Back to Blogs

Parshat Emor: Blasphemy, halakhic detachment & rabbinic empathy

Iyar 5783 | May 2023

What does it take for someone to curse God?

A blasphemer is not an atheist nor an agnostic. This is someone who not only believes that God exists, but also that God is present and involved in this world and their life. There is no point in cursing something or someone that does not hear your curse or is not affected by it.

In Parshat Emor we learn of just such a person:

“The son of an Israelite woman, and he was the son of an Egyptian man, went out into the Children of Israel; and they fought in the camp, the son of the Israelite woman and an Israelite man. The son of the Israelite women blasphemed the Name and he cursed and they brought him to Moshe, and the name of his mother was Shlomit bat Divri of the tribe of Dan. And they placed him in custody until it would be revealed to them from the mouth of God.”[1]

The Torah is quite cryptic here, leaving us with more questions here than answers. Where is he coming from when he “goes out?” Why is he fighting? Who is he fighting with? Why omit his name but tell us his mother’s?

The Torah gives us just enough information to know there is a greater story here – and hides just enough to teach us it’s irrelevant to how we should learn the story. Most of the Book of Vayikra has dealt with sanctity – items, places, and times. In Parshat Kedoshim we were taught to sanctify ourselves in mitzvot, and in the previous chapter we learned we could sanctify time when declaring the festivals as sanctified occasions – mikra’ei kodesh.[2] We learned our words have power, the power to sanctify; this story teaches us they can also desecrate. Even the words of an anonymous man can affect the Name of God; and while his own name is long forgotten, his actions have left an indelible impression.

Extenuating circumstances

The Torah does not relate any extenuating circumstances that could mitigate this man’s guilt, but the midrash does. The story it tells us is complex. His mother, Shlomit, was raped by her husband’s Egyptian taskmaster. The next day her husband confronted the taskmaster, they fought, Moshe saw them, knew what happened, and killed the taskmaster.[3] Years later the child born from this union tries to pitch his tent with the Tribe of Dan. As tribal affiliation is determined by the father, an Israelite man objects. They go to court and Moshe agrees that by law this man does not have a right to set up camp in Dan.[4] He leaves the court and blasphemes.

The midrash tells of a man born into an impossible situation; he does not belong.  Along with his lack of tribal affiliation the midrash debates if he is considered an Israelite, a convert, or an Egyptian and if he is a mamzer (a child born of forbidden sexual relations punishable by death, the child is forbidden to marry most Jews) or merely “like a mamzer.” When he looks for his place among the Israelites he is rejected by his mother’s people – the only tribal affiliation he has. “He entered the court of Moshe and exited liable, he stood up and blasphemed.”[5] His petition is rejected; he is rejected. And then he cursed God.

The Written Torah holds this man completely liable for his actions. The midrash still holds him accountable, but makes him sympathetic. If something had been different – if he wasn’t the child of rape, if the tribe of Dan had looked the other way when he pitched his tent, if Moshe had given him a different answer – maybe this never would have happened.

You can’t please all the people all of the time

Moshe ruled according to the law.[6] How can that be a problem? The midrash continues:

“As it is written, ‘I returned and saw all the oppressed.’[7] Daniel the Tailor explained the verse refers to mamzerim, ‘behold the tears of the oppressed,’ their fathers sinned and they are miserable, but how does the matter concern them? Just as [the mamzer’s] father sinned and had relations with a woman forbidden to him, but the child did not sin, how does it concern them? ‘And they have no comforter,’ rather, ‘their oppressors hands exert power,’ the hands of the Great Sanhedrin of Israel which comes upon them with the power of Torah and rejects them because ‘a mamzer may not enter the community of the Lord.’”[8]

Seas of ink have been spilled trying to explain and justify the Torah’s treatment of mamzerim. Daniel the Tailor tells us that there will never be a sufficient answer – these people are doubly oppressed, by the Torah law and by the Sanhedrin who wields power and does not use it to help them.

Some people assume that halakha is always just or that a just halakhic solution is always available. Rambam disagrees and explains that Torah law is designed to work in most circumstances, but it does not account for all exceptions. The Torah is Divine, but the natural world varies:

“From this consideration it also follows that the laws cannot like medicine vary according to the different conditions of persons and times; whilst the cure of a person depends on his particular constitution at the particular time, the divine guidance contained in the Law must be certain and general, although it may be effective in some cases and ineffective in others. If the Law depended on the varying conditions of man, it would be imperfect in its totality, each precept being left indefinite. For this reason it would not be right to make the fundamental principles of the Law dependent on a certain time or a certain place; on the contrary, the statutes and the judgments must be definite, unconditional and general… they are intended, as has been stated before, for all persons and for all times.”[9]

The laws that dictate the status of a mamzer have good reasons and work for general society. For example, the severe consequence of mamzerut is a strong deterrent against entering into forbidden relationships. Rambam notes that many people suffer through no fault of their own; people are born with neurodivergences, mental or physical illnesses, lose a limb as the result of an accident – such is “nature,” which we have no control over, “the damage can’t be fixed.”[10] The injustice seems harder to bear when it is the result of Divine halakha, and Sanhedrin does have power to manipulate the law. Rambam reminds us both nature and Torah are from God, in general each is good – but in this imperfect world there are always exceptions.

What should we do with exceptions?

The midrash on mamzerim continues:

“’They have no comforter,’ the Holy One, blessed be He, said: It is my duty to comfort them, for in this world they contain refuse, but in the future Zecharia said ‘I see these people of pure gold’…”

Daniel the Tailor does not envision a halakhic solution for mamzerim. But as we know God is good, just, and righteous, there must be some comfort. If it is not in this world, it is in the future.

Rav Benny Lau tells of an occasion when Rav Ovadia Yosef was asked to address the status of a family deemed mamzerim – a woman pronounced a widow after WWII remarried and had children, only to discover years later her first husband was still alive. Rav Ovadia Yosef combed through the details of the case until he found a way to free them from the status of mamzerim. That afternoon the family barged into the Rav’s study, bombarding him with tears of gratitude. When they departed Rav Yosef grasped Rav Lau’s hand and said, “Feel my hand, it’s wet, wet. Did you see their tears? Did you see the tears of the oppressed?” He quoted the midrash, “They have no comforter, so it is my duty to comfort them.”[11]

Rav Ovadia Yosef did not read the midrash as a sigh of lament, but rather as a call to action. Indeed, there are many stories of rabbis searching high and low for ways to free children from the status of mamzer. At times, such as the case of Rav Goren and “the brother and sister,” the rabbi’s reputation is damaged by what is perceived as an improper manipulation of halakha.[12] Similarly, Rav Simcha Kraus was harshly criticized for convening the International Beit Din to find halakhic means of freeing agunot.[13]

Rabbis who take extenuating circumstances into account and rely on minority halakhic opinions or utilize neglected halakhic tools are often criticized for their decisions. In his responsa Rema defends his ruling to allow the marriage of an orphaned young woman on Friday night well after Shabbat began. He brings the mitigating circumstances – the difficulty securing her shidduch, the precariousness of the dowry and the groom’s misgivings that delayed the chuppah. Then he brings the reasons for the rabbinic prohibition against marriage on Shabbat, weighing them against the other mitzvot involved – sparing the bride’s embarrassment, having children, providing for an orphan…  – and ruled that it was appropriate to be lenient with the rabbinic prohibition against marriage on Shabbat under these circumstances.[14] At the time Rema describes that he was maligned for his ruling, yet now this ruling is famous for its halakhic reasoning and empathy.

Where there’s a rabbinic will

Blu Greenberg famously said, “Where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halakhic way.” This statement was based on her study of traditional, but now neglected, halakhic mechanisms used to release agunot from their marriages. There are many rabbinic authorities who either disagree or do not believe it is appropriate to use those “halakhic ways” in all cases.

Rav Uziel was asked to rule in a case where a man who was known to consort with a certain woman denied he was the father of her child.[15] Accepting his claim would leave the mother without child support and the child unable to marry anyone born Jewish according to halakha.[16] Before issuing his ruling and explaining his reasoning, Rav Uziel speaks at length about the importance of a Jew’s mercy, both for the mother who strayed and the child who is practically an orphan. He quotes the midrash about the tears of the oppressed. And then he chastises those rabbis whose empathy is stronger than their halakhic reasoning. A judge only has what his eyes see, may only rule according to halakhic precedent and the witnesses’ statements – and must rule truthfully even if it is not merciful. Although he ultimately rules the man is the father, his statement is clear. Empathy and mercy are vital, but they may not pervert justice.

But even if the ruling is not empathetic, the words used to issue it and address the petitioner should be. The mercy of the rabbinic authority may make the difference between a sanctification and desecration of God’s Name and Torah.

For example, as mentioned in our dvar Torah on Parshat Shemot, Rav Eliezer Waldenberg could not find sufficient halakhic reasoning to permit yichud (being alone with another adult of the opposite sex) between parents and their adoptive children. Nevertheless, he brings several circumstances that may allow for leniency. He concludes that, although prohibited, there are reasons to justify the actions of an adoptive parent who has difficulty following this halakha. Furthermore, he intimates that one should not let these halakhic difficulties overwhelm their concern for the welfare of orphans.[17]

Other times one must look beyond the question, at the person asking it. When discussing the importance of a broad understanding of the issues involved in a halakhic question and possible repercussions Rabbi Dr. J. David Bleich relates a story about the Brisker Rav, Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik. Before Pesach a man came to ask if he could use milk instead of wine for the four cups at the seder. The Rav did not answer the question, but instead gave the man money and sent him on his way. The rabbi’s wife remarked that the sum of money was greater than the cost of wine, and the rabbi explained that the man would never think to drink milk after meat, so he must not have meat for the seder either – this is a man in need of much more than four cups of wine.[18] The petitioner did not need a halakhic answer, he needed a practical solution.

The judge is only human

The most difficult halakhic answers are the ones that ask if normative halakhic practice should be compromised due to extenuating circumstances, particularly when it involves human suffering. As a talmidat chachamim, a student of sages, I may have my opinions on some rulings, but ultimately I must humbly recuse myself from judging the considerations of halakhic authorities far greater than I. Nevertheless, as a human I take issue with a ruling, no matter how just, that is not delivered with empathy.

Perhaps this is what the midrash teaches us. The blasphemer did not have a place in the tribe of Dan, but he also did not have a place anywhere else. The midrash does not indicate there was any fault in Moshe’s ruling, but, in my humble opinion, it does critique the callousness that led to the blasphemy. Perhaps if Moshe had seen his pain and alienation and realized the man did not just need a halakhic ruling, but a solution, things would have been different. Perhaps some empathy from the man who relayed the Torah of God could have prevented the desecration of God’s Name.

The concept of cursing God is also central to the story of Iyov, who lost everything as a test to determine if suffering would undermine his devotion to God. And though he questions God and curses the day he was born, he never curses God. How was he able to withstand this challenge better than the blasphemer? Perhaps his faith was stronger, his moral fiber more resolute, or his good memories made him resilient. Or perhaps it’s because he was never alone. Throughout his questions, throughout his pain, he had three friends sitting by his side in the dirt. They argued with him, but they sat next to him. And maybe that was enough to make a difference.

“Blunt talk is like sword thrusts, but the speech of the wise heals.”[19]


[1] Vayikra 24:10-12

[2] Vayikra 23:2, 4, 7, 8 and more

[3] According to one opinion in the midrash, Moshe killed the Egyptian by uttering the Name of God. The same name his son would later blaspheme. The midrash here is rich in detail and deserves more attention than we give it here. The description of Shlomit bat Divri, in particular, raises many questions. See Vayikra Rabba 32:4-5; Tanhuma Buber Emor 32:1; Sifra Emor 14:1-2

[4] Malbim explains how all this is alluded to in the Torah’s description.

[5] Vayikra 22:3

[6] According to the midrash the blasphemer was alone in his predicament. Israel did not transgress with forbidden relationships and he was the lone mamzer. Traditionally, the Erev Rav are considered converts with no tribal affiliation. The Torah does not describe them having a set place in the camp, nor did they have a portion in the Land of Israel. Abarbanel on Yechezkel 47:22-23 states that in the future redemption there will be a portion for Jews-by-choice, but they were not given a portion in Yehoshua’s time. He explains that they did not earn this place with the rest of Israel who suffered in Egypt, as they only joined when things were going well for them during the exodus. But these Jew-by-choice have now suffered through our current exile and will therefore have a place in the upcoming redemption.

[7] Kohelet 4:1

[8] Devarim 23:3; Vayikra Rabba 32:5; a similar version appears in Kohelet Rabba 4:1

[9] Guide for the Perplexed III 34, translation Friedlander courtesy of Sefaria

[10] Kohelet 1:15

[11] This story appears in Rav Benny Lau’s book “MiMaran l’Maran” and several news articles.


[13] The decisions of his Beit Din are clearly documented and supported by accepted halakhic precedent, but on occasion they use halakhic mechanisms that modern rabbinic authorities are reluctant to utilize. For example, the Beit Din voided a marriage on the basis of “mekach ta’ut,” “an erroneous transaction,” whereby a transaction can be annulled if important details were not revealed beforehand. For example, if the woman had known her future-husband was abusive she would never have agreed to the marriage.

See: ,,

[14] Responsa Rema 125

[15] Mishptei Uziel VII, Even HaEzer Tanyana, 2

[16] Halakhically a child whose father is unknown is called a shtuki – they are shushed when they ask who their father is. Since it’s possible the mother is hiding the identity of the father since the child is a mamzer, halakhically the child is considered a safek (possible) mamzer – and is not allowed to marry another person born Jewish, whether or not they are a mamzer.

[17] “I wrote supports for these permissions, even though it seems they are far-fetched, in order to find reasons to find in favor of Israel, as there are many noteworthy, good people who are meticulous about this, and to avoid barring the path for these unfortunate children who will not have anyone seeking [to adopt] them from homes that will raise them to follow Torah and mesorah (tradition)…”


[19] Mishlei 12:18

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.