I know I’m a day late, but the fiancee is going on another family vacation for eleven days, so I spent the day more or less with her.
So this week’s portion is Emor, which means “say” – it covers Leviticus 21:1-25:1. I will be honest, I don’t have a lot to say about this – there are a lot of rules for ritual purity and the Levite caste.
Starting with Leviticus 23, however, the rules for the major Jewish holidays are set down: the Sabbath, what becomes Rosh Hashanah, Passover, the Day of Atonement/Yom Kippur, and the holiday of booths, Sukkot.
Leviticus 23:27 uses a peculiar phrase that probably could use some explanation:
“You shall have a holy assembly, and you shall degrade themselves.”
It’s been pointed out that this is the same term describing how the Egyptians treated the Israelites, and generally means “oppressed”, either as a noun or adjective – or “to oppress, afflict, abuse” as a verb. (Friedman, 396). This is where the idea to not take care of oneself or eat came from, I would probably say.
There is an intriguing story to round out Leviticus 24, however. The son of an Egyptian father gets into a fight with an Israelite man, and profanes the name of God, so he was taken before Moses and stoned. Now, the barbarity of blasphemy aside, some say this story’s primary purpose is to show the importance and strictly observed equality before the law of the land for Israelite and foreigner, in this case Egyptian. (Friedman, 400).
What is also interesting, at least to me, is that the considered foreigner has an Israelite mother but an Egyptian father. It is most likely the Biblical, as opposed to post-Biblical, method of measuring descent, that inspired the Reform movement to use patrilineal in addition to matrilineal descent to define Jewishness.
Getting back to the story, it finishes off with God telling Moses to tell the congregation that all the people in the land of Israel, citizen and foreigner alike, are under the law for blasphemy. This is also emphasized at the end of Leviticus 24, showing how important equality under the law is for the Torah. At least, from a citizen’s perspective.
Finally, we get to the “eye for an eye” bit in Leviticus, a frequently misunderstood passage. It’s been taken as evidence of the very stern and vengeful character of the Torah but in context, the whole passage suggests an idea of measured retribution – that is, the punishment should be in equal measure to the crime, and not any more excessive (those in the know would wonder how this fits with orders to kill children disobedient to their parents, but I digress).
“And a man who will strike any human’s life shall be put to death,
and one who strikes an animal’s life shall pay for it: a life for a life.
And a man who will make an injury in his fellow: as he has done, so it shall be done to him.
A break for a break, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth: as he will make an injury in a human, so it shall be made in him.” (Lev. 24:17-20)
Friedman amonishes us against taking this passage literally, noting that the Bible also refers to people “knowing God face-to-face” and that of course not being literal (Friedman, 401).
The lesson here, for progressive politics is this: think of the drug war, and of the treatment of lower-class prisoners and especially foreigners in the current War on Terror. The US claims to be a Christian nation, but if Christianity is built on Biblical morality, then the government has failed quite drastically by meting out excessive punishments for drug offenses and not allowing foreign nationals due process under law, which is what this Parashat very strongly emphasizes, mentioning it twice in one chapter towards the end, and also crafting a fairly lengthy story for additional emphasis.