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It’s a bit late, but here’s something I noticed in last week’s parsha (Emor) and in light of the monster of a post I did a couple of weeks ago about Jewish identity, I couldn’t resist writing about it.
At the very end of the parsha (Leviticus 24:10-23), there’s a narrative episode in which “one whose father was an Egyptian and whose mother was an Israelite” gets into a fight with “an Israelite.” The “son of an Israelite woman,” who isn’t actually identified except by the name of his mother, a woman named Shlomit of the tribe of Dan, utters God’s name “in blasphemy” and he’s taken into custody and brought before Moses.
The judgment that God hands down to Moses when he asks what to do about this situation is fascinating to say the least:
“Take the blasphemer outside the camp and let all those who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him. And to the Israelite people speak thus: Anyone who blasphemes his God shall bear his guilt. If he also pronounces the name HaSHEM, he shall be put to death. The whole community will stone him–stranger or citizen, if he has thus pronounced the name, he shall be put to death.” (Lev. 24:14-16)
I mean seriously, where to start with this? How about the way in which the story elides the question of whether the blasphemer is to be regarded as one of the community or as an outsider? To be sure, the story never actually says that the man isn’t considered an Israelite. And yet, he is never explicitly identified as an Israelite but only at one step removed from the people: the son of an Israelite mother, contrasted with the Israelite with whom he is fighting. Even God’s pronouncement maintains this ambiguity. On the one hand, the law of punishment that is passed down in response to this incident is for one “who blasphemes his God,” not simply God, nor the God of the Israelites, but his God, the God with whom he is in relationship. It seems this presumption of connection with the God of Israel would carry with it the assumption of membership in the kahal. But on the other hand, the law finishes with the note that it applies to anyone, “stranger or citizen,” who has carelessly uttered the divine Name in blasphemy.
It’s hard to read this ambiguity as unintentional. Indeed, it is so carefully maintained throughout the episode that it seems to lie at the core of what this story meant to the one recording it. Why is it that the “half-Israelite” (as this passage is somewhat inaccurately translated in the JPS) is singled out? Is it, as a commentator in Etz Chayim suggests, that a child raised in a “dual heritage” household is less likely to have been brought up with a strong religious identity–and with the respect for the divine that would entail–and is thus more likely to blaspheme the name of God? It might be comforting to believe that, especially as it tends to confirm the prevailing narrative about the role of interfaith marriage as a corrosive influence on Jewish families and on the Jewish community as a whole.
But it’s important to remember that in the context of the narrative none of the Israelites were exactly coming from a place of strong religious upbringing. This was the generation, we must remember, who had themselves been suffering for their entire lives under the burden of Egyptian slavery, who had only recently been brought forth out of Egypt and who were still fully in the midst of the complicated, messy task of working out a collective national and spiritual identity. It’s hard to imagine a way in which belonging to a dual-parent household would make one any more likely to fail to respect God’s sanctity than anyone else in that crazy mixed up generation–which is also, just to be totally clear, our own generation.
Or is it, as I rather more think, that a “full Israelite”–that is, someone who is perceived by their fellows as a full member of the community, someone whose Jewish credentials are impeccable and whose Jewish identity goes unchallenged–is it that someone like this who might in an unguarded moment, caught up in the tension of perpetual wandering and the ungrounded existence of the midbar, lose control and utter words of blasphemy, but nevertheless somehow this fact might be overlooked by those around him, those who see their lives and their concerns mirrored in his, those who are not inclined to regard him as an “outsider,” perpetually under suspicion?
It could be that the blasphemer in the incident in question had to be an individual of dual parentage, because only a perceived “outsider” would be likely to be seized and brought before the authorities for what after all we might imagine to have been a relatively common shortcoming in that generation. If this is so, then God’s declaration that there be one law alike for a member of the tribe and for the outsider may be just, but is it fair? The ruling itself may be perfectly neutral in its formulation and yet it may be utterly impossible to find balance and fairness in its application.
I would like to believe that this is what is hidden in the stipulation that those who were witness to the blasphemy “lay there hands on his head” before he can be put to death. In calling forth those responsible for making the accusation, in forcing them to come to terms with what they were involved in, God was implicitly making room for those involved to back out, to reconsider their motives for singling out the outsider. It is significant, I think that this crucial moment is not included in the coda to the episode:
And they took the blasphemer outside the camp and pelted him with stones. The Israelites did as the Lord commanded Moses. (Lev. 24:23)
The crucial moment of responsibility, of reconsideration, is not included, and in this way a deep ambiguity is introduced into the chapter’s closing coda–“The Israelites did as the Lord commanded Moses.” This hint of irony carries with it an implicit commentary on the ethical failure of those who allowed the man known only as the “son of an Israelite woman” to be stoned, and a warning to us to be more careful about whom within our communities we choose to designate as “the outsider.”
Nouns are interesting. Grammar tells us there are essentially two different kinds of noun. A common noun refers to a class of things, such that multiple distinct things can share the same noun without contradiction. A proper noun, on the other hand, has a single, unique referent–the same name can’t refer to more than one person. One strange effect of this is that even if two people seem to share the same, in a certain sense their names are not the same, even though they sound and appear identical. When I’m talking about Emily, my partner, it is clear that I cannot simultaneously be talking about Emily, my good friend. By saying “Emily,” I have to be talking about one or the other–or about some different Emily altogether. I cannot use “Emily” to refer indeterminately to any of the people I know who share that name.
I have an idea that if God can be said to use language at all, then for God all nouns must be proper nouns, because a being with complete knowledge of every individual part of creation would have no need to group individual things into categories. Each thing would be known intimately and distinctly, as just what it is.
Deciding on a name for yourself is one of the most significant experiences a person can have. What adds to the solemnity of the process is the realization that you are making a decision about yourself that most people never get to make. Nearly all of us go through their lives with the names given to them by parents. If their name changes at all, it is usually through an external process that doesn’t really have much to do with them. Many women still take their husbands’ last names when they marry, but it wasn’t so long ago that in formal situations at least the effects of marriage on a woman’s name were even more extreme. Recently I saw a document in a museum addressed something like “to Mrs. Robert Smith, Sr.” Reading that made me sad. Here was a person who had her own, personal name so completely buried beneath her relationships with the men in her life that all that was left was the “Mrs.”
In contrast, it has been my privilege to choose a new name for myself not once in my life, but twice–an embarrassment of riches to be sure. The first time was when I converted to Judaism and had to choose a Hebrew name. I never really went by that name except when I was being called to the Torah, but I do remember thinking long and hard before deciding. It was one of the hardest choices involved in my conversion. Nevertheless, I was always haunted by the sense that I had somehow missed an opportunity in choosing my Hebrew name, that I had been tested and in some way too subtle to articulate had failed.
The decision to begin transitioning felt like a chance to make up for a missed opportunity–for many missed opportunities, to be honest. The one thing I was determined on was that the name I chose would be mine, personal and proper, in Hebrew and English. In the end I settled on Leiah, and there is a kind of rightness in that decision that makes me feel confident, that crystallizes my sense of myself in a way that all good names should.
The decision process behind “Leiah” is as murky as my own idiosyncratic spelling of the name apparently is to many people. For the record, my name is pronounced “Lay-uh,” just like the two literary women it’s based on.
I’m going to get the embarrassing part of this out of the way first and admit that one of the sources of my name is in fact Princess Leia, the character from Star Wars. It has never been a well-hidden secret that I am a complete geek, and I’ll own up to that. In my defense, Leia was one of my feminine role models growing up. Strong, confident, much more intelligent and self-possessed than any of the men around her, she was everything I would have liked to be. When I was growing up there were precious few depictions of strong, capable female characters in media targeted at kids, and Leia stands out to me for that reason.
The other source of my name, of course, is the biblical matriarch, Leah (which in English I have trouble not reading as “Lee-uh,” but I digress). I’ve always felt that of all the women of Genesis, Leah really doesn’t get the kind of respect she deserves. Married to Jacob solely because of a deception carried out by her father, who didn’t want to see the younger sister married before the elder, Leah is the epitome of what the bible calls “the unloved wife.” The names she gives her children speak to the deep yearning she felt for the love and recognition of her husband, who despite the broad and rather public hints never seems to have been able or willing to see her as anything other than an afterthought. The historical irony is that despite our tendency to forget about her in favor of her more charismatic sister, she, not Rachel, is theoretically the mother of the Jewish people, as after the conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel, the two remaining tribes–Judah and Levi–were both descendents of Leah.
Of course, neither of these names–Leia or Leah–is mine. For all that it sounds the same, my own name is different, singular as all proper nouns are, something uniquely mine. This, and the fact that it is something I have chosen for myself, make it precious to me. It’s a good name, and I have the feeling that as long as I treat it well, it will do the same for me.