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On Beauty (again) and the limits of speech


I’m starting with a repost written round this time last year. What I said then still holds.

This week’s Torah portion, Emor (Say!), really bugs me. Here are are 3 reasons:

1. A priest (male by definition) may not marry a divorcee, widow, or (former) harlot: i.e., only a virgin. I take this personally.

2. The daughter of a priest who engaged in harlotry is to be put to the fire. This is not a euphemism.

3. The priests must now allow Israelites to profane the sacred donations by eating them. As an Israelite, I also take this one personally, especially because someone who is the property of a priest can eat of the donations – but myself or a hired hand or a daughter of a priest who married a commoner may not.

And here’s the topper:

No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God. No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf…

Really? This is one of those times when telling myself “the Torah was written a very long time ago and one has to put it into historical context” just doesn’t work. If everyone is created by God, and if some of us are blind or hunchbacked, then whose fault is that? Why add insult to the mix? And if we’re perfectly formed but a creep, that’s okay? I can understand the sacrifice itself – the ram or dove, etc. – needing to be without blemish. But people? We’re all falling apart in one way or the other.

Then – as now – I steered you to my poem Beauty, a strange little concoction of which I’m fond.

Now – as opposed to then – I would like to add reason #4.

The following verses, at the end of this week’s reading are the concluding moral to a story (not in the text, but in the commentary) wherein a woman named Shelomith (from the word for peace/wholeness) bat Divri (from the root word “to speak”) allegedly cheats on her husband with an Egyptian and all manner of mayhem follows. Her son gets into it with another (full-blooded) Israelite, perhaps in his mother’s defense, and invokes the Holy Name.

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him.

The nameless son was stoned to death, in this case by everyone who heard him say the Very Bad Thing.

Now, I actually like the notion of the entire community being responsible for ensuring right speech within its borders. I’m in favor of people telling their neighbor to shush when they’re being rude or racist or just plain stupid. And I believe that one should not speak for God, whether to justify behavior (building illegal settlements, banning abortion, gay-bashing, etc.) or to damn another human being.

What gets me is the over-reaction. What happened to an eye for an eye? How do we justify killing someone in the public square for what might be a slip of the tongue? Or for saying something we don’t like, even curse words? Why do words we don’t like scare us so? Make us murderous? Have us burn books? Shoot protesters? Or ban a Pulitzer Prize winner from getting an honorary degree? Seems like we (and by we, I include our notion of God) are more afraid of words than of sticks & stones.

We don’t want to look at less than perfection or hear less than agreement. Can that be right?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Sarah permalink
    05/06/2011 1:44 pm

    As always, beautifully said. So much to struggle with in these passages!

    Indeed, I think we are more afraid of words than sticks and stones.
    I’m reminded of the story of the feather pillow, which is sliced open, its feathers blowing every which way, as a way of understanding how our words carry, and can’t easily be retrieved.

    Does that justify stoning? I hardly think so. Does it justify public shaming? Here I struggle too, and think of how the ancient rabbis understood blood rushing/draining in the face as similar (equal?) to blood being literally spilled. And so I continue to wrestle.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      05/08/2011 7:12 pm

      What strikes me (you should pardon the pun) about this passage is that it is followed by one of the 2 exhortations in Torah of eye for an eye. Wrestling? Hell yes!

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