Shabbat Emor: Alienation

May 12, 2022 by Jeremy Rosen
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It is one of the most problematic stories in the Torah. A young man who was the son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man got involved in a fight and cursed God in public.

He was brought to Moses who held him in detention while we decided what had to be done.

What was his crime? Why did he commit it? And why did Moses hesitate?  Why did he need to go back to God to ask what to do if the law had already been given on Sinai? And why did the Torah need to mention his mother was called Shlomit Bat Divri of the tribe of Dan. Why was it necessary to mention her?

The Midrash fleshes out the issues. First, it says that the mother’s name tells us about her character. Shlomit, because she said Shalom to people indiscriminately, and Divri, from ledaber, because she talked too much.  She was too frivolous. She spent her time in the wrong company and as a result, she married an Egyptian. Alternatively, she was raped by an Egyptian she had flirted with. She was not the best of mothers. Her son had a problematic upbringing not knowing where he belonged which affected him badly. He felt unwanted and unloved.

The Midrash also says that fight between the two men was over identity. He was a Jew because of his mother. But Tribal identity went by the father. That was why he could not join his mother’s tribe of Dan. His rejection was because of a sense of alienation that led to his crime, and this was something Moses had some sympathy for and explains his hesitancy.

The other explanation is that Moses was certain he knew but not certain about the punishment. To which God replied that an act, so fundamental that it undermined God’s authority, was a danger to the whole nation and a more serious crime than a civil one.

God told Moses that the blasphemer should be put to death.  Which sounds rather harsh to our modern ears (perhaps not so much in the USA that still allows capital punishment. And then repeats the principle of “An eye for an eye.” Which obviously cannot be taken literally, because then his punishment would have been that he should be cursed back. In practice, however, it means that the punishment should fit the crime. Cursing God is such a fundamental matter that it undermines the very foundation of Israelite identity, the covenant with God, and its way of life and constitution. The blasphemer had to be made an example of, to deter others.

This story has modern lessons to teach us.  Mixed marriages often confuse the identities of a child who is uncertain where its loyalties and identity lie if both parents are not on the same page religiously. And as we see today, so many people who were born Jewish or of mixed marriages without a sense of belonging, religiously or without a firm foundation in Judaism and Jewish history, end up either with a sense of alienation or simply prefer to assimilate.
Not only do we need to nurture our children with love, but we also need to give them a strong sense of Jewish identity, which requires study and practice, not just bagels and lox.
Leviticus Chapters 21:1-24:23


One Response to “Shabbat Emor: Alienation”
  1. Liat Kirby says:

    An individual with strong sense of self and independence, no matter in what circumstances they are brought up, can effectively negotiate their identity. Parents can always guide and provide their own preferences, but that does not ensure the child when grown-up will abide by them. Each individual is unique and should be respected as such.

    Mixed marriages can and do work well, most especially if there is respect all round. It is true that more thought may have to be exercised, more awareness of ‘other’, but this in itself is not a bad thing. Also, being brought up in a secular household, Jewish or otherwise, does not necessarily negate spirituality. There are plenty of secular Jews who revere and respect their own identity and tradition, without following all the rules.

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