At the end of Emor, this week’s Torah portion, we read a very disturbing story about the blasphemer (Leviticus 24:10-23). He was the child of an Egyptian father and his mother was of the tribe of Dan. As the story goes, he cursed the name of God. In turn, God instructs Moses to lead him out of the camp and eventually have him killed because of his sin.
At first glance, we as moderns are left dealing with the issue of a child of an intermarriage being mistreated. He was a landless person. He could not return to Egypt, and he had no portion in the land of Israel in the tribe of Dan. Where was his place? Where was the justice? This story seems out of touch with the rest if the Torah. We need to find a place for everyone in our community.
Upon second reading we see that he must have been a special person. To be able to curse the name of God, he must have known the name of God. How did this guy know the name of God? I would like to suggest that it might be the nature of his being alienated which privileged him to know the name of God. We should not aspire to be landless, but this alienation has been a troupe of our existence. For most of our history, from the time that Avram set out on this project called Judaism until the founding of the State of Israel, we have been living as aliens in the lands of others. The memory of being an outsider to a homeland has made someone an insider to the Jewish people.
We learn in the Gemara that 12,000 Chevrutot of Rabbi Akiva died between Passover and Shavuot because they did not treat each other with respect (Yevamot 62). While the Gemara reports that they died from a horrible plague, many believe that they died in the Bar Kochba revolt. This Sunday will be Lag B’ Omer, which marks the succession of the plague/massacre. For those who choose to say that Rabbi Akiva’s students died in the Bar Kochba revolt, I ask you to pause and realize that they died in the name of Jewish autonomy. In our striving to make a home for ourselves we need to ensure that everyone in our community feels welcome even if they do not have land. The rest of us should reflect on how we need to learn the lesson that Rabbi Akiva’s neglected to learn and treat everyone with respect, especially someone who is of mixed lineage in our community.
In many ways we exist in two communities today. One part is so insular and secure that they have grown out of touch with this essential memory of alienation, while the other is left trying to reconcile the realities of widespread intermarriage. In welcoming in the children of mixed married families into our community we will help renew our own sense of sacred alienation. In embracing these so-called “half Jews” the community will become whole again. I am not asking to change halacha, but an attitude of wanting to be inclusive. In so doing, I hope that we can all learn to bless God in new ways.