Shlomit and the Dangers of Perfection

Drash: Parashat Emor    (Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23)

presented May 2017  at the Newton Centre Minyan, an egalitarian Jewish congregation in Massachusetts

Buried at the end of the long litanies of rules for priests in today’s parasha (reading from the Torah) there is an intriguing and brief story that calls out to my feminist soul. That story has to do with the son of one of the few women who is named in the Torah: Shlomit bat Divri.

Leviticus 24: 10-16 “The son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man went out among the Children of Israel. And this son of the Israelite woman quarreled in the camp with an Israelite man. And the son of the Israelite woman pronounced the [Divine] name and cursed. So they brought him to Moshe. His mother’s name was Shelomith, daughter of Divri, of the tribe of Dan.” They put him in custody until the will of the LORD should be made clear to them. Then the LORD said to Moshe: “Take the blasphemer outside the camp. All those who heard him are to lay their hands on his head, and the entire assembly is to stone him.”

As I said, this brief narrative initially caught my attention because it is one of the few places in the Torah where a woman is named. Neither she nor her father (I assume Divri is a male name; it might be her mother’s name?) is mentioned again. So what is this enigmatic story doing here?

The only really substantive thing we learn about Shelomith in the Torah is, in fact, her name – Shelomith – which means “Peace or wholeness or perfection.”  I imagine her parents choosing the name Shelomith with love and optimism – that their newborn daughter will help bring peace to the enslaved Israelites. Or perhaps they chose the name with unseemly arrogance – “Shlomit – our daughter is perfect.”  In fact the Rabbis describe Shelomith as attractive, and in (Tanhuma, Shemot, para. 9) comment that “her name attests that she was perfect (shelemah) and flawless.”

Her parent’s name also is interesting: Divri, literally, “speech.” Does the name Shlomit bat Divri hint at the power of language to create peace and wholeness? Or maybe at the power of language to create violence and brokenness? And I wonder about the final bit of naming invoked in the text – the name of her tribe – Dan – judgment.

Rashi claimed that the name Shelomith denotes that “she was a chatterbox, [always going about saying to men] “Shalom aleich (peace unto you or how are you?)”  [She would] greet everyone and ask about their welfare. Divri [from the verb mDaBeRet, denotes that] she was very loquacious, talking with every person. This is why she sinned.”

But what was her sin? Was it simply the tired old claim that women are incurable gossips; that women more than men are prone to lashon hara (derogatory speech)?

Actually, in the midrashic literature, her so-called sin involved a rather convoluted chain of events. (And I thank Tamar Kadari professor of Midrash at Bar Ilan University and my husband Yishai Sered for drawing my attention to this midrashic sequence).

Here we go: As we all know from the book of Exodus, back at the beginning of Moshe’s career he saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite, and then Moshe killed that Egyptian taskmaster. The Midrash elaborates on this incident and offers the following back-story:

One day this Egyptian taskmaster sent the Israelites out to work, and when they left, he raped one of their wives — our very own Shelomith bat Divri. Her husband, according to the Midrash, came back home unexpectedly and confronted the Egyptian taskmaster leaving his home. The taskmaster began beating the Israelite husband, and that is when Moshe stepped in, killing the Egyptian rapist. The rabbis go on to speculate as to whether the Egyptian violently raped Shelomith or “merely” tricked her into having sex with him by pretending to be her husband. Whatever the case was, she became pregnant as a consequence of this assault (Ex. Rabbah 1:28).

(A quick aside: Another tradition relates that because Shelomith the Chatterbox would return the taskmaster’s greetings, he became acquainted with her and consequently demanded that she sin with him—a request to which she readily acquiesced (Sekhel Tov [ed. Buber], Ex. 2:11). While this is not the dominant midrashic tradition, I mention it because it strikes me as a classic instance of deflecting blame from the rapist by claiming that the victim “wanted it” or somehow “deserved it” – a claim that continues to torment victims of rape to this day.)

Moving on: While neither the Biblical nor midrashic text draws an explicit parallel with the story of Dinah – of the most famous Biblical rape victim, one of the very few bits of information we are given about Shelomith is that she was of the tribe of Dan. I note the linguistic similarity between Dinah and Dan. And, in case we missed the clue, the same language of “going out” is used in our text to describe the action of Shelomith’s son and the action of Dinah who “went out” to see the daughters of the land, an act that the rabbis see as instigating the rape.

That’s about all that the traditional literature has to say on this matter, but I imagine that Shelomith, knowing the aftermath of the rape of Dinah, was triply terrified when Moshe killed the man who raped her. Was she picturing her entire identity forever reduced to “rape victim”? Was she scared that she would be blamed for being too pretty, too friendly, for not resisting hard enough? Was she picturing wholesale acts of bloody revenge?

In any case, nine months later Shelomith gave birth to a son conceived as a consequence of rape. In the Biblical text in today’s parasha her son is not given a name. But we do learn that the son of Shelomith – Perfection – was not so perfect. He was a half-breed, an outsider, someone who quarreled with a “real” Israelite.

What was the nature of that quarrel? In the Rabbinic account, Shelomith’s son wanted to pitch his tent within the encampment of Dan – his mother’s tribe. The Danites challenged him: “Why do you want to have your tent here?” He replied: “I am from the daughters of Dan.” They retorted: “But Scripture says: ‘The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of his father’s house’ [Num. 2:2]. Although your mother is from the daughters of Dan, your father is not from the sons of Dan, and God said that the encampment follows the father’s line, and not the mother’s.”

Shelomith’s son then petitioned the court of Moshe and asked for a judgment in his case. Moshe ruled against him, declaring that he could not dwell among the Danites because he was a mamzer (bastard), because Shelomith was married at the time the Egyptian raped her.

And then, in anger or sadness or despair – the text does not tell us — Shelomith’s son left the court and blasphemed (Sifra 14:1–2). We do not know exactly what Shelomith’s son said in his blasphemous outburst, but I imagine him reciting these words from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? … O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer. … In You our fathers trusted …. But I am a worm and not a man, A reproach of men and despised by the people” (Psalm 22:1-4,6). Or perhaps his cry echoed that of Job (chapter 3): “May the day of my birth perish, and the night that said, “A boy is conceived!”  That day—may it turn to darkness; may God above not care about it; may no light shine on it.”

While the Biblical and midrashic texts hint at the pain experienced by Shelomith’s son, neither set of texts acknowledge Shelomith’s pain — the pain of the mother who sees her son rejected, picked on, kicked out of the group, mocked for his “imperfections”, derided for being “different,” judged, incarcerated, and finally murdered by and in sight of the community.  I can’t help but wonder how Shelomith felt when her son was taunted. Did she stay awake at night silently cursing both the Egyptian who raped her and the Israelite community that rejected her beloved son?  Was she forced to witness his death? Did she collect his battered and bruised body from the field? Or was she perhaps forced to join the community who laid hands on his head before throwing the stones.  In our tradition, Shelomith is not even afforded the dignity given the mother of Sisera in the song of Deborah – the respect of acknowledging her fear and grief. (“Through the window peered Sisera’s mother;     behind the lattice she cried out, ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming?   Why is the clatter of his chariots delayed?’ (Judges 5:28). )

Shelomith – the woman named “perfection” – suffers a final indignity, one that brings us back to the central concerns of our parasha. The story of her son is placed in the Torah immediately following lengthy rules about Divine requirements for flawlessness – for perfection — in the holiest of all rituals.

The text enumerates the defects that make a member of the Aaronite priesthood ineligible to approach God:  18No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; 19no man with a crippled foot or hand, 20or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. 21   No descendant of Aaron the priest who has any defect is to come near to present the food offerings to the Lord. He has a defect; he must not come near to offer the food of his God. 22He may eat the most holy food of his God, as well as the holy food; 23yet because of his defect, he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar, and so desecrate my sanctuary.’ ” (Leviticus 21).

In parallel language we then read that the animal offerings also must be “a male without blemish.” … 22Do not offer to the Lord the blind, the injured or the maimed, or anything with warts or festering or running sores. …. You must not offer to the Lord an animal whose testicles are bruised, crushed, torn or cut. … They will not be accepted on your behalf, because they are deformed and have defects.’ ” Leviticus 22:

These are difficult texts for us to read today. Does God really only want those who are perfect? Are people and animals who are injured, who are blind, or lame, too small or too scabby, who are not sufficiently masculine – are they less valued by God?  Less holy?

Compounding the deeply problematic nature of these passages, I’d point out that it’s unlikely that any person or any animal ever is as free of blemish as the text demands. Baby animals slip on manure, are accidentally kicked by other members of the herd, have insect bites that become scabbed, and so on. An absolutely perfect specimen would probably have to be created and raised in a sterile lab. The same is true for humans. In the days before modern medicine, it is unlikely that anyone would be totally free of some sort of oozing infection, scabbed wound, crooked body part, wart, mole or so on. Even today with our sophisticated medical technology, sustained absolute perfection is unattainable. Indeed, the quest for perfection is considered to be part of the etiology of the phenomenon known as anorexia – a condition in which girls and women literally starve themselves to death.

Is the God of the parasha, then, like an abusive parent who demands the impossible of his or her children; who berates his or her children for not living up to an impossible standard of perfection in schoolwork and in family interactions? Is God a despot who demands perfection in an imperfect world, who demands perfection from inherently imperfect bodies and souls?

A few years ago, in his drash on this Parasha, Robbie Fein pointed out that the Rabbis in fact backed down from this unrelenting view of imperfection. In the Talmud (Masechet Megilah) the Rabbis invoke the principle of dash b’iro – accustomed in his community –to justify allowing an imperfect Cohen to serve as a Priest. The reasoning they offered is that if a community is accustomed to seeing or hearing a particular mum (deformity, flaw, imperfection), a Cohen with that mum would not cause a distraction from performance of the Priestly task on behalf of the community and thus can properly carry out the priestly rituals.

While I doubt that this was the intention of the redactors or the rabbis, it seems to me that attending to the story of Shelomith – stuck in right after prolonged rules about perfection  — serves to remind us how the demand for perfection ultimately and inevitably leads to tragedy.  We get a glimpse of the pain felt by someone who is labeled “other” “outsider” “not good enough to belong” “damaged goods” “imperfect.”

The image I carry away from this parasha is of the women named ironically or cruelly named Perfection, daughter of Speech, of the tribe of Judgment, forever mourning her son who, judged by God and man, was stoned to death because of the words he used when he could no longer bear the burden of his imperfection.

Neither the Biblical text nor the Midrash acknowledges Shlomith’s grief at the death of her son. So I’ll close by paraphrasing our most iconic description of a grieving mother – Rachel Imeinu (The Biblical matriarch Rachel) Jeremiah 31: 15: “A voice is heard in on high. Lamentation and bitter crying. Shelomith bat Divri is crying, and she refuses to be comforted.”  links to a compelling poem about beauty, perfection and the priestly rituals.