Miles Hall’s Dvar Torah: Emor

Miles Hall at his Zoom Bimah

Shabbat shalom, and hello everyone. The Torah portion that we’re reading from this week is Emor, which is in the book of Leviticus. 

Emor primarily gives laws for priests serving in the traveling tent of God in the wilderness, known as the Mishkan. Emor also tells the Israelites which people are not allowed to serve as priests, such as people with physical disabilities. The Torah portion also recounts how to observe Holy Days such as Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, and Sukkot. It gives instructions on holy items for use in the Mishkan as well as animal sacrifices. Emor also is the place in the Torah where we learn that we are not allowed to say the most sacred name of God out loud, and what happens if we do. Finally, Emor teaches us about the law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

My aliyah, the part of the Torah that I chanted, was from the last portion of Emor, and I will be discussing one part of it in depth. In this part God is telling Moses how to respond to a man who blasphemed, meaning he pronounced the name of God in vain. It says:

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying:
Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him.
And to the Israelite people speak thus: Anyone who blasphemes his God shall bear his guilt;
if he also pronounces the name LORD, he shall be put to death. The whole community shall stone him; stranger or citizen, if he has thus pronounced the Name, he shall be put to death.
If anyone kills any human being, he shall be put to death.
If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him:
fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him.
You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I the LORD am your God.
Moses spoke thus to the Israelites. And they took the blasphemer outside the camp and pelted him with stones. The Israelites did as the LORD had commanded Moses.

My aliyah presents two laws that on the surface seem to contradict each other. First, it says how if you speak the name of God in vain – that is, blaspheme – then everyone in the camp is commanded to stone you to death. It’s not just that a blasphemer is punished with death, but that everyone has to participate in his killing, like a ceremony — which to me sounds very gruesome and like overkill. 

But then, in the very next sentence, it says that if you kill a human, you shall be put to death. 

If we take both laws literally as they’re stated in the Torah and try to follow them both, then it seems like it would mean that everyone should be put to death, because everyone would have been responsible for stoning to death the person who blasphemed.

Maybe that’s too literal a reading of what’s going on here. Maybe whoever wrote this part of the Torah thought that it would be obvious that the rule of ‘a life for a life’ doesn’t apply if you’ve been commanded to carry out divine punishment. And that of course humans need to question and interpret these laws to make sense of them.

But it sometimes feels like the Torah doesn’t really set us up to interpret it non-literally, because many times the Torah teaches a law but then doesn’t give a reason for the law. 

I get frustrated that we don’t get an explanation for why a law exists. Basically, it seems like the question of ‘why do we do this’ is answered with ‘because God says so.’

As Jews, the Torah is our ‘primary source.’ It’s the basic text that we engage with. But what if it says things that we don’t agree with now?

Throughout Jewish history, many Jews have wrestled with these questions. The rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud spent all their time questioning what God was actually wanting us to do, rather than what was written in the commandments.

Nowadays, Reconstructionism is both a denomination and an approach to Judaism that is similar to what these ancient rabbis did. Reconstructionism allows us to wrestle with our received traditions and commandments and not throw them out altogether. This allows us to still cling to the cultural, philosophical, and moral aspects of Judaism. 

Why would we want to do that? Because it allows us to stay connected to the past and to the practices of our ancestors. And it seems like it would be wrong to discard our most basic text just because we happen to not believe in all parts of it right now. It’s comforting to have what seems like the best of both worlds, in which we can hold onto ancient beliefs and still believe in our contemporary morality.

Personally, I think that you can be Jewish and believe that the Torah is a collection of myths, rather than the literal word of God. It’s okay as a Jew to think of the Torah as a bunch of stories that people wrote, and it’s okay as a Jew to not believe that we need to follow the Torah literally. It’s okay to believe that the Torah is simply an important text that generates a lot of information and questions on how our ancestors perceived God and how we see God now.

We’re now going to discuss the three discussion questions included in the program. Please unmute yourself and respond to one or more of them:

a. Why do people feel the need to make the Torah metaphorical rather than just disagreeing with it outright?

b. The version of God in my Torah portion is a God with personality and feelings. But for many contemporary Jews, we think of God as a force. What do we do if the version of God in our received religious tradition isn’t the God that we believe in today? How do we reconcile these different versions of God? 

c. In my Torah portion it says: “You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I the LORD am your God.” Why should we treat people the same because “God is God?” Why can’t it just be for ethical or rational reasons?

I’m glad that I could share my questions with you so that you question them too. Thank you for the great discussion.

To conclude, I want to say thank you to everybody that is here today to help me celebrate and everybody that helped me get here. I want to say thank my Hebrew tutor Deb, who helped me master my aliya and haftarah. And I want to thank Rabbi Ora, who helped me understand my parsha and answered my questions. I want to thank my parents who supported me through this process, and my family who is online today to help me celebrate. And finally to my friends, community, and the congregation for supporting me on the way. Thank you! And Shabbat shalom.