The Blasphemer’s Tale: Obsession With Otherness

Leviticus 21:1-24:23

By Raymond P. Scheindlin

Published May 09, 2003, issue of May 09, 2003.
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The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name in blasphemy, and he was brought to Moses — now his mother’s name was Shlomit daughter of Divri of the tribe of Dan — and he was placed in custody, until the decision of the Lord should be made clear to them.

— Leviticus 24:10

Shlomit bat Divri was her name, and her name told you what you needed to know about her — “Shlomit,” because as a Danite girl in Goshen she was always saying “hi” to everyone, even to her second cousins from the Reubenite or Gadite district, even to Egyptian women doing laundry alongside her on the Nile, even to the Egyptian fellows in the lanes; “Divri,” because she would follow up her sunny greetings to strangers with chatter, with questions that lured people into conversations that went nowhere but that also seemed impossible to end. Busy women with baskets of laundry or groceries on their heads would simply walk away when it became clear that there was something not right about her, and the Israelite elders clucked about her at council meetings, but the Egyptian youths would let her prattle while walking her into secluded places. Eventually one of these talking walks resulted in a baby boy; he turned out to be a fine-boned youth with reddish-brown skin; no talker, but unquiet all the same. The boys teased him. As he had no name and looked Egyptian, they nicknamed him Akhnaton.

After the Exodus there was a period when everyone was preoccupied with adjusting to the nomadic way of life, and no one had time for Shlomit. Then came the great assembly at Sinai, preceded by days of preparation and followed by 40 days when everyone held his breath waiting for Moses to return. These events were so serious that even Shlomit was quiet most of the time, and the sullen boy — now almost a man — kept to himself. But then there was a long period when there was little for him to do.

The men were busy building the Tabernacle, crafting its altars and lamps and posts and beams, making adjustments and repairs (a constant problem for a new Tabernacle as for any house) and seeing to the constant flow of healthy animals that were in continuous demand for the sacrificial rites. (And the animals really had to be perfect — nothing “blind, or injured, or maimed, or with a wen, boil-scar or scurvy” would do.)

The women were busy weaving curtains for the Tabernacle and vestments for the priests — rough men who had spent their youths baking bricks in the sun and building storage-cities, unused to embroidered raiment, always tripping on their own skirts and tearing the delicate fabric, keeping the women continually occupied. Shlomit was assigned to cook lunch for the weaving women of the Tribe of Dan and bring it to them at midday; that way they had to listen to her pointless chatter for only an hour a day. But the youth was idle.

As his mother was talkative, he was taciturn — taciturn and truculent. He had reason to be an angry youth, for he and his mother were pretty much isolated among the others, and he even looked like a foreigner. Then there was the problem of what he should be called: Not having a name was a great inconvenience, but he preferred namelessness to his nickname, for, as the name of a Pharaoh, it was a constant reminder that he was half Egyptian and the son of an unknown father. Sometimes he wished he had never left Egypt, yet in his heart he knew that, just as in the wilderness he was a half-Egyptian among Israelites, in Egypt he would always be a half-Israelite among Egyptians.

Obsessed with his own otherness, he became obsessed with the other other in the Israelite camp, with Moses. Moses too had an Egyptian name (no one was fooled by the imaginary Hebrew explanation of the name as meaning “drawn from the water.”) Moses had been raised by an Egyptian woman in Pharaoh’s household, had never baked bricks or built storage cities, and, though he looked like an Israelite, he carried himself like an aristocrat, not like a freed slave. Moses had, besides his aristocrat’s aloofness, an irascible temperament: Everyone had seen him smash the tablets in anger on the day of the sacrifice to the Golden Calf, and everyone knew that, in his youth, Moses had gotten into trouble involving a fight, a death and a flight. Nor had Moses insisted on purity of blood in his own offspring, for his wife was a Midianite or a Kushite woman — opinions differed, but all the Israelites agreed that she was not one of them.

The outcast son of mad Shlomit obsessed about the otherness shared by himself and the great leader Moses — who probably had never heard of him before the day of his blasphemy — and at last the measure of his anger overflowed. A trifling quarrel brought it on — perhaps he overheard someone referring to him as Akhnaton — and suddenly this taciturn man was out of control. He began screaming — with his mother’s fluency, but in a rage such as would never be heard from the mouth of the endlessly sunny and chatty Shlomit — that he was every bit as much as Israelite as Moses, that his mother was, in fact, more of an Israelite than Moses’ wife, and who were they to taunt him just because he didn’t have a name — why, if they were going to call him by the name of a Pharaoh, he would give Y— Himself a name of his own choosing — and the onlookers listened, paralyzed by the uncontrolled rush of his words — until he had ended by cursing Y— by Y—’s own name.

Raymond P. Scheindlin is a professor of medieval Hebrew literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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