You kiss your mother with that mouth? Blasphemy then and now
Parshat Emor, Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23
This week’s portion ends with a troubling story of blasphemy, social isolation and death. (I know … a lot of our Torah portions have troubling stories of blasphemy, social isolation and death, but bear with me.)
Leviticus 24:10-23 tells about an unnamed man who is the product of what we would call today a mixed marriage, namely his mother was an Israelite of the tribe of Dan and his father was an Egyptian. This man gets into a fight with another Israelite and in the midst of the fisticuffs screams at his antagonist with a mighty G-D D__N YOU! This was apparently a greater offense than fighting in those days because he is taken directly to Moses for judgment for uttering those words and Moses, for one of only four times in the entire Torah, has to make a special query of G-d as to how to handle the situation.
G-d wastes no time in clarifying that anyone who takes his name in vain shall be stoned by the whole community, regardless of status or station. And that is exactly what happens to our hot-tempered friend.
Now, remember that I pointed out that this unfortunate fellow was a child of intermarriage? Our sages, who saw intermarriage as a form of blasphemy in its own right, say that is the reason he got into a fight in the first place. Midrash Leviticus Rabbah observes that G-d had commanded the people to encamp according to their father’s tribal affiliation (see Numbers 2:2), but that posed a problem for this gentleman as his father was Egyptian, so he didn’t have an Israelite tribal affiliation.
Accordingly he tried to set up his tent with his mother’s tribe, but was sent packing by some Danites since his father was not a member of the tribe. The frustrated tent-carrier subsequently loses his temper with these tribesmen, takes a swing at them while letting loose a few choice epithets, and the rest we know. The message from the fifth-century midrash is clear: marrying outside the community may cut off your offspring from having any place within it in the future.
As the old commercial says though, we’ve come a long way, baby. Our community has strong disagreements over the subject of intermarriage and our 40+ percent current intermarriage rate. But the reality in America is that most families contain at least one intermarried member somewhere in the family tree, and that has forced us to stop telling their children that they have no place at the encampment. Today, we welcome them for who they are rather than reject them for what their parents did. Some of us welcome these children fully as Jews while others welcome them more like beloved cousins, but there are very few of us today who won’t find some way to welcome them because the alternative is unacceptable.
Can you imagine telling our children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews there is no place for them around the Shabbat table today because of who their parents are? These young people wouldn’t take G-d’s name in vain; they would just take themselves and their offspring somewhere else. Then who would deserve to be stoned?
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)