Parashat Emor – Distinction and Equality

מִשְׁפַּט אֶחָד יִהְיֶה לָכֶם כַּגֵּר כָּאֶזְרָח יִהְיֶה

Parashat Emor includes the second of the two narratives in Sefer Vayikra, the story of the Blasphemer, found in chapter 24. Upon its first reading, the story seems a little strange, but a closer examination reveals that this strangeness in fact discloses the great importance of this narrative.

10 There came out among the Israelites one whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian. And a fight broke out in the camp between that half-Israelite and a certain Israelite. 11The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name in blasphemy, and he was brought to Moses-now his mother’s name was Shelomith daugh­ter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan 12 and he was placed in custody, until the decision of the Lord should be made clear to them. 13 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 14 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. 15 And to the Israelite people speak thus: Anyone who blasphemes his God shall bear his guilt; 16 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.  17 If anyone kills any human being, he shall be put to death. 18 One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it: life for life. 19 If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him. 21 One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it; but one who kills a human being shall be put to death. 22You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I the Lord am your God. 23 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.[1]

Why does the text go out of its way to detail the man’s half-israelite heritage? And why is the narrative interrupted by law of Lex Talionis, “an eye for an eye” (vss. 17-22)? As we shall see, a proper understanding of Lex Talionis will answer both of these questions, and thus unlock the meaning of the entire story and its purpose in Sefer Vayikra.

Lex Talionis, known more commonly by its refrain “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, is the biblical doctrine of exact compensation. It means that when a person commits a crime against another person that causes damage, the punishment or reparation must match the crime exactly. This doctrine is commonly thought of in Western society as a manifestation of a primitive need for vengeance, the likes of which society has long since outlived. This view is only possible when the law is examined superficially and out of its proper historical setting. Lex Talionis is found in plenty of law codes from the same time period as the Torah, and examining the law in context of those codes, and others, makes the real purpose of the law clear. The true purpose of Lex Talionis is not vengeance, but equality. The doctrine is a reaction to the common cultural and legal milieu of the time wherein the law treated people differently based on their class. People of higher social classes received preferential treatment. The biblical law explicitly fights against this in its requirement of one law for all people, “You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I the Lord am your God.” (Vayikra 10:22) One rule for all members of the society means no preferential treatment for higher classes. Even further, most law codes that mention Lex Talionis intend it literally, and this serves to create even more legal equality.[2] Monetary compensation innately favors the rich upper classes. If a poor person has to pay X amount for stealing, it’s going to cause them to suffer a lot more than a rich person who has to pay the same amount. Thus, on several levels, the doctrine of Lex Talionis is meant to create equality amongst the people of Israel.

If we take this idea of an anti-caste polemic and paste it into the narrative of the Blasphemer, the reason for many of the oddities of the story becomes clear. Moshe’s lack of clarity regarding the punishment for the blasphemer flows from the blasphemers mixed parentage. While the law regarding blasphemy is clear, Moshe was unclear on whether or not the same law applied to someone who was only a half-Israelite. The law was given for, and applies to, the Nation of Israel. But what degree of Israelite parentage is necessary to make a person fully Israelite? Full Parentage? Half? What if only one of a persons grandparents is an Israelite? ‘א’s response is unequivocal: there’s no class distinctions among the Israelites. Lex Talionis: If you’re an Israelite then you’re an Israelite; There’s no legal distinction between groups of people.

This same theme is present in the laws of the holidays, mentioned in Vayikra 23 and in other places in the Torah. In the laws of Sukkot (Vayikra 23:42) the Torah specifically states that the holiday of Sukkot is for every member of Israel, “You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths.” Part of the purpose of Sukkot and the other Regalim, the three times all of Israel gather in Jerusalem, is to create unity in the nation. This is made clear when the laws of the holidays are discussed in Sefer Devarim, chapter 16,

“11 You shall rejoice before the Lord your God with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite in your communities, and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your midst, at the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name. 12 Bear in mind that you were slaves in Egypt, and take care to obey these laws… 14 You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communi­ties.”

The holidays are there to remind the Nation of Israel that they all used to be slaves and thus there is no real distinction between them.

However, this lack of distinction is in direct contradiction to one of the largest themes of Vayikra, that of the distinction between different groups within Israel, the priests and the laymen. Within Parashat Emor itself this is a major theme. All of chapter 21 and the first sixteen verses of chapter 22 of Sefer Vayikra discuss the additional restrictions on the Kohanim as a factor of special status, distinct from that of the average Israelite. Their added restrictions cover not just the rituals of the Mishkan that they are in charge of, but also other aspects of their lives like who they can marry and under what circumstances they are allowed to become impure. This distinction, and so many others, permeates all of Sefer Vayikra, and much of the rest of the Torah, yet stands in direct contradiction to the ideas of Lex Talionis and the Regalim.

There are two values in the Torah, “Distinction/Purpose” and “Equality”, that stand in direct contradiction to one another. This contradiction does not have a resolution. Instead, the laws and ideology of the Torah exist in a state of tension. Neither value is compromised on, nor is either one victorious, on the large scale. Instead, certain laws promote one value and certain laws promote the other. There is no compromise on the level of the ideas; compromise on the practical level happens perforce. This method can serve as model for dealing with tension and competing values in the modern world. We don’t have to give up on values just because they’re not our only values. Being positive and accepting of all peoples, and treating them equally regardless of the differences between them, is a positive value. But so is recognition of those differences and of the strengths and weaknesses of individuals, and treating them accordingly. Neither ideal should be compromised as a general principle. In each individual situation one ideal, practically speaking, must be compromised on. However, that does not mean that we have to give up on our ideals, or ever stop striving to live up to them as much as possible.


[1] Translations from the Jewish Study Bible.

[2] The Oral Torah makes it clear that the Torah intended Lex Talionis non-literally, and instead intends monetary compensation, but this is also clear from a close examination of the places it occurs in the biblical text. To use the story of the Blasphemer as an example, it’s clear from here that the law is not meant to be understood literally from the simple fact that it’s not employed literally here. He blasphemes god’s name and is killed as punishment. This is not exactly “an eye for an eye.” Clearly the literal meaning is not intended.


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