Rabbi Neil Janes wrote this week’s ‘Limmud On One Leg’, you can subscribe to future issues here and read what he wrote below:
The narrative portion of Parashat Emor appears briefly and, almost as quickly, our attention is drawn a few verses later to the ‘Tit for Tat’ law of ‘an eye for an eye’. The story describes a man of Israelite and Egyptian heritage who, in fighting with an Israelite, blasphemes and is taken to Moses; Moses holds the unnamed man in custody whilst the decision regarding what should be done with him is conveyed from God.
In February and March, I facilitated a group studying this section as we created our own Torah commentary as part of the Lyons Learning Project. One of our group reported that the Talmudic discussion of ‘Tit for Tat’ was probably the first rabbinic text he ever learnt as a child. As if to say, in the textual lines of continuity and change, this is where our rabbinic interpretations radically shift the focus from physical retaliation to monetary compensation. We do not believe in the literal interpretation of this law. One of the other students in our group remarked how this was so fundamental to the development of Jewish jurisprudence that it always made her recognise the brilliance of our traditions.
Upon studying the story of the ‘Blasphemer’ narrative, it is easy to recognise the echoes of an earlier point in the Torah. In the account of Moses growing up and affirming his Israelite heritage over his Egyptian upbringing (Exodus 2); in this chapter Moses not only kills an Egyptian taskmaster he also tries to stop two Hebrews fighting together. The Hebrew men rebuke Moses and he flees wherein he finds and marries Zipporah. The name of their son is Gershom, for “I have been a stranger in a strange land” (Exodus 2:22).
The midrashim already connect this episode in Moses’ life with that of our Blasphemer. For they imagine that the Egyptian taskmaster was none other than the man who raped the Blasphemer’s mother, Shelomit bat Divri. In the midrash Leviticus Rabbah 32 this act is described as קילקל – euphemistically the Egyptian ‘spoiled’ Shelomit, clearly an echo of the ויקלל (cursing) of God used in Leviticus 24:11. In a deeply problematic and unsettling way, Shelomit is subsequently blamed for the downfall of her son, who is executed for his sin of blasphemy. The Blasphemer, who goes unnamed, is surrounded by names and identities which already determine his fate. And in a cruel act of victim blaming, as if the social isolation of being recorded as ‘the son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man’ (Leviticus 24:10) was not enough, his mother’s status is ruined too. Rape in the Bible is a social death.
So we return to the law of ‘Tit for Tat’ and the work of the wonderful scholar, Tikva Frymer Kensky z’l. She showed how the ‘tit for tat’ rule in another Ancient Near Eastern code, the Code of Hammurabi, only applied to full citizens. On the other hand, our Torah reads, “You shall have one rule for stranger and citizen alike: for I the Eternal am your God” (Leviticus 24:22). Which is to say, in the middle of this text and intertext, that play to our subconscious perception of those who we suspect of not being fully part of the ‘in-group’, there are certain universal rules about how we treat one another.
This message is surely one we should, more than ever, be paying attention to in how we think of our Jewish community today. Beyond status there is a question about the names we use, the names we curse, the names we seek for ourselves and the strength of having one rule for stranger and citizen alike. I suspect, like Moses, we all feel like strangers at some point in our lives.