The Continuing Revelation

Emor By :  Joshua Heller Posted On May 8, 2004 / 5764 | Torah Commentary

“What did he know, and when did he know it?” seems to be a particularly current question, but it can be effective in exploring the meaning of ancient texts as well. When applied to this week’s parashah – Emor, it helps provide a rare insight into the process of revelation and the evolution of Jewish law. Was revelation limited to one flash of prophetic vision and forty days of fast and furious dictation atop Mount Sinai or was it a process that took place over months and years?

Leviticus 24:10-23 is a rare instance of a narrative segment amid the rituals, sacrifices and commandments that dominate that particular book of the Bible. It begins with an outsider, a man who is not referred to by name, but only by lineage, as the son of an Israelite mother and an Egyptian. He “goes out” and has a fight with a full-blooded Israelite. In the course of events, he curses and defames God’s name. The witnesses bring the offender to Moses and he is held under guard “until the decision of the Lord should be made clear to them”(Leviticus 24:12). God declares that the man is to be taken out of the camp and stoned, and tells Moses to instruct the Israelites as to the laws of blasphemy. Indeed, Moses does so, and the man meets his death.

The story is remarkable in the degree of uncertainty that it reflects. It occurs to the observers that the unnamed man may have acted wrongly, but they are unsure if, and how, he should be punished. It would seem that even Moses does not have an answer, since God must tell him what procedure to follow. If the law had already been taught to Moses, what need would there have been for further elucidation? Alternatively, if this event was the motivation for God’s first presentation of these laws, what does that say about the process and timing of revelation?

The sages disagree as to whether this commandment had been stated previously. In Exodus 22:27, God commands. “You shall not curse Elohim.” Elohim can be taken as a plural denoting human judges, or as a singular form ofone of the names of God, the Divine Judge. In Mekhilta, Mishpatim, Rabbi Akiva takes the first approach. If the verses in Exodus refer to human judges, then our passage in Leviticus marks the first time that the prohibition against blasphemy appears. Apparently, it is only after the commandment has been violated that God feels the need to state it explicitly. The Israelites’ actions are still readily explainable; even if no existing commandment applied, they might still have been offended by what they heard, and felt that action was required.

Rabbi Ishmael adopts the latter interpretation, that the verse in Exodus is, in fact, an explicit prohibition against cursing God, since Elohim is one of the names of God. If so, by the time our story in unfolds in Leviticus, would Moses not already have been familiar with the law? Harmonizing the account with Rabbi Ishmael’s approach, requires a bit of legal hairsplitting. Perhaps, even if we subscribe to the view that the prohibition had been stated clearly, the punishment had never been announced, and until this point, there had never been cause for its application? Thus, the aghast onlookers were confident that a crime had been committed, but were unsure as to the penalty, because the blasphemer committed a truly “original” sin! Indeed, later rabbinic analysis (BT Sanhedrin 54a, 56a) suggests that each capital offense must be mentioned twice in the Torah, once to express the prohibition, and again, to impose the death penalty

Lest one think that this is mere pedantry, a similar interpretation is required for a parallel story in Numbers 15:32-36. In that instance, a man is found gathering sticks on Shabbat, and is put under guard to determine what is to be done with him. In that case, the uncertainty that is expressed is even more remarkable, given the number of times that God has commanded the Israelites that one who violates Shabbat must surely die. The sages (BT Bava Batra 118a-b) conclude that it was only the means of execution which had not been addressed and, therefore, called for recourse to a “higher authority!”

Whether one follows the reasoning of R. Akiva or R. Ishmael, our story in Leviticus carries further implications. Even in the desert, with Moses the lawgiver still in their midst, the Israelites find that the law, as revealed, does not fully address the situations that they encounter. They must return to the Source for further guidance, and God presents new commandments as each new situation dictates. In Reish Lakish’s words (BT Gittin 60a), the “Torah was given scroll by scroll.” The process of revelation was therefore begun, but by no means completed, at the mountain.

Of course, there are those who hold to the belief presented by R. Yohanan (also in BT Gittin 60a) that the Torah was given as a “sealed book,” so that all of the letters of the text, presumably including the text of this story, were already in Moses’s hands when he descended the mount. On some level, of course, it is absurd to expect that Moses and the Israelites had actually read the entire Torah, as we know it, before setting off into the desert. With a full copy of the “script” of the narrative in hand, could Moses not have anticipated and avoided some of the more tragic parts of the story? Later commentators explain that though the letters had all been given at once, Moses and the Israelites were unable to distinguish them as individual words and sentences until the events described had transpired.

If we regard the Torah as having been given “scroll by scroll”– through a historical process which continued through the years in the desert, or (even, perhaps, beyond) then, we can appreciate that each addition to the Jewish canon has the potential to add something to our understanding of revelation. If we believe the Torah to be a “sealed book,” where the letters, though perhaps already present, do not reveal their full meaning until the historical moment at which that meaning is relevant, then each new interpretation has the potential to reverberate with authentic echoes of Sinai. In either case, it is not blasphemy, but rather the message of the Torah itself, to say that our experience of revelation is ongoing, modulated by the needs and experiences of the Jewish people.

The publication and distribution of Rabbi Heller’s commentary on Parashat Emor are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.