands upon his head, and let all the congregation stone him. 15 And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying: Whosoever curseth his God shall bear his sin. 16 And he that blasphemed the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall certainly stone him; as well the stranger, as the home-born, when he blasphemed the Name, shall be put to death. 17 And he that smites any man mortally shall surely be put to death. 18 And he that smites a beast mortally shall make it good: life for life[3].

The text is perplexing bringing to the fore many questions. Firstly why is the narrative placed here in the context of the preceding chapter that described the showbread? What is its relationship to the rest of the topics in Parshat Emor? Who is the man and where does he ‘go out from’? What was the argument about? Who is his mother Shelomit the daughter of Divri and what is her significance to the story? Why is he punished? (the text seems to suggest two reasons – the blaspheming and the striking of another man).   The ancient and modern commentators, as well as the Midrash offer a plethora of ideas, some more convincing than others. They range from suggesting he had ‘come out’ from the court of Moshe who had ruled that he had no right to encamp amongst Dan since he was not a Jew (Sifra Emor 25). He ‘went out’ forfeiting his share in the world to come (Midrash Tanchuma Emor 23). Some suggest the main crime was to blaspheme God (Rashi and Seforno), others suggesting the main sin was to quarrel and strike another Jew (Mechilta Rabbi Shimon Bay Yochai).

My immediate association when reading this story was to see its similarity to a narrative that occurs in Parshat Shemot. [4] There Moshe sees an Egyptian hit an Israelite, he’ sees no man’ and hence metes out the justice he sees fit by hitting and consequently killing the Egyptian. The next day he sees two Israelite men arguing (the same word ניצים is used when the Torah could have used the word ריבים to argue), an Israelite and a Egyptian and he tries to intervene seeking justice through words, the men turn to him in anger ‘who put you in charge of us’. Having recognised the inability to execute justice, or moral reasoning, Moshe flees. I have bought a comparison chart that shows the similarities:וַיִּגְדַּל מֹשֶׁה וַיֵּצֵא אֶל-אֶחָיו, וַיַּרְא, בְּסִבְלֹתָםוַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי, מַכֶּה אִישׁ-עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו

וַיִּפֶן כֹּה וָכֹה, וַיַּרְא כִּי אֵין אִישׁ; וַיַּךְ, אֶת-הַמִּצְרִי, וַיִּטְמְנֵהוּ, בַּחוֹל.  יג וַיֵּצֵא בַּיּוֹם הַשֵּׁנִי, וְהִנֵּה שְׁנֵי-אֲנָשִׁים עִבְרִים נִצִּים; וַיֹּאמֶר, לָרָשָׁע, לָמָּה תַכֶּה, רֵעֶךָ

in those days, when Moses was grown up, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, one of his brethren.

13 And he went out the second day, and, behold, two men of the Hebrews were striving together; and he said to him that did the wrong: ‘Wherefore smitest thou thy fellow?’וַיֵּצֵא, בֶּן-אִשָּׁה יִשְׂרְאֵלִיתו

הוּא בֶּן-אִישׁ מִצְרִי, בתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

וַיִּנָּצוּ, בַּמַּחֲנֶה

10 And the son of an Israelite woman, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the children of Israel; and the son of the Israelite woman and a man of Israel strove together in the camp. 11 And the son of the Israelitish woman blasphemed the Name, and cursed; and they brought him unto Moses. And his mother’s name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan. 12 And they put him in ward, that it might be declared unto them at the mouth of the LORD

The stories utilize similar language, making it impossible to ignore the linguistic as well as the thematic parallel.  But what exactly is the Torah teaching us through this comparison and how does it answer the dilemmas presented in the narrative? I want to suggest that one answer may lie with both Adler and a dissonance that can be felt often between sanctity and morality. In the book of Shemot we are told of Moshe’s upbringing, which was inconsistent to say the least. Pulled between two cultures, two languages, two mothers, two worlds, it is no surprise that Moshe is uncertain of his own identity. Having been given everything he needed, having been spoilt in materialism and plenitude, and having known that he could ‘blame’ his ills on his unstable early life, in a Freudian reality Moshe could have been a very different person. Instead we see a man who looks at his present situation, who goes out from his world, not to ‘leave’ his responsibilities and obligations to morality and humanity, but rather to engage in the injustice he feels so deeply in his bones. There is no doubt in his mind, and in the mind of the reader, that the reality in Egypt was unjust and immoral. What Moshe does, may be ‘illegal’ but it is certainly not ‘unjust’ or ‘immoral’. He sees someone suffering and he intervenes to save them. He sees two men arguing and he attempts to arbitrate between them. Moshe is a man who lives in the present. Adopting the Adlerian worldview, he chooses to listen to his inner convictions and not be swayed by his past. He is a man that resolves to create his own future, and not be determined by the path laid out for him.

The incident of the Blasphemer that we read in our Parsha is complex, in many ways heart breaking and most certainly difficult to grapple with. The Midrash as well as many commentators suggest that the man in question is a mamzer [5]-that his mother – Shelomit bat Divri was either raped or had an illicit relationship with an Egyptian man. [6] If this is the case, which for our purposes we will presume it to be, then this man who has a ‘double identity’, feels as if he does not belong. Much like Moshe in the Palace of Paroah, he does not belong in either world. He has self doubts and complexities. He blames his mother, his father, the Jews and the laws of their God for his unfortunate circumstances. In so many ways we cannot help but sympathise with him, ‘who can blame him for feeling this way’, is our instinctive response. It is not the ‘fault’ of his mother who may have been raped, and it is not his fault that he was born into such a status. And yet……

On Morality and Sanctity:

In Parshat Shemot we see a man, Moshe, execute his reckoning of justice. It is a morality that is obvious, black and white, autonomously felt by all readers. Clear, simple, unambiguous. Good and Evil, just and unjust. But when is the world really ever this way? When is it a clear unabated call between good and bad? When do we know for certain that our actions are going to reap the ultimate good without any untoward consequences? That is why we need sanctity coupled with morality. That is why we require a greater power called God. That is why we have Sefer Vayikra. There is an innate morality, and inner conviction, an initial intuition that we call ‘good’ or ‘moral’. And then there are situations where we are unsure of what we are to do. There are laws of the Torah and narratives that make us cringe, we feel uncomfortable, we resort to apologetics, we try anything to make ourselves feel better about something that doesn’t fit into our framework of morality. Vayikra does talk about the good and the moral, but it also addresses the notion of the Holy which at times seems incongruous with the former. At the start of Sefer ShemotGod is apparently absent. There is no voice of sanctity only the human voice of subjective morality. Sefer Vayikra presents the voice of morality and sanctity- human and divine. The blasphemer is punished for two infractions; cursing God and striking a fellow man. The first falls into the category of sanctity, not obviously immoral or unjust, the second is clearly immoral. One has logic other doesn’t but for both reasons the man stoned. At the start of Sefer Shemot there is anarchical world because there is neither morality and no sanctity. This is exemplified by the response of the Jewish men who are arguing to Moshe; ‘Who put you in charge’ – where there is no moral authority, either human or divine there can be no true freedom.

The man we encounter in our Parsha who blasphemes God and attacks a fellow person, has misunderstood the essence of Vayikra and sanctity. To initiate a relationship with God the vehicle through which I engage in that relationship must be holy/Kadosh. At times, as I discussed in a previous article,[7] we understand kedusha, at other times it belongs to the realm of God. It is easy to understand that time must be sanctified for us to ‘meet’ with God, and less easy to comprehend why a Priest with a physical disability cannot enter the sanctuary. It may be easier to understand why the vehicle used for sanctifying God – language – should not be used to curse him or conduct inappropriate discourse, than to grasp why the mamzer, created out of a unholy relationship is forever cursed.   And yet they are all part of the Torah, they all fall within the context of discussions on Kedusha and hence they must all be regarded with the same import.   The blasphemer, like the looters we discussed at the start, blames his circumstances. Instead of making the best of his situation, of living in the present, of engaging with his people despite his status, he gets stuck in his past. He adopts a Freudian perspective of reality rather than moving to an Adlerian one.

The dissonance between Justice and Empathy:

The Good and the Holy in our world are not one and the same, they can never be, and it is precisely because they are not, that we continue to fight for the ‘mamzerim’ and the ‘agunot’ and those we see as having been mistreated by the laws of the Torah, and so it should be. The minute we feel no sympathy for that man, is the moment we have lost our humanity. But we must also realise that in some other reality the good and the holy are one and the same. It is a perspective we cannot understand but Vayikra teaches us to be attuned to its existence. Our job is to teach our youth the lesson of responsibility and choice. We must show them that our choices are not determined and that because of that we have been given the greatest task by God to be partners with Him in this world to solve the situations we pertain to be unjust. We must continue in the path of our teacher Moshe in fighting from our very core what we perceive to be unjust, but equally sharing a strong commitment to the notions of sanctity and holy as laid out in Vayikra…..for there really is so much we do not and cannot possibly understand.

There is one midrash that does not buckle to apologetics or reasoning and presents the dilemma in all it emotive power. Discussing the fate of mazerim it says:

“I further observed all the oppression that goes on under the sun: the tears of the oppressed, with no one to comfort them; and the power of their oppressors—with none to comfort them” (Ecclesiastes 4:1). Daniel, the tailor, interpreted this verse as pertaining to mamzerim. “The tears of the oppressed”: their mothers transgressed, and these poor ones are excluded; this one’s father committed incest, but what has he done and why should he be affected. (There is) “none to comfort him,” (but rather they are subjected to) “the power of their oppressors”: this refers to Israel’s Great Sanhedrin, who come at them with Torah’s power and exclude them, applying (the verse,) “no mamzer shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord’” (Devarim 23:3). “None to comfort them”—the Holy One says “It is for me to comfort them.” [8]

As humans, it is our role to both execute justice, but also to comfort those being punished. It is a role that at times only a Divine power is capable of doing.   I think this contradiction is the key to understanding the last verse in the narrative. The people having heard the ruling pertaining to this man must stone him to death. The torah then relays that:

כג וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיּוֹצִיאוּ אֶת-הַמְקַלֵּל אֶל-מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה, וַיִּרְגְּמוּ אֹתוֹ אָבֶן; וּבְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל עָשׂוּ, כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה אֶת-מֹשֶׁה. 

23 And Moses spoke to the children of Israel, and they brought forth him that had cursed out of the camp, and stoned him with stones. And the children of Israel did as the LORD commanded Moses.[9]

Why should we be told that the people did as God told them? Ramban offers a beautiful explanation:

Having already related that the people obeyed Moses and immediately brought out and stones the sinner, the Torah emphasises with this additional phrase that the children of Israel acted in compliance with the Divine order given to Moses, to eliminate evil from their midst, and not motivated by hatred for the son of an Egyptian who had quarrelled with an Israelite.[10]

In other words Ramban is telling us that being created in the image of God, means we must see everyone in that image. Despite the fact that He may have sinned, or caused strife within the camp, we must sympathise with him, feel for him, educate him to act differently, and simultaneously carry out God’s justice. We must not act out of anger, or revenge, but out of the search for justice and truth.

[1] See the LSE and Guardian study of the riots (Reading the Riots). Guardian article December 2011. See the BBC commentary on the riots that blamed government cutbacks and economic policy. See twitter comments and articles by labour MP’s such as Chris Williamson, Ken Livingston, Harriet Harman.

[2] There was a fascinating study done as to why it took so long to bring Eichmann to trial. What the study found was that the holocaust survivors in Israel were uninterested in investing time money and energy into the search for the Nazi perpetrators, preferring instead to focus on their future.

[3] Vayikra 24

[4] Shemot 2:11

[5] An illegitimate child. A mamzer is a child that is born as a result of an adulterous relationship by a married Jewish women, or is born in incites, or is the child of a mamzer.

[6] It is fascinating that the tone of many of the Midrashim that I encountered (Vayikra Raba 32, Piskata Zutrata Shemot 2, Midrash Tehillim 114) was that of ‘blame’, not of the Egyptian but rather of Shelomit. If she had not spoken ‘beshalom – peacefully with the Egyptian she would not have attracted his attention. She was the only one of the people of Israel to ‘marry out’ etc It is as if the Rabbis of the Midrash must present a black and white picture. The incident is so shocking and beyond comprehension, that it needs softening at the edges. If we can find a ‘reason’ that her and her son ‘deserve’ to be treated this way, than it is easier for us to digest.

[8] Vayikra Rabba 32:8

[9] Vayikra 24

[10] Ramban 23:24

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