Emor – on bloodlines, on biblical holidays, and on blasphemy

This parshah lays out further rules for the priests. It is notable in a text so laden with patriarchal rules of leadership and control, that the place of women is often delineated based on the threat they pose to that very control. If women, through their sexual and reproductive choices, taint the bloodline, they threaten the nation building that obsesses the text writers. One example is the rule that if a “daughter of a priest defiles herself through harlotry, it is her father whom she defiles; she shall be put to the fire” (21.9). The sexism is blatant. But the more the text tries to rob women of their power, the more it underscores the fact that women’s capacity for reproduction always posed a challenge to patriarchal power. 

The nervousness may have come from the fact that the power structure in the Priestly period, as typical of all periods, was contested. In this parshah, we see that Priests (here marked as descendants of Aaron) have special prohibitions. Just as the people is being set apart from their neighbours (see Aharei Mot from last week), the leaders are being set apart from the common people. Our societies all function through divisions and stratifications. This is sometimes a problem – such as when one class oppresses another, and it is sometimes healthy – such as when leaders are chosen by the people to take on certain roles and tasks. Our communities often struggle with how leaders should be of the people and also for the people. Rabbis and Madrikhim, educators and administrators, have training, skills and expertise that may not be common to most of our community. We are, in a sense, set apart. The difference is that we do not claim superiority and, certainly, we do not claim divine authority. The Priestly prohibitions are to signal a divine separation; Priests are more godly than other humans. This is understandable in the text as the Priests are attempting to inscribe and enshrine their own power. But when we take on a “holier than thou” attitude today, we run the risk of delegitimizing ourselves and alienating others.

The theme of separation continues in the parshah. Some separations are good. We demarcate between holidays and other special times, and the regular work week. This parshah lays out practices for the Sabbath and other holidays, reminding us that these special times only remain special through the rituals, practices, texts, and observances that are particular to them.  The holidays mentioned here are some of the earliest we know were practiced: Sukkot, Shavuot, and Pesach. It is not a surprise that these holidays are rooted in the agricultural and climatic calendar, thus meaning they were likely adapted from earlier practices not particular to Israelite/Jewish culture. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are also mentioned in this parshah, including the “loud blasts” (the shofar) that must ring out. Sometimes it is awe-inspiring to consider how old many of our holidays are. We know that their practices and meanings have changed over time. Still, it is wonderful that Jews throughout the ages have celebrated these special times, and have made the meanings of these holidays fit their lives according to the place and time where they have lived. Our holidays show that there has always been great diversity amongst Jews and our ancestors, and also that we are united through our cultural heritage. 

The parshah ends with a short narrative, which interrupts the flow of the divine commandments, about one who speaks God’s name in blasphemy. The blasphemer vignette, the JPS commentators suggest, is purposefully an interruption in the text in order to highlight that God does not enjoy un “untroubled relationship” with his people. I think this is a delightful reading of how the form reflects the content. The blasphemer interrupts the narrative in text just like “blasphemers” interrupt a common narrative about what Judaism is (monotheistic, religious as opposed to cultural, based on prayer, etc.)  In today’s Jewish world, Humanistic Jews are sometimes seen as the “blasphemers,” not in defiling the name of God, but denying the need to believe in one or pray to one at all. But we are part of a long line – even reflected in Torah! – of skeptics, unbelievers, those willing to challenge the status quo in their belief and in their communities. Indeed, the relationship between God and the Jews has never been untroubled and easy. We have always wrestled with deistic belief. Humanistic Jews are, ironically, traditional in that sense. Our texts highlight that there have always been those like us amongst the people, and that we serve an important role.


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