Responsibility, power of speech is key focus


After God created the human body, God said to the tongue, “All the other limbs of the human body stand up, but you lie down; all the other limbs are outside the body, but you are inside it; and not only that, but you are surrounded by two walls: one of teeth and one of cheeks. You are more guarded and protected than any other limb of the body, but you are more ambitious, too. While the damage the other limbs do is in the open, the damage you do is in secret.” Some say that God also told the tongue, “You are moistened at all times in the mouth, yet your words cause more conflagrations than any other limb.”

Leviticus is deeply, strikingly concerned with the power of speech. Most of it seems to be endlessly about priestly ritual. But this week’s portion, Emor, ends with one of the only stories in the book, a story about the harm caused by words. Even the word “Emor” is about speech: it means, “say,” as in, “Say to the Israelites…” In the story, the son of an Israelite mother, Shelomith bat Divri of the Tribe of Dan, and an Egyptian father, pronounces the Divine Name in blasphemy. After Moses consults with God, the Israelites sentence the blasphemer to death. Lev. 24:16 summarizes the precedent: “one who pronounces the Eternal name shall be put to death. The community leadership shall stone that person. Stranger or citizen having thus pronounced the Name shall be put to death.”


The story is relevant in three ways. First, as women are taking an unprecedented role in Jewish leadership today, the Torah quite unusually gives the mother’s entire lineage, including her tribe. Second, at a time when the Jewish community includes more interfaith families than ever before, the story’s protagonist is the son of what we would today call a mixed marriage. And finally, of course, the story is concerned with damage caused by speech.

The mother’s family name, bat Divri, seems connected to the Hebrew word “d’var” meaning word, or talk, so speech is apparently important to the family. But while her first name “Shelomith” is connected to the Hebrew word “shalom,” her son’s words do not seem to have been words of shalom. Rather, they were fighting words — words intended to cause outrage among the Israelites by sullying God’s name, even, if such a thing were possible, to cause injury to God.

It is a blessing to welcome so many women and so many interfaith families who are raising Jewish children to the Jewish community of today. But with rights as members of the community come responsibilities. Everyone, regardless of gender or religion of their birth family, who wishes to be a part of the Jewish community, must respect the Torah’s concern with the holiness of speech. We are all — citizen, stranger, and resident alien alike — responsible to speak words of blessing rather than words of cursing. Keyn y’hi ratzon (so may it be God’s will).

Rabbi Justin Kerber serves Temple Emanuel and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.