The Cost of Alienation and Assimilation on Judaism
It is one of the most problematic stories in the Torah.
A young man, who was the son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man, gets involved in a fight and curses God in public. He is brought to Moses, who holds him in detention while deciding what should be done.
What was his crime? Why did he commit it? And why did Moses hesitate? Why did the Torah need to mention that the man’s mother was called Shlomit Bat Divri, of the tribe of Dan? Why was it necessary to mention her?
The Midrash fleshes out the issues. First, it says that the mother’s name tells us about her character. She is named Shlomit, because she said “Shalom” to people indiscriminately, and Divri, from ledaber, because she talked too much. She was too frivolous. She spent her time in the wrong company, and married an Egyptian. Her son had a problematic upbringing, not knowing where he belonged. He felt unwanted and unloved.
The Midrash also says that the fight the man got into was over his identity. He was a Jew because of his mother. But Tribal identity went by the father. That was why he could not join his mother’s tribe of Dan. His rejection and sense of alienation led to his crime, which is why Moses had sympathy for him and hesitated before punishing him.
The other explanation is that Moses was not certain of what the punishment should be — to which God replied that an act so fundamental that it undermined God’s authority was a danger to the whole nation, and a more serious crime than a civil one.
God told Moses that the blasphemer should be put to death. This sounds very harsh, and violates the principle of “an eye for an eye” — the punishment should fit the crime. But cursing God is such a fundamental matter that it undermines the very foundation of Israelite identity, the covenant with God, and its way of life and constitution. The blasphemer had to be made an example of, to deter others.
This story has modern lessons to teach us. Mixed marriages often confuse the identities of a child, who becomes uncertain of where their loyalties and identity lie. And as we see today, so many people who were born Jewish or of mixed marriages without a sense of belonging, end up either with a sense of alienation from Judaism, or simply prefer to assimilate.
We must nurture our children with love, but we must also give them a strong sense of Jewish identity, which requires study and practice — not just bagels and lox.
The author is a writer and rabbi currently living in New York.