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This parasha details restrictions to which the priests were subject, and restrictions over which sacrifices could be brought. It then describes the commandments of Shabbat, the counting of the Omer, and all of the festivals of the year. The eternal flame and showbread of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) are described, and the parasha concludes with the laws of blasphemy.

Another voice

Emor by Joel Levy :: 5768

Joel lives in Jerusalem where he teaches at the Conservative Yeshiva and for Ta Shma (Pluralistic Jewish Education). He is Rabbi of Kol Nefesh Masorti synagogue - the UK's first fully egalitarian traditional shul. Joel was ordained by Rabbi David Hartman.

At a time when British society is struggling to formulate appropriate ways to protect the diverse perceived sanctities of its complex multicultural society, blasphemy is a hot topic. The primary Torah source dealing with the laws of blasphemy appears in Vayikra at the very end of Parshat Emor: "And you shall speak to the children of Israel saying, whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. And he who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: both the stranger and he that is born in the land, when he blasphemes the name of the Lord, shall be put to death." (Vayikra 24 15-16)

Rabbi Yitzchak Karo explains, in his commentary Toldot Yitzchak, why the laws of blasphemy are located here, following a series of laws about the sanctity of the priesthood, sacrifices, Shabbat and Holydays, and certain ritual items in the Mishkan. He explains that the blasphemer comes and "repudiates all - the offerer, the sacrifice, and the very existence of God, by blaspheming, as if there is no Law and Judge." In other words, the Torah first teaches us at length about the significance of sanctity in Israelite society and then presents us with the blasphemer - the arch-desecrator of the sacred. A society which concentrates on promoting the quest for sanctity will necessarily express its revulsion when that sanctity is desecrated. Such a society will certainly understand blasphemy as a most extreme form of deviance.

It is interesting to observe that the laws of blasphemy appear in the Torah in a specific narrative context: "And the son of an Israelite women, whose father was an Egyptian man, went out among the children of Israel: and this son of the Israelite woman fought with an Israelite man in the camp; and the Israelite woman's son blasphemed the name of the Lord, and cursed..." (Vayikra 24 10-11)

The Torah relates the story of a particular individual, the son of an Israelite women and an Egyptian man, who gets into a quarrel and ends up cursing God. The Israelites do not know how to deal with him so they bring him to Moses in order to find out how he should be treated. The answer is contained in verses 15 and 16 that we saw above; he should be put to death. In a large section of Leviticus that is almost wholly legalistic why are the laws of blasphemy embedded in a story?

The Tanach is not being politically correct here, but according to this narrative the blasphemer is a partial outsider - the offspring of a "mixed marriage". It is almost as if, according to the narrative at least, the issue of blasphemy would never arise within a hermetically sealed community because it would never occur to either a full "insider" or a full "outsider" to commit this transgression. The Babylonian Talmud supports this reading. A blasphemer is not liable for punishment until he "Curses the Name with the Name". The rabbinic understanding of blasphemy requires the offender to utilise the power of God's name in order to insult God; he needs to be enough of an "insider" to want to evoke the power of God's name, but to be peripheral enough to want to curse God. Blasphemy is quintessentially the sin of the person who resides at the borders of a community.

Maybe this sin of a "son of an Israelite woman whose father was an Egyptian man" explains why blasphemy is such a recurring theme in contemporary Europe. We inhabit a liminal space where we have a strong awareness of the existence of otherness and we are often deluded into thinking that we understand each other. We know both too much and too little about each other and so we inevitably end up transgressing each other's sacredness.


More by Joel Levy

Another voice by Daniel Berkowitz

In amongst the many laws contained in Emor is the prohibition against physical deformity. The underlying rejection of bodily imperfection that is inherent in the law is very human and very much with us still as our own primordial fear and rejection of those that look different or even our own need to look the same as everyone else. Since physical imperfection was seen, by some, as an indicator of moral imperfection, does the law not ask us to consider whether we should require a different, higher moral standard from ourselves?

We all faced painful ethical challenges before we even knew how to spell our names. There were tough choices, tradeoffs, and confusing signals regarding how to live one's life. And here we are now, today, still struggling, still trying to sort things out, still trying to work our way through life effectively. About the only thing that has changed is the scope of the problem. There's more at stake now. And we're in a position, as grownups, to do a lot more-good or bad-for ourselves, our organization, and our world. But we still must wrestle with our imperfect ethics. As it says in Price Pritchett's The Ethics of Excellence: "We can't be perfect. We can though, be excellent."


More by Daniel Berkowitz

Other Divrei Torah on Emor

  • 5766 (Levi Lauer)
  • 5766 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5767 (Raphael Zarum)
  • 5767 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5770 (Steven Greenberg)
  • 5770 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5771 (Marcia R. Plumb)
  • 5771 (Adam Taylor)
  • 5772 (Steve Miller)
  • 5772 (Deborah Blausten)
  • 5773 (Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz)
  • 5773 (Rebecca Joy Fletcher)
  • 5774 (Jonathan Wittenberg)
  • 5774 (Taste of Chavruta)