Never mind that my crime did not deserve the punishment and never mind that Israeli road rage in notorious and is usually ascribed to the general tension in the public sphere – what I was left with was a slightly amused but also pretty angry sense of feeling filthy. I was glad at least that I didn’t have a chance to answer him. What would I have said? Do the ‘right’ thing and smile and shut up, or do the ‘wrong’ thing and shout back with my own string of suggestions? What’s the best way to get it out of my system?
So it got me thinking about the power of words, and about words that are taboo in some contexts and ok in others, and about expressions that are still sacred and/or just too volatile for general public use. Imagine the F word or the S word, intentionally or not, inserted in the middle of an official presidential address or Bar Mitzvah speech. Recall the ‘oops factor’ of a private endearment or some other secret publicly revealed? Sometimes it’s a Freudian slip and sometimes an intentional blurring of boundaries – our choice of violent language says volumes about us and can completely change an image or an event with a single syllable. Think of fights with loved ones, when words get said that can’t be taken back and leave behind a permanent trail of mistrust. Sometimes, a subsequent ‘I’m Sorry’ will just not suffice. Sometimes, cursing can be so destructive – it can be fatal, leading to actual physical violence.
That’s what’s happening in this week’s Torah episode, ‘Emor’, in which a man opens his mouth to curse God and life, and ends up being stoned to death, charged with blasphemy.
It’s a terrible story. Also, it’s a very cryptic story and one suspects that there is much more here than meets the eye. The man in question has a mother, who is the only one to be actually named in the entire book of Leviticus. Her name is Shlomit, daughter of Divri, of the tribe of Dan. Her son is a product of inter-breeding. His father is an Egyptian whose name is unknown. Thus, this half Jew-half Egyptian man gets into a brawl one day with a full blooded Jew, in the middle of the camp, and in the heat of battle something strange happens:
‘And the Israelite woman’s son blasphemed the name of God, and cursed.’ (Leviticus 24:13)
It is assumed that the man did more than shout ‘Godammit!’ and/or other colorful swear words. He is immediately seized into custody and Moses consults God regarding the punishment. The Divine verdict is swift and harsh – death by stoning. No soap in his mouth, no public service, no fine. What was so extreme in this public cursing to warrant death?
Some commentaries suggest that he actually used the secret Divine name that was heard during the Revelation on Mount Sinai but that nobody was allowed to use publicly. That makes sense – Imagine somebody emailing your private password or ATM pincode to your entire mailing list – pretty bad. Other commentaries blame him for using forms of black magic and conjuring demons via the usage of the Divine Name – voodoo. Either way – he is judged, sentenced and the people of Israel take him out of town, and stone him to death, all within a matter of ten biblical verses.
Ok, wait a minute – what’s going on here? Was this justice? This man who was just killed – how much of his crime has to do with circumstances? The Talmud relates that the reason for the brawl was that as a half breed he was denied the right to dwell among the tribe of Dan- his mother’s family. When a second class citizen, victim of racism, denied of rights, opens his mouth to protest and angrily fight the system that limits his human rights for existence – is the protest itself a crime?
Hints of authoritarian regime tactics linger in this story, as well as residues of racial profiling and harsh justice that just won’t be tolerated by our modern standards. Take Capital Punishment, for instance. Many in the world endorse if today as the word of God –from Texas to Saudi Arabia. But how does this story, along others in Leviticus, propel us to demand that the taking of lives by governments and societies be stopped? Can one stand and criticize, and critique and challenge authority and reality – and not be accused of being as one who curses that which ‘is’?
There is only one way I can read this story and accept it: as metaphor. There are moments in our lives when a voice within us shouts out in despair, using words that negate reality in terrible and shattering ways. The only way to deal with that inner voice is with a kind understanding – but also with harsh silencing. The man accused of cursing God is really accused of reducing life to a list of profanities, focusing on the half empty glass, dwelling on anger. Right or wrong, justified or vilified – that man polluted the public sphere – just like that driver who threw buckets of verbal excrement on me before driving off. Negative words and vicious curses simply filth up the place. I know – I have done it plenty of times. The death that is proscribed for such behavior can be seen as a suggestion for zero tolerance. Stay positive – take a deep breath – don’t pollute the environment with words that leave a sour trail behind. Being human is a challenging task, and in some ways many of us will find ourselves in situations that render us prejudiced against, or victimized, or hurt. How to react? What is the noble way of dealing with insult? Some suggest silently submitting and being humble and give the other cheek. Others proscribe ‘an eye for an eye’.
There has to be a middle ground – a state of being where we don’t repress anger or protest or indignation – but where we respect the power of words as they shape reality. Cursing God, hating life, using foul words not in jest but in hate – somehow, these tend to be destructive. Being critical requires greater craft, a subtle way of telling truth and challenging the status quo. Humor helps.
This sad Biblical story has no happy end and it leaves me with the same sour taste as that nasty driving incident. But it does leave me with a commitment to pick up where Shlmoit’s son left off – and continue the constructive critique of short term solutions to challenges – be they in the mouth of a fellow driver or in the word of the Torah. Earlier this week, while thinking about all this, I sat in a class on Pluralism at the Mandel Institute, and was inspired by this great text by Isaiah Berlin. Reminded of the noble task of being human, Berlin also rekindles the higher calling of words:
‘Happy are those who live under a discipline which they accept without question, who freely obey the orders of leaders, spiritual or temporal, whose word is fully accepted as unbreakable law; or those who have, by their own methods, arrived at clear and unshakable convictions about what to do and what to be that brook no possible doubt. I can only say that those who rest on such comfortable beds of dogma are victims of self induced myopia, blinkers that may make for contentment, but not for understanding of what it is to be human.
Isaiah Berlin, The Pursuit of the Ideal