[Blog] Don’t stone the blasphemer: Theology in times of crisis

12 May 2020 – 18 Iyyar 5780

Rabbi Aaron Goldstein
12 May 2020

Leviticus 24:1-14

The lampstand, the shewbread and the blasphemer: Sounds like the beginning of a joke and what an odd combo, as our Sages throughout time have noted. What is the connection, the rationale for being placed in this order, particularly following the central, soaring passages of the Torah, the Holiness Code, followed by the list of Torah festivals.

I could relate to the lampstand and the shewbread. So many of us are using our time to pursue our hobbies, and this could especially be a bumper harvest as many try growing our own for the first time. It is unclear how successful our olive harvest will be, especially for those in cooler climates than the Land. The purpose of the choicest of the oil was fuel a ner tamid, an eternal light.

Another common contemporary theme is breadmaking. The shewbread followed the ancient idea of feeding the gods. In this case there were 12 loaves made to of course represent each of the tribes. The run on flour seems to indicate that we have become peoples of bread or at least cake makers. There are few households I have spoken with who have not experiments or tried new recipes and foods they might not have hitherto considered.

There are few narrative sections in Leviticus, and they tend to be horrific: In Shmini we encounter the demise of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu; and here in Emor, the public stoning to death of someone who blasphemes.

The casual use of God’s name, generally by incredibly secular people, winds me up. The use of OMG, is so ubiquitous that is appears on t-shirts, blingy neck adornments and stickers alongside WOW! and POW! It displays lazy use of vocabulary – my daughter’s answer when younger to my reservation of ‘OMG’ for appropriate use, was a rather cute, ‘oh my giddy aunt!’ The phrase devalues ‘awe’ as it is most often used concerning pithy instances. Surely we can think of something else so that we reserve use of the name of God, even if not the Ineffable Name of yud-hey-vav-hey

Interestingly, I have admonished myself in recent weeks for reaching for PG – Please God. I was first aware of this term through my Booba, Elise. I don’t know whether she adopted it through World War 2, a time when the difference between life and death was so ephemeral. Was I reaching for this term, being surrounded by war-like language during this COVID-19 pandemic?

I upbraided myself because it sounded so simple – and dangerous. If God pleased it, all would be well. Holding that theology during a pandemic must either provide the believer with an immense sense of comfort, survival meant God was on their side, their prayers had been answered. But it demands nothing of them. They can worship, atone and follow the strictures as their religion suggests they should appeal to God; but this reduces God’s Will to fatalism. A fatalistic theology to which Jewish thinkers have applied devises such as messiah and a world to come; but ultimately and especially in the last century, rejected.

Holding this theology today can lead to making unsafe decisions or the loss of faith, at a time when it is sorely needed.

Sifra (Emor 235): “And the son of an Israelite woman… went out”

Whence did he go out?

From the court of Moses. He had sought to pitch his tent in the midst of the camp of Dan. The Danites said: By what right to you pitch your tent in the camp of Dan? He replied: I am a descendant of a daughter of Dan. They retorted: The Torah states: “Every man of the Children of Israel shall pitch by his own standard, with the ensigns of his father’s houses” (Num 2:2). He appealed to the court of Moses but lost his case, whereupon he blasphemed.

The individual felt an injustice had been committed against them. Rather than criticising the justice system, perhaps advocating for change, he cursed God, by profaning God’s Name.

‘So what?’ you may ask. Don’t we all do that to an extent when we tardily say OMG or PG?

The Sefer HaHinukh (C. 13, Spain, explicating the 613 Commandments) points towards a useful response. “By such an evil utterance the speaker divests themselves of all virtue – especially that of the intellect and speech, its expression – and all their innate dignity becomes destructive.”

If we feel bereft, and human contact does not lift us, we need to feel the comfort, support and love of God. We therefore need an understanding of God or at least a means to approach God that is not self-destructive.

As Liberal rabbis, we do not presume to dictate theology, one’s own understanding of God. Rather, we are here to encourage and support our constant journey through life with God, exploring together our comprehension, expressing our need and doing so together, in community.

When our routine changes once more, and we are granted more ‘freedom’ of movement, we should be cautious of previous habits that enslaved us. Equally for those who may still be a while off permission to roam and feel enslaved: Can we find liberty in some of the practices we have dabbled and experimented with, and embraced given a little time and intention. We may have found passion, peace of mind and a sense of self, a light inside us that has helped sustain us. May we consider how, like the purest of olive oils and food for the altar, they can maintain the light they bring so it becomes eternal, ones that provide food for the soul, sustenance pleasing to the Divine.

And when we wish to blaspheme, to cry out in anger and curse God for the pain we feel, may we find the strength to reach out and feel reached out to. When we humble ourselves and those of our ancient ancestor’s theology, acknowledging that they only reflected the limitations of human comprehension and language, we can find an inner strength, one that lights and sustains through moments of misery. Like the liturgist and poet Ruth Brin (C. 20, USA) conceived, when we have a need, and that is not met by traditional thought or word, may we be unafraid as Liberal Jews, to reconceive and find new words. Who does not find themselves questioning, even sometimes blaspheming

Out of blasphemy, may we find God.

    ‘The Woman’s Meditation,’

    When men were children, they thought of God as Father;
    When men were slaves, they thought of God as a Master;
    When men were subjects, they thought of God as a King.

    But I am a woman, not a slave, not a subject,

    not a child who longs for God as father or mother.

    I might imagine God as teacher or friend, but those Images,

    like king, master, father or mother, are too small for me now.

    God is the force of motion and light in the universe;

    God is the strength of life on our planet;

    God is the power moving us to do good;

    God is the source of love springing up in us.

    God is far beyond what we can comprehend.


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