I’m teaching a Melton class on death and mourning and I’m getting a little loud and passionate. All of a sudden, I hear from Bonnie’s purse, the voice of God -- alright, Siri, the voice of the iPhone -- seemingly responding to me and saying in her school-marmish, patient yet condescending tone: “There’s no need for profanity!”
I’m assuming Israeli iPhones have a Siri or Sarah that understands Hebrew. If so, she would be generally happy to listen to a Torah reading and not respond thus, even if she had special training in Biblical Hebrew. There are number of places in the Bible where words that were considered indelicate, having to do with rectal pain and coitus were substituted in the reading of the text without changing the written word.
Although that doesn’t happen in our portion, there are a few more subtle circumlocutionary strategies that are present in the writing itself.
First of all, much of our early portion, dealing with the death of priests’ relatives, is said in the third person. A little later, when speaking of death, rather than saying Aaron it says High Priest. Both are examples of avoiding saying out loud what we most fear: the deaths of individuals we love. Call it superstition or a desire to avoid setting ourselves up for unpleasant, unnecessary feelings of trepidation; we humans are incredibly vulnerable to the power of suggestion.
Another example comes from commentators who compare this portion with the Noah story. In referring to pure and defiled animals, the Rabbis claim that God, in Noah’s time, adjusted 8 letters to avoid saying animals were ‘defiled.’ Rather than טמאה (defiled) it referred to them as שאינה טהורה (not pure). So why here, in this portion which speaks of priests defilement does God not similarly adjust the text? Why when referring to those things that make the priest ritually defiled does it not say ritually not-pure?
The Maggid of Duvno tells the following story to elucidate the point:
Apparently across the street from the Maggid lived a coarse, vulgar man known in the town as ‘Fat Zeinvil’. One day the Maggid’s assistant directed someone to the house saying, “Oh, Fat Zeinvil? He lives there across the street.” The Maggid was incensed: “Why did you say that? Why didn’t you just guide the man across the street rather than using the eptithet?” The following week, the shadchan, the matchmaker, of the town visited the Maggid and offered to have Zeinvil’s son marry the great man’s daughter. The Maggid yelled at the Shadchan, “How dare you suggest I be machatonim (in-laws) with ‘Fat Zeinvil’!” When the Maggid’s assistant pointed out the discrepancy, the Maggid explained that using the epithet was necessary to express why he wouldn’t allow his daughter to marry Zeinvil’s son; it was relevant to an important matter. In the case of the traveller, there was no reason to predispose the guest to despise the individual in question.
Just the facts, Ma'am.
Similarly, although circumlocutions are used to avoid bad feelings wherever possible (the non-pure animals haven’t done anything wrong in the Noah story), when it comes to rules with life or death consequences, plain languge must be used. If the priests do things wrong, they could die and could cause trouble for the whole encampment; thus the need for plain language to learn what’s allowed and what’s not in the service of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.
Another section which avoids circumlocutions in describing a curse is near the end of our portion. An unnamed man of Egyptian and Israelite birth gets into a fight and ends up blaspheming, cursing God, in public. Although it’s clearly a terrible sin, there is no set punishment for such an outrage so Moses needs to check with God and the answer is that the offender needs to receive the death penalty.
The portion on the blasphemer starts with the word VaYetze -- and he went out -- and the commentators are all over it because it seems unnecessary to the story. They come up with three explanations:
1. The Narrative suggests that the unnamed son of an Egyptian father wasn’t allowed to pitch his tent with his mother’s tribe, the Dan descendants. When Moses sided with the tribal elders against him, he cursed God.
2. By Juxtaposing the story with the verses that precede this story, the Show-bread or Challah that was in the Temple precincts were understood to sit there for a week and then be consumed. The fight begins when the offending party scorns the High Priest who eats it saying: “This is food fit for a king? 9 day old bread?” The fight that ensues leads to the cursing.
Finally, the Moral argument: By misusing the human gift of speech to utter the worst epithet possible, cursing God using the one word that only the High Priest is supposed to utter one day a year, the blasphemer gave up his human status, indeed the part of himself which was most recognizable as being created in God’s image.
Blasphemy for the 21st Century
In the modern world, it’s almost impossible to commit blasphemy since we really don’t know how to pronounce God’s name. The closest we come to it is using racial epithets, hate speech, as it were. By doing so, like the Blasphemer in the Torah, we denigrate ourselves and God by cursing and thus disrespecting the divine image of another. It’s been impossible to avoid the Donald Sterling issue this past week. Rabbi Slosberg -- writing from some place in the Atlantic on a cruise ship -- wrote a stinging rebuke to Sterling and his racism in the Courier Journal which was published on Tuesday; I urge you to read it.
As for those who argue it’s anti-Semitic to mention that Sterling is Jewish, I have to disagree: As Jews we should be ashamed when one of our own steps out of line and should own up to it. We are the people that canonized our critics, the prophets, after all; it’s in our spiritual DNA to be self critical.
Furthermore, we love to brag about how many Nobel prize winners we have, how we created Hollywood, how many great scientists, doctors, etc. we boast. If we can’t admit when one of ours does something wrong, we shouldn’t gloat when many of ours do well.
As for condemning his comments, I’m far more concerned with the fact that he was involved in making it hard for people of color to live in his apartment complexes. As Kareem Abdul Jabbar was quoted:
I’m bothered that everyone acts as if it’s a huge surprise. Now there’s all this dramatic and very public rending of clothing about whether they should keep their expensive Clippers season tickets. Really? All this other stuff has been going on for years and this ridiculous conversation with his girlfriend is what puts you over the edge? That’s the smoking gun?
He was discriminating against black and Hispanic families for years, preventing them from getting housing. It was public record. We did nothing. Suddenly he says he doesn’t want his girlfriend posing with Magic Johnson on Instagram and we bring out the torches and rope. Shouldn’t we have all called for his resignation back then?
As to the punishment: The $2.5 million fine seems like a lot to most of us but for him, it’s a drop in the bucket. More importantly, I think that taking away his favorite toy, the joy of owning a pro basketball team, and the public shaming seems a fair enough punishment for this particular offense.
Public versus Private Blasphemy
On the other hand, the Torah portion is clear that the blasphemer is being punished for a public statement. Had there not been at least two witnesses to the incident, the rabbis are clear that he should have been Karet, cut off by God but that there would be no human punishment since a death penalty, certainly by rabbinic standards, would require witnesses and a significant judicial procedure to enact.
In a sense, by having his racism publicly outed, Sterling is being placed in Karet, cut off, from all NBA activities.
But I’m concerned and so is Kareem: Are there no more places for people to say things in private anymore? Are there not things we all have said in the privacy of our homes that we would hope would never be shared, certainly with CNN?
Here’s what Kareem Abdul Jabbar said:
Man, what a winding road she led him down to get all of that out. She was like a sexy nanny playing 'pin the fried chicken on the Sambo.' She blindfolded him and spun him around until he was just blathering all sorts of incoherent racist sound bites that had the news media peeing themselves with glee.
We should be outraged that private conversations between people in an intimate relationship are recorded and publicly played. Let’s be outraged that whoever did the betraying will probably get a book deal, a sitcom, trade recipes with Hoda and Kathie Lee, and soon appear on Celebrity Apprentice & Dancing With the Stars.
Abdul-Jabbar says he hopes Sterling loses his franchise, “and whoever made this tape goes to prison.”
Back to the USSR...
The incident itself, involving surreptitious recording, reminds me of one described to me by Dr. Berke who taught here a few times and was the scholar for two trips I took with the Cantors Assembly, both to Poland and to German/Russia. He visited the USSR back in the 1960s when he and his wife were newlyweds. As they were leaving, one of his guides told him that the KGB had bugs in all the hotel rooms.
He visibly blushed. His guide reassured him: “Don’t worry Dr. Berke, they’re still listening to the late ‘50s!”
George Orwell’s 1984 was most likely referring to what would happen with technological gains in the totalitarian Soviet Union but we now live in a time where there are more cameras in public than at any time in history. We may argue that’s okay in the public sphere as we all want to be able to find and avoid future Boston Bombers.
But what happens when Siri is everywhere, recording us when we know it and when we don’t, in public AND in private. Does privacy disappear?
I’m glad we live at a time when Biblical style blasphemy is only observed in extremist cultures whereas in our neck of the woods, it’s been transformed into hate speech.
I can live with this instance of privacy breaking only because it seems analogous to what needed to be done to nail Al Capone. He should have been put in jail for murder but prosecutors had to use tax fraud to convict him. Similarly, Sterling’s public racist actions did not get the kind of attention and shame they deserved even though he was brought to court for them -- these revelations did.
Pascal's Wager redefined by Culinary Champion
If current day blasphemy is condemning the divine image in others, I’d like to conclude with something that might have been considered blasphemous in Biblical times but today I find refreshing. In the Jerusalem Post recently, there was an article about a world-class chef from our Israeli Partnership Region, Uri Yirmias who runs the 2013 top Trip Advisor restaurant, Uri Buri. He served a meal at Rye last year in a Jewish Community event. He grew up in a family with parents who adopted Jewish and Arab kids to be his siblings.
“I was never a big believer. I don’t know who God is, where he is or what he does. I know just one thing. I don’t ask him for anything but I thank him for everything.”
Uri describes a positive articulation of Pascal’s wager who said he believed in God so that, in case it’s all true, he’ll make it to the afterlife whereas if he’s wrong, there’s no real downside. Uri’s bet is one that won’t necessarily win a trifecta at the Derby, but it may win him a life of gratitude and continued success, professional and emotional.
Watchyou Talkin' About Siri?
When it comes to the Melton class, by the way, it turns out that Siri wasn’t talking to me after all. As I was teaching, Bonnie’s phone rang and she expressed a profanity, one that starts with the letter ‘s’. That’s when Siri said, ‘There’s no need for profanity!’
In answer to Siri, I say the following: “Yes, Siri, sometimes there IS a place for profanity. And I just hope you’re not listening or worse, recording, next time it happens, regardless of whether it’s me or not."
Just ask Kareem.