Torah text, the Tribe of Dan, Ferguson and Baltimore
(Excerpted from a sermon about Parshat Emor, Kane Street Synagogue, May 9, 2016)
In Leviticus, Chapter 24 (verses 5-23) we read a very enigmatic, violent and disturbing story. A man of mixed parentage—born of an Egyptian father and Israelite mother—“goes out” and fights with a (full) Israelite. During the struggle, the son of mixed parentage curses G-ds’ name. He is arrested. For help in his adjudication, Moses turns to G-d who says “Take the blasphemer outside the camp, and there all those who heard him (blaspheme) shall lay their hands upon his head. Then the entire assembly will stone him” (verse 14).
Rabbis and exegetes have struggled with this story for millennia. Why is his sentence so severe? What is the background and context of his crime? From where did he “go out”?
The Sifre, a compilation of Palestinian Rabbinic homilies compiled two thousand years ago, understands the sin in light of this man’s complicated personal status. As the son of a Jewish mother, he was obligated to fulfill the Mitzvot of Torah. Since his mother was from the tribe of Dan, he tried to pitch his tent in Dan’s encampment. The Danites, however, refused to let him join them, as residence was determined by the father’s line. So, the man was in an impossible situation. Although he bore all the obligations of an Israelite, he was denied the privileges. He could live among the eirev rav, the mixed multitude of Egyptians and other non-Israelites but he could not properly observe the Mitzvot there. So, in despair, he turned to the highest court, Moses’s court of justice. There, Moses ruled in favor of the Danites. So the man decides, ”There is no justice in the law, and since the law is not just, the Lawgiver, G-d, must also be unjust. He “goes out” of the court, gets into a fight and blasphemes.
This Midrash, while not condoning the crime, understands its motivation sympathetically, in the context of the man’s treatment by society. The Sifre notes especially the man’s punishment, wherein the people who heard him blaspheme lay their hands on him. Through this action, the Sifre argues, they assume indirect responsibility, just as ancient Israelites, in rites of atonement, would lay their hands on sacrificial animals to rid themselves of their own guilt. Perhaps there was something in their treatment of this man which contributed to his alienation, and eventually to his great sin?
The identification of individual crime with the broader community may strike us as extreme by contemporary American standards but it is classically Jewish. In our tradition, individuals are so bound to the group that every person in the community is responsible for every other. As the Babylonian Talmud teaches:
“Whoever is able to protest against the wrongdoings of his family and fails to do so is punished for the family’s wrongdoings. Whoever is able to protest against the wrongdoings of his fellow citizens and does not do so is punished for the wrongdoings of the people of his city. Whoever is able to protest against the wrongdoings of the world and does not do so is punished for the wrongdoings of the world.” (Shabbat 54b).
Protest is a litmus test of our sense of Areivut, or shared responsibility.
Over the last nine months, since the killing of Michael Brown by Police Officer Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, Missouri, we have seen almost every night reports of protest, and at times violence, especially in America’s heavily African-American slums. If there is criminal behavior, police or civilian, then the violators must be brought to justice. But we delude ourselves if we see this as only a problem of individual black criminals or rogue police officers.
In America today, 51 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, whose Jubilee we celebrated last summer, our resources, our entitlements, our jobs remain sharply divided by race. On some measures of social health—youth mortality, respiratory ailments, cardiovascular disease—the condition of African Americans is little better than a half century ago.
Even more, now we learn that unfair images of blacks remain in white and even black minds. In tests conducted at by psychologists at Yale, the University of Austin and other academic centers, white and black children, even at the age of four, as they free associate from ambiguous images, identify white faces with intelligence and virtue, and black faces with mental dullness and evil.
We have clouded the image of G-d which is in our neighbors, and so this is a spiritual crisis, worthy of discussion in Synagogues and Churches and Mosques. Whites need to change their images of blacks, and blacks I believe need to change their self-image. All of this is very difficult. It is not easy to cure the hearts of people who have suffered from humiliation, who have endured insults, who have been rebuffed for generations. But there is nothing as holy as eliminating anguish and alleviating pain. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, speaking to the Metropolitan Conference of Religion and Race in February 1964, wondered: “The goal we have in mind is integration. But is it significant to speak of integration into a disintegrating society?”
It is critical for black people to know that their struggles are the struggles of all Americans, that they can trust the conscience of white men and women and of the nation. It will be necessary for white people to feel the anger and the grief of black men and women, girls and boys, who have so repeatedly been subject to suspicion and public humiliation. And we will need to make reforms so that police officers can return to, and be respected for their sacred calling of insuring public safety and protection.
In our Torah portion, according to the Sifre, what pushes the son of the Israelite woman and Egyptian man over the edge is not just his legal disability. It is also the arrogance of, and his exclusion by the men of Dan. As we remembered two weeks ago when we celebrated Yom Ha’atz’ma’ut, Israel Independence Day, as we recalled last summer when we celebrated the Jubilee of the Civil Rights Act, lasting social change is girded in vision, in hope and even in love. It is born in self-reflection and shared spiritual aspiration. The civil rights marchers of the 1960’s were diverse in their races, religions and economic classes, but they shared faith, faith in the Bible’s insistence on freedom and in the American promise of liberty. V’chen Tih’ye Lanu. So may it be for us. We need to hear together a common call, and move forward in a spirit of repentance, with confidence in the good will and the conscience of the other.