By Shlomo Riskin
“Remove the blasphemer to the outside of the camp” (Lev 24:14)
Our Biblical portion of Emor concludes with a strange and almost mythical tale of what appears to be the son of a mixed marriage (“the child of an Israelite woman and of one who is an Egyptian man”) who picks a fight with an Israelite and publicly blasphemes. In response, G-d commands that those who heard his blasphemy must place their hands upon the blasphemer’s head and pelt him with stones (Lev. 24:10-23).
The rather terse Biblical account is fraught with textual difficulties. Why does the Bible delineate the same capital punishment in three separate verses (Lev.24:14, 16, and 23)? And why tell a gossipy tale of mixed marriage as the prelude to the law of the blasphemer? Why not simply record the crime and its punishment, as is usual in the Bible? And if the background story is to be told, why not give all of the details? We are left with many gaps, especially as to the background of the two individuals who intermarry and their son’s attitude to his identity.
The nature of the punishment is also strange. Why do the people who hear the blasphemous words have to place their hands on the head of the criminal? “Laying of the hands” in the Bible generally signifies either a conferral of authority such as when Moses gives over his authority to Joshua (Numbers 27:23) or a transference of guilt such as when the High Priest places the sins of the nation upon the head of the scapegoat (Leviticus 16:21,22). Neither of these symbols applies to the blasphemer.
Finally, the Biblical description of the blasphemer’s punishment concludes with the seemingly superfluous phrase “he shall be pelted, yes, be pelted, by the entire witness – congregation, stranger as well as citizen” (24:16). The next verses in the very same chapter seem to be presenting a totally disparate crime, “If a man smites the soul of another, he shall die, yes die” (24:17). The Bible goes on to record the laws of smiting animals and causing blemishes to other individuals adding kind of obiter dictum: “There shall be one law for you, stranger as well as citizen, for I am the Lord your G-d” (24:22). The chapter concludes by returning to the blasphemer, who is to be removed from the encampment and pelted with stones (24:23). Why all of this extraneous material in the midst of the tale of the blasphemer?
I believe that the Bible is explaining to us what might have caused a Jew to stoop to publicly blaspheming the Lord who had just taken the Israelites out of Egypt with wonders and miracles. The crime was particularly strange since it was a transgression from which the perpetrator derived no “pleasure of the moment” (as in the case of the cohabitation with Midianite women or the orgiastic dancing associated with worshipping the Golden Calf); it only served to express his bitter anger, rebellion and disillusionment.
We have already seen that father Jacob needed to discover and accept his own proud identity. He achieved this by freeing himself from his obsession with the hands of Esau which were internally wreaking havoc with the “wholehearted man, dweller of tents” – his real persona. Only when he had succeeded in doing this could he truly accept “the Lord G-d of Israel” and merit the name Israel. (Indeed each of us receives our basic identity, certainly in the most formative stages of our lives, from our parents, from their sense of identity and from the way in which they relate to each other and to us).
The Midrash, cited by Rashi, gives us a fascinating insight into the parents of this Israelite born to a mixed marriage: his Egyptian father was the taskmaster who smote the Hebrew slave and was, in turn, smitten by Moses. Apparently, this man’s self-image was severely damaged, and he yearned for acceptance by the Hebrews! His mother, Shlomit bat Divri from the tribe of Dan, was constantly chattering (dibur is speech), greeting everyone in sight again and again (“shalom lakh, shalom lakh,” Shlomit would always prattle). She too, desperately sought acceptance from everyone around her, and became easy prey for the sexually promiscuous. Two such parents, who came from two very different cultural backgrounds may well have married for the wrong reasons and could hardly have given their son a strong sense of identity as a proud child of Israel.
A Midrash, cited by Rashi reinforces this idea. Picking up on the phrase, “the son of the Israelite woman went out…”, it asks: “Where did he go out from? Rabbi Levi answered, ‘He went out from his world of Judaism”. Even though as the son of a Hebrew woman, Jewish law defined him as a Hebrew, the fact that his father was Egyptian (even though the Midrash states that he converted) caused him to be treated as an outsider. He neither felt himself to be a full Jew, and nor did other Jews accept him as one. The Midrash goes on: “He went out frustrated from Moses’ Religious Court. He wanted to establish his tent in the encampment of the tribe of Dan (from his mother’s side), but he was rebuffed – the tribal inheritance followed the male lineage. When Moses sided with the decision of the tribe, he went out and blasphemed” (Vayikra Rabbah 33: 3).
This young man, certainly an Israelite from a halakhic, legal perspective, yearned for acceptance; instead he was rejected and rebuffed. His fight with an Israelite was against the tribe of Dan who removed his tent from their encampment. His resulting sense of alienation caused him to feel alienated from and rejected by the G-d of Israel as well. Indeed, it is almost natural for us to strike out against those whom we perceive as having attacked us!
The Talmud similarly teaches that when Timna, a Mediterranean princess, was rejected in her quest for conversion by our Patriarchs, she became mistress to Elifaz (son of Esau) and bore him Amalek (B.T. Sanhedrin 99b). Amalek became Israel’s arch–enemy. Rejection breeds rejection and thus the Divine imperative that the rejecting Israelite community must place its hands on the head of the blasphemer because they are grafting onto him their sin of rejection. The blasphemer becomes the community’s scapegoat.
The primary message of our redemption from Egypt is that we must “love the stranger (the other), because we were strangers in Egypt”. Hence our Biblical passage emphasizes that the stranger must be treated as a citizen and that rejecting a human being is tantamount to smiting his soul. Only when we truly accept the stranger will G-d truly accept us as His redeemed people!
Rabbi Shalom Riskin is founder and rosh yeshiva, Ohr Torah Stone, and founding rabbi of Efrat, Israel.