Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Admission Essay: Torah Portion Emor

At the end of Parshat Emor is an interesting story about a man who commits blasphemy and is put to death for it.
“Now, the son of an Israelite woman and he was the son of an Egyptian man went out among the children of Israel, and they quarreled in the camp this son of the Israelite woman, and an Israelite man. And the son of the Israelite woman pronounced the [Divine] Name and cursed. So they brought him to Moses.” [Leviticus 24:10-11]
The incident is used as an opportunity to introduce several laws and punishments before ending with the unnamed man’s execution. This brief story conceals an issue that should be very troubling to us as modern Jews. The man is put to death for speaking a single word, a difficult notion to reconcile with our value of Free Speech. The unnamed man is executed for the crime of blasphemy: using the holy name in an irreverent way. Immediately after learning what his punishment shall be, however, we are informed that “if a man strikes down any human being he shall be put to death.” [Leviticus 24:17] There is an uncomfortable tension created by the juxtaposition of these two capital offenses; the implication is that speaking a word can be as bad a crime as murdering a human being.

Furthermore, Moses himself is a murderer! In fact, Rashi suggests the “Egyptian man” Moses killed [Exodus 2:12] is the same “Egyptian man” as the blasphemer’s father. And this very parsha tells us “One law shall be exacted for you, convert and resident alike” [Leviticus 24:22]. So why is this man put to death when Moses is allowed to live?

There does not seem to be a clear answer. This inequity seems a gross injustice. Jewish law teaches us that before one can be sentenced to death, they must be warned their behavior is wrong and given the opportunity to stop. Yet the unnamed man receives no warning, while Moses, presumably, had known murder was wrong. It says Moses “turned this way and that way, and he saw that there was no man” [Exodus 2:12] before striking, implying he knew the act to be wrong and wished to avoid witnesses. Murder, in this circumstance at least, is a forgivable offense while blasphemy is severe enough to warrant waiving proper protocols.

This ups the ante considerably; blasphemy is now a worse crime than murder. How can we, as Americans, make peace with this imbalance; how can we conscience executing someone for their speech?

We do not. We cannot, emotionally, and should not, morally, countenance turning speech into a capital offence. While there are many crimes that can be committed via speech alone – such as blackmail, intimidation, and perjury – there is only one that is a capital offense: treason. A crime so important it is the only one defined in the United States Constitution, and so rare there have been less than 40 federal prosecutions for treason and even fewer convictions.

So how do we deal with this story?

We could put the story into a historical perspective. Blasphemy belongs to the class of speech acts known as declaratives; these are statements that, in being spoken, effect change in the world. Classic examples are “I adjourn the meeting”, or “I thank you”; the statement itself is the action. In ancient cultures declaratives could carry great power. But in the digital age, with over a trillion webpages and a billion new ones appearing each day, talk has become cheap.

We could turn it into a metaphor for modern life. This is the era of the sound bite and the text message: brief statements that fly around the world, and whose short shelf-life is offset by potential for deep short-term impact with long-term effects. While few of us would literally kill someone for their words, we symbolically execute politicians, celebrities, and relationships over a few ill-chosen words. Just last year, for example, Dr. James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA’s structure, was forced out of a 55-year career for implying a genetic link between race and intelligence, his words erasing a lifetime of valuable scientific contributions.

There is a time for each of these approaches. The Torah is many things to the Jewish people, including a historical document and a source of inspiration. By viewing the text from these perspectives, the Torah helps us improve our understanding of our people’s past and present. In the end, though, we cannot in good conscience, as good Jews and good American citizens accept these easy answers. The questions raised by this parsha are unanswerable, showing once again why we are known as the People of Israel: those who wrestle with G-d.


  1. I feel like your "modern reading" is stronger than the end, and has a real take home message--why not just use that as the end, expand it, and skip the last paragraph? Isn't it more valuable as a rabbi to give a take home message for today than to embrace anomie?

  2. I think the end kind of cops out -- doesn't face the story of the blasphemer head on. You say we cannot accept "these easy answers," but I'm not sure what easy answers you are referring to. I have been thinking that the way our society is structured, there are certain murders that are countenanced (forgive the spelling) for the good of the society, so perhaps it was the same when the blasphemer said the Holy Name in blasphemy.

  3. The "modern reading" feels stronger because it's comforting and familiar; it's the type of interpretation we typically get in Shul, and most of the more in-depth studies start from a position of, "Given that the Torah is perfect, consistent, always right, and would never showcase God or Moses acting incorrectly, how do we explain this?"

    So to your question, no it is not more valuable for a Rabbi to give an easily packaged take-home message; that's like a math teacher telling you what the answers will be on tomorrow's test. The class likes it, but they don't learn anything.

    The ending's not a cop out; if anything, the "easy answers" (meaning the historical and modern interpretations) are cop outs because they avoid resolving, or attempting to resolve, this massive contradiction between "proper Jewish behavior" and American social and legal standards.

    There is no resolution, because:

    1. There is no middle ground between "kill the blasphemer" and "don't kill the blasphemer"; it's all or nothing.

    2. Likewise, we can argue about where the defining line for blasphemy falls, but a statement either IS or IS NOT blasphemous.

    3. Freedom of Speech and Freedom of religion are also binary conditions; there's no such thing as "partial freedom of speech".

    Basically, in order to resolve this story I need to give up part of my identity as a Jew or part of my identity as an American; I am unwilling to compromise either, therefore this remains an open, unanswerable question.