Anne Gordon
Anne Gordon
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The Blasphemer

We want people to be able to overcome their origins, but what about a bad seed? The sages argue that this apple fell not far from its tree (Emor)
From 'The Stoning of the Blasphemer,' in 'The Story of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation,' by Charles Foster, Hartford, Connecticut 1873. (Wikimedia Commons)
From 'The Stoning of the Blasphemer,' in 'The Story of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation,' by Charles Foster, Hartford, Connecticut 1873. (Wikimedia Commons)

Whether you like the detail and nuance and application of the legalistic, ritualistic Book of Leviticus, or you find it somewhat (ahem) tedious, Parshat Emor would seem to be a fine sample of the book, with its delineation of the restrictions on the kohanim (priests) and the summary of the festivals for the whole nation. Or at least that is true until the very end of the parshah, where we find one of the more dramatic narratives of the Torah: the story of the Blasphemer (worthy of future consideration, perhaps, is the fact that the two famous narratives of Leviticus are both dramatic, even unto violence, the other being the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, of course).

In chapter 24, verse 10, the text breaks with its list of laws to tell a story. It even reads like a story, with a biblical rendition of “once upon a time.” Namely, “there was a man who came out of Egypt whose mother was an Israelite and whose father was Egyptian.” The Torah goes on to describe that this man fought with an Israelite, and how the former came to blaspheme the Name of God. We are not told his name and we are not told of his upbringing, yet this lacuna is a technicality. In essence, he is anything but anonymous. We encounter enough detail to provide us with real insight into the core identity of this man, despite the text’s noticeable silence with regard to his name (remarkably, his mother’s name is mentioned, but even this detail is presented a side-point, or as an afterthought, in the midst of the drama). Indeed, the fact that the Torah begins the narrative in this way leaves great scope for interpretation, and demands that we engage. As we might expect, the midrashim and commentaries do so, and we are left with even more to ponder.

Nearly every commentator is quick and careful to point out that our protagonist (or, alternatively, his father) converted. Immediately, this comment should puzzle us, for we know that his mother is Jewish. He too should be considered Jewish! But medieval commentators Ramban and Hizkuni both present the notion that this blasphemous event took place prior to the giving of the Torah, at which time matrilineal descent had not yet been firmly established, and, of course, tribal affiliation followed the father. None suggests, however, that this son of an Egyptian did not have what we would call today a “strong Jewish identity.” He emerges “be-tokh B’nei Yisrael,” from among the Children of Israel. Despite his paternal lineage, he himself is very much an Israelite. R. Avraham ibn Ezra implicitly agrees. He explains that the “ben ish Mitzri” had become Jewish. The comment is ambiguous, however. Who is the convert? The son of the Egyptian? Or does ibn Ezra’s comment “had become Jewish” mean that the Egyptian himself had converted, in which case, our protagonist should feel all the more comfortable as one of the Children of Israel. Indeed, he is “frum from birth”!

The sages of the Midrash take a different approach. Let us recall that when these sages encountered anonymous biblical personalities whose presence in the text is obviously significant (and here, the Torah devotes 13 verses to the individual and the law as it applies to him), they sought to connect them with already-known figures. This practice has been labeled “conservation of biblical personalities,” and underlying it runs the assumption that any person of significance would surely be identified to the full extent possible. In this case, we might surmise that the Blasphemer is known as such to protect his identity. But his mother’s name is spelled out…. Perhaps we do better to regard his anonymity as part of the attempt to obliterate the salient details of such an egregious sin (including its perpetrator, to the extent possible) from Israel. But Vayikra Rabbah seeks to identify this person with one who is already known.

The sages therefore read the narrative to determine the main character trait of our protagonist, and set out to identify him by linking him to another who shares his conduct. What trait? Apparently, he is neither fully comfortable nor fully welcome in the camp. One might argue that he struggles to find his place. That is, when he goes out into the camp, he engages in some kind of altercation with one who is dubbed “an Israelite man” — that is, one of indubitable lineage. The sages infer that the ensuing brawl belies an innate belligerence. That is, the sages identify him as combative, and seek another combative situation from which he may be said to have emerged.

The Midrash paints an elaborate tale. Back in the second chapter of the Book of Exodus, an Egyptian taskmaster beat an Israelite. This Egyptian is the one whom Moses killed. And according to the Midrash, before Moses got into the act, this same taskmaster had had his way with Shlomit bat Divri. Moses kills the Egyptian. And the next day, when the prince of Egypt intervenes in the quarrel between two Israelites, he is recognized as the perpetrator of the Egyptian’s death. The biblical text does not name these two Israelites, but according to the Midrash, the belligerent Israelite who has the gumption to rebuke one who is ostensibly a member of the royal family is none other than Datan…. Datan who rebels against Moses much later on, in the wilderness. The sages know him for his bellicose, rebellious nature. Small wonder that they place him on this scene!

But identifying the fighting Israelite in Exodus as Datan changes the story of Moses’ heroic defense dramatically. For the Midrash also identifies Datan as the husband of Shlomit bat Divri. As melodramatic as it sounds, let us spell it out: Shlomit bat Divri has been maltreated by an Egyptian, and Datan is her furious husband. Could Datan have confronted the Egyptian? Could that same Egyptian have beaten Datan, fearing nothing? The consequence comes from on high, as it were, from the prince’s hand. Datan is proud and angry. And perhaps a resentment of Moses is born. More to our point, however, is the lineage of Shlomit’s son: his father is none other than the inappropriate Egyptian. And his adoptive father, so to speak, is the bellicose Datan. [Note that Hizkuni recounts a similar tale of paternity, but names Neryiah, the grandson of Dan, as Shlomit’s husband].

This puts a whole new fatalistic spin on the long-standing Nature vs. Nurture debate, of course — because it suggests that one’s traits are inherently the “fault” or “credit” (whether through genetics or upbringing) of one’s circumstance. We like to maintain that individuals have the ability to elevate themselves out of the situation to which they are born. Rarely do we consider the flipside: namely, the possibility of a bad seed. In tracing the Blasphemer’s ancestry, the sages argue that this apple fell not far from its tree.

But let us be careful to refrain from inferring too much! The biblical text exhorts investigation of the Blasphemer’s family, simply by identifying it — and further, by elaborating on his mother’s identity! If we consider the plain sense of the biblical text, without the midrashic prism of interpretation, we may wonder whether this union between an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man is the only one of its kind in all of Goshen. Granted, the Midrash commends the Children of Israel for maintaining their “Jewish identity” while there, famously singling out the preservation of their names, their language, and their style of dress. Yet this midrash begs the question: what about the culture at large? Were the Children of Israel otherwise assimilated to the extent that intermarriage was common? Or perhaps these three marks of preservation set the Jews sufficiently apart that cultural mingling was irrelevant. Historically speaking, we may never know; but the implication of this text is that intermarriage between the Israelites and the Egyptians was virtually non-existent, and therefore not only worthy of comment, but perhaps telling, as we investigate the Blasphemer further.

Let us recognize that whether Shlomit bat Divri has been maltreated by an Egyptian, or married one out of love, or even married a converted Egyptian, the progeny of such a union are raised in a complicated situation. The cultural divide between the Egyptians and the Children of Israel was surely real, and the distinction of names, language, and clothing as suggested by the Midrash is the least of it! Slave vs. free man. Monotheistic tradition vs. idolatry. Foreigner vs. host. In our own day, we know all too well how children of intermarriage have struggled with more than one culture, even under the best of circumstances. R. Ovadiah Seforno recognizes the complication by explaining why the biblical text needs to identify the Blasphemer’s father as Egyptian: “He was the son of an Egyptian, and therefore dared to curse God.” And R. Shmuel David Luzzatto (Shadal) adds that no Jew would think to do such a thing!

Really? No Jew would dare? What about the verse in Exodus (22:27) that prohibits cursing “El-o-him”? Shadal corrects: that verse prohibits the Children of Israel from cursing judges, who are called “elohim.” Indeed, Shadal’s interpretation sheds light on why Moshe did not know the law until God laid it down for this individual. For all that the Children of Israel are a stiff-necked, stubborn, misbehaving group, if they would not have cursed God, or could not have done so, then there was no reason for them to be equipped with such a halakhah, unless (or until) the unthinkable happened.

We should note that blasphemy is not initially on the man’s agenda. It is only afterwards, and apparently as a result of the quarrel, that our “son-of-an-Egyptian” blasphemes. What is the fight? Since when does a fight result in profound blasphemy? Presumably, this battle is not the play-wrestling of brothers, for example. Nor is “blasphemy” here the colloquial misuse of the Name of God. Our protagonist is stoned to death at God’s command; his blasphemy is real…and a lesson.

But why would non-Jewish heritage bring about blasphemy? Perhaps the Blasphemer was raised in a home fraught with skepticism and tension and cultural conflict. Or perhaps the Egyptian father merely rolled his eyes at the notion of only One God. Or perhaps the son simply felt out of place for his whole life. The implication is that he was taunted as one who was not fully a member of the Children of Israel. If he were ostracized his whole life, this struggle may have been the final straw. If the mockery was new, we see that he did not have the patience nor righteousness of Job, who refused to curse God under the most robust suffering. Rather, when tempers rose and our protagonist lost his fight — whatever it was about — his reaction was not to turn to God in his pain and his loneliness, but to curse God, to deny Him.

Though his grievance is against his fellow-man, his animosity is directed against the Divine. God takes him to task for it…. There is no excuse, and his death is by stoning. Indeed, he is one of the few whose justice is meted out by God directly. We may rail at God for perceived injustices, and we may dispute Him, as Abraham does. We may debate His existence and we may ignore His injunctions (though we suffer the consequences). But blasphemy? Denial? No. We grapple with our truths; we do not turn away.

About the Author
Anne Gordon is the deputy editor of Ops & Blogs at The Times of Israel and a co-founder of Chochmat Nashim. She has taught Judaic Studies widely, in the US and Israel, and studied in the various women's batei midrash for nearly a decade. She is a graduate of Drisha Insitute's Scholars Circle and holds a BA in History & Philosophy and an MA in Judaic Studies from Harvard University, and is ABD in her pursuit of a PhD in Jewish Education.
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