Torah Thursday: Parshat Emor and the Meaning of Political Community


It’s been a while since I did a Torah Thursday. A big part of that is that lately the Wednesday Racism Roundup has had to document so damned much, that I have little blog-time left. But another part is that we are currently deep in the heart fo Leviticus, where the weekly readings mostly contain long lists of commandments without much exposition or story. And, since I’m not a rabbi I can say this: it’s boring!

This week we get another long and drawn listing of laws, this time relating mostly to the major holidays. Towards the end of the Torah portion, however, we get one of the more challenging stories from the Bible. In the midsts of a heated quarrel, a man pronounces God’s holy name while cursing.

As a frequent curser and person who gets frustrated fairly easily, I sympathize. The Israelites, however, do not. They place the man in prison and ask God what to do with him. In Leviticus 24:13-14, we get the answer:

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take the blasphemer outside the camp, and all who heard [his blasphemy] shall lean their hands on his head. And the entire community shall stone him.

God goes on to list off a series of punishable offenses, ending his judgement with the infamous “eye for an eye” rule.

To us moderns with our strong commitment to free speech, the sentence seems unfairly harsh. Yet what I find particularly interesting in this passage is not the judgement itself, but the way it is to be carried out.

If God directly commands the death of the blasphemer, then why must the entire community stone him? Surely if God wished, He could have struck down the blasphemer where he stood.

To me, passage cuts to the very heart fo the meaning of political community. If the blasphemer is to be put to death, it is not simply because of God’s will, but also because of the will of the political community. Here, we do not get the single zealot carrying out doctrinal law with the certainty and righteousness and certainty of God on their side (ahem, settler-colonists). Notably, had a single individual decided to mette out punishment on their own, they would have been in the wrong. For what is crucial here is not that the man be put to death, but that the community should act together to do so.

Here, it seems to me, those of us who are uncomfortable with the judgement have an obligation to convince our communities to act according to other standards.  After all, it is the community which determines that the man has blasphemed, the community which imprisons him, and the community which executes him.

Unfortunately, as we know all too well, we will not always win such debates. And when we do, we must recognize our collective responsibility for the group’s actions, even if we may disagree with them. It is somewhat difficult to believe that each and every man, woman, and child in the dessert threw a rock at the prisoner – we’re talking thousands of people! And, in fact, Rashi, the most well-known Jewish commentator on the Torah, maintains that only the direct witnesses actually carried out the physical actions of the execution. However, they do so in the name of the entire community.

It is very easy to try to purge our own guilt for actions that our polities take by noting that we, personally, disagree with those acts. It is very easy to say that I disagree with my government’s funding of the Israeli army and pretend that this puts me above the fray. And yet my tax dollars still go to fund those policies. More so, my government funds and defends those policies in my name and in the name of every other citizen. In these verses, we see that for God, there is quite literally no difference between a representative of the people carrying out the act and the people themselves. If the witnesses carry out the execution, the people themselves carry it out as well.

Recognizing our complicity in government policies that we disagree with should not be a recipe for endless self-inflicted guilt. Rather, it must be a call to action to change the communities in which we live. After all, their action is ours and ours is their’s.

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