Everlasting Relationship: Not Taking God’s Name in Vain

I have a fond memories of college. I went to Columbia College which is known for the Core Curriculum in which the entire school has to take the same battery of classics in Western Literature, Philosophy, Art, and Music. One sharp memory is from the Literature and Humanities Course. The instructor was a super smart graduate student who was getting two PHDs at the same time. He was looking at two writers who were also architects, comparing their writing to their buildings and to each others works. Clearly a big brain person.

After we had read sections of the “Old Testament” the instructor came in and asked the class, ” Who can write God’s name (the Tetragrammaton) on the board?” As I recall I was the only one to raise their hand. At this point he offering me his chalk and asked me, “Will you do it?” I said that I would not do it. A big smile came across his face as the rest of the class was befuddled by what just happened. To push the topic even further he repeated the whole interaction for the class and I played along. He then remarked, ” While I want people to do their reading every week, this week Mr. Orlow has done the unusual thing of actually DOING his reading.”

Of course he was referencing to prohibition from the 10 Commandments to not take God’s name in vain. We had just read book of Exodus where is says, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”(Exodus 20:7) I had not just read the book, I was following it. I would not write on the board lest it be erased.

I was thinking about this story this week when reading Emor, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

You shall faithfully observe My commandments: I am the Lord, ולא תחללו You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people—I the Lord who sanctify you, I who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God, I the Lord.

Leviticus 22:31-33

In context on the 10 Commandments using God’s name in vain in the the context of swearing by God’s name. Here is seems to have a broader context. But what does it mean here? What does ” ולא תחללו you shall not prophane” mean? Clearly it is not limited to not writing on a chalk board.

I want to offer a reading of what this means in the context of another use of this word from the beginning of our Torah portion. There we read about the limits of who the Priest is allowed to marry. There we read:

They shall not take a wife that is a whore, וַחֲלָלָה֙ or profane; neither shall they take a woman divorced from her husband: for he is holy unto his God.

Leviticus 21:7

While it is all based on some deeply challenging assumptions of gender and sexuality, the cases of the priest not being able to marry the whore or the divorcee seem pretty clear. I still do not know the case of the “prophane” woman that the Priest cannot marry. Rashi explains:

חללה — This is a woman born from a marriage which is forbidden to the priesthood alone (Kiddushin 77a), e. g., the daughter of a widow and a high priest, or the daughter of a divorced woman [or one released from levirate marriage by the appropriate ceremony (cf. Deuteronomy 25:9)] and an ordinary priest…

Rashi on Leviticus 21:7

According to one of Rashi’s explanations the prophane woman is the child of one of the forbidden relationships with a priest or a woman who has been in another union with another Priest. This is ethically charge to limit the child by the choices of her parents. But, how might this understanding חללה impact our understanding of what it means to prophane God’s name?

The bond between the Jewish People and God is eternal. Tested throughout our rough and tumble history, our connection is very much unbreakable. In many deep ways we imagine this relationship to be a holy marriage. While people might get divorced, we do not have the capacity to break that unique relationship with God. Clearly there are religions that are animated by notions of supersessionism. They want Judaism to be obsolete. They assume that their relationship with God as God’s second wife is predicated by our divorce. Clearly we do not believe that is possible for us as a people, but how might this play out for us as individuals.

A deeper reading of the prohibition of taking God’s name in vain in the context of the the forbidden relationships of the priest unearths something compelling. God is articulating how God wants us to enter into this sacred relationship as a people and as individuals. Regardless what our parents’ relationship or issues with God might have been, we need to approach God under our own terms. We must believe that we can enter into divine relationship with a sense of purity and without any generational baggage. I am not saying will be easy, but we have to have the clarity to do our reading and the conviction to act on it. This is a testimony to our everlasting relationship. The chalk board can be erased, but not our divine relationship.


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