By Dr. Phyllis Chesler
April 30, 2010
East End Synagogue
Dedicated to Women of the Wall
God is holy and, in the Torah, God tells us many times that we, too, will be “holy.” The Torah addresses the nature of “holiness” and how impurity may be cleansed.
God assumes that Jewish women are holy too. Alas, many Jews seem to disagree with God—and in God’s name. This is potentially a form of blasphemy and is therefore a serious sin, as our current parasha emphasizes.
In Shemot 19:6, God tells us through Moshe that we will become “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” Again, God does not tell us that women are excluded.
God does not reject women’s potential for holiness. In Kedoshim 19:2, God tells Moshe to say to the “entire congregation” of the children of Israel (“kol adat bnei yisrael”) that they should be holy. God goes out of the way to emphasize that women are included.
In Kedoshim 20:26, God tells us, that “[you] shall be holy unto Me; for I the Lord am holy, and have set you apart from the peoples, that you should be Mine.” God does not tell women that we need not apply.
In our parasha, Emor, God does not exclude women from the possibilities and responsibilities of holiness, nor are women spared the punishments when we fail in our efforts. If we sin, we too may suffer, repent, even die—but precisely because we are “sanctified” by God.
This is a difficult parasha. We have only one brief and rather tragic story about a blasphemer, no fully fleshed-out family drama. In teaching us about the laws of purity and impurity and about the requirements of purity for our priestly caste, this parasha describes some heartbreakingly barbaric punishments for sins, such as being stoned by the entire congregation or being burned alive. Did Jews once actually do this?
What can one say?
Actually, quite a lot.
In terms of the death penalty, the Mishna (Makkot 1:10) has been famously quoted as saying that “A Sanhedrin that executes once in seven years is called murderous. Rabbi Eliezer b. Azariah says: ‘Once in seventy years.’ Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say: ‘Had we been members of a Sanhedrin, no person would ever be put to death.’ Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel remarks: ‘They would also multiply murderers in Israel.’”
The Gemara, in Tractate Sanhedrin, wrestled with this long ago. The rabbis insist that these punishments were never carried out, that they are here in order to teach us certain lessons. For example, in the eighth perek of tractate Sanhedrin, they ask: Did Torah-era Jews really kill people? Did parents bring their disobedient, under-age sons to court to have them executed for what they might do in the future—namely, graduate to murder? The rabbis say: Such parents must look identical, have the same voice, the same height, be exactly equal and thus, according to the rabbis, it never happened. The purpose of breaking your brain over this is because “study” is “meritorious.” It will lead to “zechut.” One lone Rabbi Yonathan said that parents did have their disobedient sons killed. He says: “I even sat on the grave [of one].”
And, in the matter of a city filled with idol-worshipping Jews (Ir Hanidachat), it is written that you are supposed to kill them all, even the babies, and burn the city down. Again, the Sanhedrin rabbis say that it never happened and it will never happen. Burn down even the mezuzot? Again, Reb Yonathan writes: “I saw it and I sat on the ruins.” The rabbis said that these laws were given to us to study, that they are only theoretical.
In Emor 24:10-16, we learn that the unnamed son of a Jewish woman, whose name we are given, Shlomit bat Divri, of the tribe of Dan, is also the son of an unnamed, possibly dead, possibly evil, possibly convert, Egyptian father. The son quarrels with a Jewish man (perhaps about his place in the camp because, as the son of an Egyptian father, he may have been treated as a semi-outcast—the Jews and Shlomit are not yet ready for Bnot Tzlophchad, who claimed their portion in their father’s name). The son is heard to use God’s name in a blasphemous way; we are not told what he said, exactly. Nevertheless, for this sin, God instructs Moshe to have those who directly heard him blaspheme put their hands on his head, after which the entire congregation must stone him to death. Interestingly, immediately afterwards (24:17), we are also told that “any man who kills any human being must surely be put to death.” This is certainly a cautionary admonition both towards those who charge blasphemy and towards those who carry out the punishment for it.
By the way, the rabbis blame Shlomit for her son’s wrongdoing. They present her as someone who married an Egyptian, a flirt, a seducer, and a chatterer. Just as the rabbis blame Leah for her daughter Dina’s rape (vatetze Leah), here they construct an elaborate narrative against Shlomit and about Moshe and the Egyptian taskmaster whom he slew.
The second barbaric punishment in this parasha concerns the daughter of a Kohen, a Bat Kohen. In 21:7, we are again told that “I, God, am holy, Who makes you (plural) holy.” Then, we are told that if a Bat Kohen, who is expected to maintain a higher standard of purity or holiness, nevertheless profanes her father’s name by committing adultery, that she is to be “burned with fire.” Burned alive? Or simply burned somewhere on her flesh, hurt, marked? Being burned alive is an even more gruesome punishment than being stoned to death.
In any event, either such practices were never carried out—or ceased long ago. We do not do such things today. As Jews, we have evolved away from such savagery. We do not stone blasphemers, we do not burn allegedly sexually active women—or do we? In what sense might some Jews still behave as if they are vaulting backwards in time, right over rabbinic Judaism, and situating themselves as if they lived in parashat Emor?
I again ask: Do Jews today actually commit barbaric acts against perceived blasphemers, against women? There are spiritual wounds, harm to one’s soul, one’s reputation—bodily harm too—that are still being carried out by Jews—and in God’s name. May God forgive them for repeatedly desecrating God’s name so publicly.
I am now talking about what happens to holy Jewish women who are trying to come close to God at the Kotel, who follow orthodox interpretations of halacha, who are also “b’tzalmo,” in God’s image. Those Jews who oppose Women of the Wall (“Nashot HaKotel” as they like to say) have not tried to stone us to death—but they have thrown heavy metal chairs at us. They have thrown bags of water, diapers filled with excrement. They have not burned anyone alive—but they have cursed us as witches, whores, Nazis, provokers and defilers. They have stalked us, harassed us—and the state has not protected Women of the Wall.
Our opponents see themselves—and scapegoat WOW—for what they themselves may be. Desecrators. Violators. Violent, angry, haters.
The haredim have not tried to stone us to death—but they have tormented us with legal and economic might and slandered us publicly. Often, the rabbanut protects these mobs. We are the ones who get arrested as “provokers,” not the ones who resort to violence. Sometimes, over the years, the state has hired special police officers to drag our women away from prayer. Female haredim have hooted, yelled, cursed, been physically aggressive, fomented riots against us, and have even tried to steal our Torah. As the author of Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, I am disgusted but not surprised.
Women of the Wall are trying to do God’s work, trying to perfect themselves in holiness. Jewish women are today more learned in Torah than ever before
Our opponents are committing a real hillul hashem.
 The rabbis suggest that the “ish mitzri” who fathered the unnamed blasphemer was none other than the Egyptian whom Moshe slew—an Egyptian who essentially raped his mother Shlomit and killed his mother’s legal father! However, I recall that Moshe himself was also known as, and recognized as, an “ish mitzri” when he sojourned in Midian (Shemot 2:19). More important: If Moshe, the leader of his mother’s people, had actually killed the unnamed blasphemer’s father, one can understand how precarious the blasphemer’s position might have been, how much resentment the blasphemer might bear towards Moshe and towards a people who sometimes almost worshipped Moshe—and towards a people who might not have accepted the blasphemer as truly one of their own, entitled to pitch his tent among his maternal grandfather’s people.
The rabbis also try to understand whether the unnamed blasphemer is or is not Jewish. His mother certainly is Jewish, suggesting that he would not have had to convert. On the other hand, he may have been conceived and born before Sinai, and as such, he might have had to convert since the law that the child of a Jewish mother is automatically Jewish was not yet in effect. The Ramban suggests that the Egyptian father may also have converted to Judaism and followed Shlomit into exile. But, the question still arose: Where does this unnamed man belong? Where can he pitch his tent? Is he or is he not a full member of his mother’s tribe, a Danite? Does his mother, a woman, have inheritance rights among her father’s people?