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Rabbi Deborah Blausten

Shabbat Emor - Blasphemy and Inclusion

You can listen to Rabbi Deborah's sermon or read it below:

I absolutely hate it when someone is having an argument on their phone in public. It’s so inconsiderate. Shouting down the receiver, emoting shock, sadness, outrage, it’s so selfish. At least they could have the argument on speaker phone so that I’d know whose side to take!

The joke isn’t mine, but it is such a relatable experience, we cross paths with others in all sorts of spaces, and as we walk past them we get tiny insights into their lives. Sentences of conversations, hellos and goodbyes witnessed, arguments overheard, silent tears seen, and often we know very little about what led to that moment, and what happens next. Even when we think we know what has happened, perhaps because it doesn’t involve a stranger, maybe because we saw it ourselves or heard about it from someone involved, what we often have is part of the story, enough maybe to think we know what is happening. 

It’s important to ask when we encounter a story, or a person, or often a person sharing a part of their experience. What happened before, what’s the context, and often most importantly, what’s the pain? Especially when it's a difficult situation, perhaps one of conflict or unpredictable behaviour. That question is always there, what’s going on for them? What might be behind this? 

It’s a question I want to explore with relation to the blasphemer in this week’s portion. We met him earlier, and we know a little bit about him. His mother was an Israelite, his father an Egyptian, and he got into a fight with another Israelite in the camp. We know his mothers name, Shlomit bat Divri from the tribe of Dan, and we know that in the context of the fight he said God’s name in blasphemy, and was brought before Moses as a result. He was found guilty, taken out of the camp, and he was stoned to death. 

There’s something fishy about the whole encounter. And I wonder if we are supposed to sense that? Perhaps because of the way that the Torah sets up the story. Why does it need to tell us that his father was Egyptian? What is that doing there? It feels like a code, a dog whistle, almost like it could be a tabloid article. What relevance does his ethnic origin have, his mother is from the tribe of Dan, he is an Israelite, what’s the need for this inclusion? 

The midrash in Leviticus Rabbah tells us more about what happened to this man, the son of Shlomit bat Divri. He came with the intention of pitching his tent in the camp of the tribe of Dan. They said to him ‘what right do you have to pitch your tent in the camp of dan?’ he said to them ‘I am descended from the daughters of Dan’. They responded that it was written that tribes were assigned by someone’s father’s house, and not their mother’s. So although he was an Israelite through his mother, he could not find any place within the community to dwell. He appealed to the court of Moses says the midrash and he lost his case, so he rose and reviled God. And I don’t blame him for doing so. Would you not do the same?

Tribalism is not a word that has particularly positive connotations in contemporary language, but this text can help us to articulate what harm it can do to a person, how the very structures that afford some a sense of belonging, safety and place can deprive others who are no less deserving of those same feelings from having them. Our own community has been challenged to see the ways in which more contemporary manifestations of this tribalism cause similar harms to those inflicted upon the son of Shlomit bat Divri, a man whose name we don’t even know. He is made to feel like he doesn’t belong, not because he is not part of the Israelite community, but because his personal heritage is excluded from others models of what their community looks like. 

We are in the middle of a our first cohort of a new learning programme here at FRS, where members of the community are spending time in a deep dive into different ways of understanding racism, discrimination, and its history within British society. A question posed by the author Renni Eddo-Lodge in one of our earlier sessions really stuck with us. She said “you can’t ask me why I haven’t been invited to the party. You have to ask the host.” 

So what would happen if we asked the hosts? Asked the tribe of Dan why this man could not camp with them, what might their sheepish response be? And how would we respond? It strikes me that we have two options, and I think quite tellingly, the rabbis in Leviticus Rabbah appear to be leading us to a different response than that which the people in the Torah took.

If they said ‘it’s because his father is Egyptian’, would we say ‘oh cool that makes sense?’ and what would that say about us? Would it mean we accepted the premise that it is permissible to exclude someone from the way we build Jewish community based on their heritage? Would we challenge them? Ask why? 

I’d like to imagine that at this moment people from the tribe of Dan saw the exchange, perhaps they got up and walked away with him, and said to him ‘ok if you can’t pitch your tent with them we don’t want to be with them either, we’ll form a new camp’. But I don’t think that’s what happened, because a fight broke out. And I suspect, hurt and anger overflowed into violence. And what happened? Ultimately the denigration of God’s name, and the death of someone who had already been hurt. 

Alex Israel, a teacher at Pardes and several other modern orthodox yeshivot in Israel, teaches that inclusion here would be the antidote to blasphemy. That when the man spoke god’s name in vain, he was speaking against the God the others invoked and the image they created of that god, rather than perhaps God godself. Exclusion is the cause of blasphemy and an expansive and welcoming Judaism is its antidote. 

Later in Leviticus Rabbah, the rabbis quote kohelet in relation to the incident. “I returned and considered all the oppressions... And behold the tears of such as were oppressed. They had no comforter, on the side of the oppressors there was power”. They explain ‘on the side of the oppressors’ refers to Israel’s sanhedrin with Torah on their side, and then they imagine that God sees it as God's own task to comfort those who have been driven out. In this midrash is a truly radical image, those who wield Torah in service of their own power on one side, and God the comforter on the other.  

The story of the blasphemer is a tragedy, and it calls attention to the way that structures of community can exclude. In the moment of being confronted by this situation, I wish the people from the tribe of Dan were able to say ‘we set up the structure this way, but there’s no reason that it needs to stay like this, now we know, we’ll do something about it, you belong here too’. We can’t just imagine those words back into the story, but we can internalise the message the rabbis are drawing us to in Leviticus Rabbah, that building community in the name of a God which shuts people out leads to rejection of that God and distance from community, perhaps it is even fatal. It doesn’t need to be this way, inclusion is the antidote to blasphemy.

Sun, 26 September 2021 20 Tishrei 5782