Speech/Act: Torah’s Verbal Revolution

The Hebrew Bible invents the idea that we are responsible for what we say.

There’s a story in the heart of the Hebrew Bible about a man who cursed God and is stoned to death for his crime.

And a son of an Israelite woman went out – and he was the son of an Egyptian man – into the midst of the children of Israel and fought in the camp, this son of an Israelite woman with a son of Israel. And the son of the Israelite woman cursed the Name and he made light [of It]. And they brought him to Moses. And the name of his mother was Shlomit bat Divri of the tribe of Dan. And they placed him in prison until it became clear to them what God would say. And God said to Moses, “Take the blasphemer out of the camp and all who heard him lay hands on his head – and then the whole congregation – stone him. Then speak to the children of Israel saying, ‘Everyone who profanes the Divine bears the guilt and who curses the Name of God shall absolutely die. The assembly should surely stone him, the stranger and the native who curses the Name shall die.’ –  Lev 24:10-16

There are many striking bits about this story, but one of the things that gets our attention is that it interrupts a long unbroken march of dos and don’ts. Since the beginning of Leviticus, there are about 200 new commandments plus restatements of prior ones, almost a third of the 613 total in the Torah.[1] If we plot their distribution, that string of commandments rise as a wave that crests and breaks on this story. Counting by weekly readings, the mitzvah ticker goes:

  • Vayikra 18
  • Tzav 16
  • Shemini 18
  • Tazria + Metzora 18
  • Acharei Mot 30
  • Kedoshim 51
  • Emor (this parsha) 56

Afterwards the wave ebbs until the end of Leviticus:

  • Behar 24
  • Bechutai 12

The first parsha of the next book, Numbers, has 0!

So what’s this story doing here? It clearly comes to tell us the consequences of violating one of the injunctions that preceded it, but why this one? Why does the wave climax here? What is the arc of the text trying to tell us with this intrusion? Clearly the Torah is sending up a flare, signaling something dramatic and particular, begging us to search what’s under its sudden glare, but what?

At first glance the episode seems like just a jarring cautionary tale. It even seems to confirm the worst prejudices of the popular atheistic notion that a set of different authors threw a bunch of stuff into an incoherent hodge-podge over centuries for varying political reasons.

Rather what we find on closer inspection is a complexly-plotted landscape – a purposeful terraforming – of words about words, about speech and its consequences illustrating a revolutionary concept fundamental to Judaism’s mission to sanctify the world, to make it holy and elevate it through our actions.

Verbal promiscuity

The key to unlocking the passage lies in a game it plays with the identity of the principal character, the anonymous blasphemer.

The opening verses tell us his father is Egyptian and his mother is an Israelite woman, mentioning the fact an extraordinary three times in a row. Then it names her, Shlomit bat Divri of the tribe of Dan. But the son himself remains unnamed except as the Israelite woman’s son. Why bother with his mother’s name and not his? Why does it specify that his father was Egyptian? Is the Torah just showing off its recall of ancient details to prove its authenticity? Maybe it doesn’t want to memorialize him, just as media today refuse to name mass murderers for fear copycats will also try to graffiti themselves on the monuments of history.[2]

But millenia of commentary leads us to a more camouflaged trail. Besides filling in the entire backstory,[3] it tells us that the name of the mother is really a slur inside a pun, an insulting nickname. She was “completely (shlomit[4]) the daughter (bat) of words (divrei).” She’s a yenta, a compulsive talker. She’s got loose lips and, by implication, loose morals. After all, she married an Egyptian, fathered his wayward son and dragged them both into exile with the Israelites. She’s a border-crosser, a searcher, an escapee, and not in a good way. I imagine a cartoon character with a big purse, loud polka dot dress, red high heels, crazy sunglasses, too-red lips, too much rouge, big hair and a big hat. Her voice pierces your peace and her words are a toxic cloud of narishkeit – foolishness – in your space. At very best, she’s a ridiculous gossip and extrovert.

At worst, though, her promiscuity can destroy the harmony of your tribe, your camp, your community, your world. That we know her name reminds us of another great incongruous aside in the Torah (back in Vayikra, Gen 36:24)) about Anah – the one who bred the first mule on Earth, the bastard product of incest from the tribe of Seir with whom Esau’s tribe dwells and intermarries. Singled out, we get a shudder of apprehension, an indictment: the bastard Anah, son of debasement, experiments out there in the wasteland to introduce something corrupt and unnatural into the world.[5] The effect of being singled out by name, Shlomit bat Divri, has the same effect. Her promiscuity threatens something fundamental to the order of the cosmos.

As any good parenting book will tell you, of course her son cannot control his behavior. Of course he picks a fight. Of course he loosens his tongue to curse God. And of course he ends up on death row.

The speech act revolution

This episode encapsulates in a few short lines an entire moral philosophy of justice and responsibility that is worthy of a book on its own. The son may be a product of his environment, but he is still responsible for his actions. This psychosocial philosophy of the Bible leads the way for a whole nation of refugee slaves to escape oppression and debasement, collectively and individually. The Hebrews could have embraced their victimhood as the core of their ethnic identity. Instead, they take the cure, a redemptive, if harsh, contract which puts us on the hook for our own behaviors. Even if others oppress us, even if we had a bad upbringing and terrible role models and corrupting parents, we’re accountable. However piteous, explanations are not excuses.

Again, though, why is this act among the hundreds of other possible violations in the string of laws in Leviticus the only one singled out for its own anecdote?

The answer lies in the dramatic innovation in the history of human culture it marks: in addition to obvious crimes like murder, adultery and theft, we are now also accountable even – maybe especially – for what comes out of our mouths.

Speech lies at the dramatic boundary between the inner, silent, private realm of our self and the emission, the voice or noise (the Hebrew word is the same: kol) that broadcasts what’s in there. Speech converts what we say to ourselves silently to what we say out loud to others. As the Twitter generation knows too well, it influences. It’s a form of influenza, a virus, a cultural flu. As William Burroughs quipped , “Language is a virus from outer space.” Laurie Anderson enshrined the blurb in song. Words have the extraterrestrial power to corrupt and subvert the health of the body politic. So first those who heard lay their hands on his head to indict him and, perhaps, like the leaning on the Yom Kippur goat, to cleanse themselves of any pollution from hearing his blasphemy. Then “all the people” stone him to death.

What capital crime, exactly, did our blasphemer commit to deserve the death penalty?

He violated the Third Commandment.

The revolution pivots on a word with a life of its own

As I noted earlier, in addition to all the new commandments that build to a wave that crests at this story, there are re-statements of previous ones, including the Third of the Ten Commandments. Here is its original, when God Himself announces it to all the Israelites at Sinai:

לֹא תִשָּׂא אֶת־שֵׁם־ ה׳ אֱלֹהֶיךָ לַשָּׁוְא כִּי לֹא יְנַקֶּה ה׳ אֵת אֲשֶׁר־יִשָּׂא אֶת־שְׁמוֹ לַשָּׁוְא׃ 

You shall not take the name of HaShem your God in vain for HaShem will not clear one who lifts up God’s name in falsehood. – Ex 20:7

But here in Leviticus it come with two enhancements:

וְלֹא־תִשָּׁבְעוּ בִשְׁמִי לַשָּׁקֶר וְחִלַּלְתָּ אֶת־שֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲנִי ה׳

You shall not swear by My name to lie nor profane the name of your God: I am HaShem –  Lev 19:12

And again a few chapters later just before our story:

וְלֹא תְחַלְּלוּ אֶת־שֵׁם קׇדְשִׁי וְנִקְדַּשְׁתִּי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲנִי ה׳ מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם׃

You shall not profane My holy name that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people, I HaShem who sanctify you. – Lev 22:32

Both latter versions add the word chalal – “profane.” This is not casual poetic license nor editorial sloppiness. Rather the word traces an arc of meaning across the text of the Five Books of Moses that is so intentional and yet so hidden that it suggests an author of sublime subtlety.

Words with the root letters chet-lamed-lamed appear only five times prior in all of Torah, always to describe specific acts of profanity: illicit sex; desecration of the altar and of the Sabbath; eating the Temple sacrifices at the wrong times; and sacrificing your children to Moloch.[6]

Then something extraordinary happens: the word explodes, rat-a-tat-tat, fifteen times in quick succession like firecrackers ignited on a string or drums accompanying the larger theme: the peaking of the “mitzvah ticker” on the run up to this anecdote.

Afterwards, just as remarkably, the word goes silent, disappears. We hear its muted echo in the re-iteration of the blasphemer’s fatal act – אֶת־הַשֵּׁם וַיקַלֵּלet haShem l’hitkalal – “the Name he belittled” (Lev 24:10), a kuf (ק) substituting for the chet (ח). Is “kalal” a pun or intentional echo of the more serious “chalal”? In any case the word is subsiding, changing.

When it re-emerges, it is transformed mysteriously into something else entirely: a corpse of a particular kind.

All Hebrew words that share the three-letter root of chalal, even those that enter the lexicon later, imply something missing, a penetration or, more abstractly, an absence or subtraction that breaks the continuous integrity of something. These include the words for “hole,” the verb “to bore” as in boring a hole;  a flute – a simple piece of wood that is hollow through its axis (core) and then bored with smaller holes in a line along its surface; violation; profane, corrupt or compromised; and even void or empty space.[7] In this context, how does chalal as “transgressive speech” relate to piercing, penetrating?

I suggest it’s like this: Words come out of your mouth, the literal anatomical portal between inside and outside your body. More symbolically, speech crosses ethical and spiritual boundaries as well. Words bore a hole through the monumental wall between inner consciousness, the realm of private thought, and public pronouncement, the outer manifestation of our will and desire. Speech is deliberate, intentional. It is the active manifestation – the ex pression, the forceful outing – of our free will. While we are not usually held accountable in Judaism for our inner urges and impulses, we are always responsible for their active manifestations and their consequences. The harlot in general allows herself to be ‘penetrated’ licentiously, and by doing so she pierces the sanctity of Israel. Shelomit bat Divri is (at very least) promiscuous in her words and perhaps in other kind of acts as well. After all, she married an Egyptian. Her son is her inevitable heir, her expression in both the most literal and the spiritual genetic senses. His genealogy puts him on the border between Egypt and Israel, between inside the tribe of Dan and outside it. In turn, according to the sages, this is the source of his grievance: the tribe denies him a share in the territory they will inherit. This leads him to pick a fight and then curse God. Of course his fate is to become an anonymous blasphemer subject to capital punishment.

This is the founding principle of Torah and the punchline, or at least the pivot, in our quest for how the word chalal reveals the Torah’s intention. We are responsible for what we say to the uttermost extent up to and including capital punishment for profanity, just as we are for any of our other actions. In fact, the very name of the parsha Emor is named “speak.” As the tolling of commandments peaks in it, it seems to tell us that speech act is the paradigmatic act marking our choices between sacred and profane. Speech in all its ordinariness – as much or more than sex or violence – demonstrates our free will, our choices between good and evil. We can profane God’s name – chilul haShem – or sanctify It – Kiddush HaShem.

This marks one of the Torah’s profound revolutions, a new concept on the stage of human culture. Prior to the Hebrew Bible, there is no record in ancient cultures of any law against blasphemy, let alone libel, slander or defamation.[8],[9] I imagine one did have to tread carefully about speaking against a god-king in Sumer, Akkadia or Egypt, and surely all people have always been sensitive to what others say about them (what’s more human than curses or insults leading to blows?). Sanctioning speech as a matter of law is part of the larger transformation of humanity brought by Torah as the first document written in the phonetic alphabet. The twenty-two signs of the Hebrew alphabet utterly reshaped culture. It enabled anything that could be spoken to become permanent, transcribed, documented in writing. It’s inevitable that the nation constituted in this new communications medium are now responsible for their words.

So the Torah brings this little set piece about profane speech to showcase and enshrine its revolution.

The coda to the story

From this moment onwards the word chalal is transformed: it comes to means a corpse that has been murdered by a penetrating wound (e.g., stabbing, piercing with an arrow). It’s almost as if the body of the blaspheming son remains as a testament to the crime, for this is a special case of a corpse. The more general corpse is called a nefesh (soul) or a mat (dead one). The chalal is equated with the impurity of death, in other words, with the violation of life/spirit/soul itself, for it also is used to describe the priest who is compromised – whose holiness is pierced – by contact with this kind of corpse.

If we follow the whole journey of the word chalal through the books of the Torah[10], it begins by meaning general profanation or grievous sinning, comes to mean blasphemy in particular, and ends by being equated with death of the body and soul at once. As the story tells us, “He [the profaner] shall absolutely die…he shall die.”

The message is clear: of all the crimes, one of the most heinous and paradigmatic is through a speech act. After all, even in English we call it profanity. It earns you the double death in this world and in the world to come. Placed before us is the alternative inherent in Torah’s project: the purpose of life is sanctification of the world through our performance of speech, our discourse with and in front others and especially as tribute to the Almighty in prayer.

– David Porush, 2022 (5782)

ENDNOTES


[1] By Maimonides’ count:  http://www.vaadrv.org/rambam613mitzvot.asp

[2] The man who gathered on the Sabbath and is also put to death is likewise anonymous, but through midrash we find that he’s Zelophechad, the father of the daughters who appael to Moses to give them their inheritance of land and in turn move God to change the law. This cursing sinner though remains emphatically anonymous even through thousands of years of midrash.

[3] According to midrash, Just before getting into the fight, the son has applied for his rightful place in the tribe of Dan, which will give him a portion of land when the Hebrews occupy the Promised Land. Although by law he has as much right as any other Israelite, Dan rejects him on a technicality: although his mother is an Israelite as the passage reminds us three times, tribal inheritances are patrilineal. Although his father was a convert and should according to Torah law be honored just like any Jew (in fact the end of this passage reinforces that law), the Egyptian father was not “grandfathered” into the Torah’s contract.  In reality, the Sages admit, the tribe is afraid that the son’s questionable patrimony might wreak havoc. Maybe the tribal elders knew the whole family was trouble. In another example of Torah’s keen sense of ironic justice, the son goes off in anger and immediately proves them right by getting into a fight and worse, profaning God’s Name.

Chizkuni (Chezekiah bar Manoah, 13th c French) explains further: “את השם ויקלל, he also used the tetragram when cursing. Rabbi Yossi is on record as saying that the Egyptians who were ritually contaminated, also conferred their ritual contamination on the Israelites. His colleagues claimed that the wife of Neriah, a grandson of Dan, was Shlomit, daughter of Divri, and that during the night following the day when Moses slew the Egyptian who was one of the supervisors checking the number of bricks delivered by the Jewish slaves, raped her. History has a way of repeating itself. According to Tanchuma, Emor 24 as well as Vayikra Rabbah 32,4 when the quarrel broke out, and a Jewish man accused this man to be a bastard, this man asked the accuser where his father had been on the night when he claimed that his mother had been raped. The night he referred to was the night when his mother had supposedly been raped by an Egyptian overseer, who had used a pretext to send her husband on an errant. The reason why this blasphemer used the tetragram when cursing G-d, was that he had overheard how Moses had used that name as a means to kill his father. [I do not follow this, because if he had not been born yet, and his mother became pregnant with him as a result of the rape, how could he have overheard Moses? Ed.][This is why the Torah in Exodus 2,14 has one of the two quarrelling Israelites ask Moses whether he planned to kill him also by using the tetragram to curse him, so that he would fall dead. (הלהרגני אתה אומר: “are you going to utter a word which will kill me?”)] – Sefaria commentary on v. Lev 24:11

[4]  From the sense of shalom meaning complete as in refuah shlaymah, a complete healing, whole, or like the round impenetrable zen completeness of a circle, also shlaymah.

[5] See “The Mystery of Mysteries” Part 2: The Bible’s Darwinian Experiment “  https://davidporush.com/2019/01/16/the-mystery-of-mysteries-the-stubbornness-of-the-mule-problem-in-darwinian-science-and-jewish-cosmology-2/

[6]  Gen 49:4; Ex 20:25; Ex 31:14; Lev. 19:8; and Lev 18:21 respectively.

[7] Etymologists trace it to its more basic two-letter root  chet-lamed [חל] that forms words including “a hoe” (it digs a hole), “an ill person” (whose integrity is compromised) “sand” (all holes divided by grains), “beginning of something” such as a process or action (to start something is to break the abstract status boundary between stasis and movement) and more generally a state transition like “a switch”, “a window” (before there was glass it refers to a mere opening in the wall), “removal of something,” “a separation,” “something fleeting,” and “a dream,” (a meaning that deserves a chapter on its own). See Meir Goldberg, “Evidence of the Divine Origin of the Torah,” http://www.nleresources.com/media/Evidence%20of%20the%20Divine%20Origin%20of%20the%20Torah%20Meir%20Goldberg_1.pdf Accessed 12/17/2021.

[8] The Code of Ur-Nammu (Sumer 2300 BCE) has no law governing speech. Ancient pre-Biblical Egypt, amazingly, has left no record of any code of laws.

[9] Scholars trace laws governing speech back to Roman and Greek law at best, as in this by Van Vechten Veeder, “The History and Theory of the Law of Defamation,” Columbia Law Review Vol. 3, No. 8 (Dec., 1903), pp. 546-573

[10] There’s another mystical turn to make with the word chilul but its consideration falls outside the bounds of this essay. Chalal in modern Hebrew refers to “space” as in “outer space” or “spaceman.” In modern science inherited from Greek cosmology we conceive of space as a void, a vacuum that makes up the vast majority of the universe and surrounds everything else. But in Jewish view, that void isn’t nothingness, it is the context for everything, intentional, a deliberate removal. Looking at how Hebrew appropriated chalal and extended it to ‘space” underscores the contrast between Greek and Hebrew views of the vacuum and the universe: in Jewish thinking, the void is an absence of something else, it is the subset of the universe, part of Creation, not a default, nihilistic context for everything. In Torah, God’s Creation, like nature, not only abhors a vacuum, but sees it as part of the greater unity, the expression of His Yichud.

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