A Stumbling Block and The Evolution of Meaning –Shabbat Kedoshim 5774
Large chunks of Kedoshim don’t seem to fit in Leviticus, which is a substantially ritual book. Chapter 19 contains a rich tapestry of ethical commandments that provide a range of insights into how we can become holy, which I first encountered forty years ago for my Bar Mitzvah portion. The chapter is said to include all of the ten commandments, it makes provision for alms-in-kind through not picking up left-overs when harvesting, it bans us from withholding wages or payments to any hired labourer. There are no 30-day payment terms in the Torah!
And, in the midst of these ethical rules is verse 14, which states: Lo t’kalleil cheresh, v’lifnei iveir lo titein michshol, v’yareita mei-elohecha, Ani Adonai.
‘You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God, I am the Eternal’.
On the face of it, this is a very straightforward verse containing two commandments, linked by the theme of sensory impairment. The first tells us not to insult/defame/taunt people who cannot hear the insults and respond to them or refute them. The second tells us not to cause a person with a serious sight loss to fall over by putting something in their path.
However, for the rabbis of the Talmudic era, something was not right in this p’shat or literal reading of the text. In fact, they perceived two problems. Firstly, They were initially perplexed by the fact that the Torah seems to prohibit an act that no-one, except perhaps the boisterous child or thoroughly malicious would consider doing, namely to cause a blind person to stumble by putting something in their way.
Secondly, why did the verse conclude with the phrase “You shall fear your God”. By examining other places where this phrase was used, the rabbis deduced the principle that it was expressly used for commandments where only the perpetrator would know if they had sinned. The phrase v’yareita mei-elohecha is used only five times in Torah, always in Vayikra, including once later in the chapter. Verse 32 uses exactly the same formulation in reference to showing deference to the old. So, why is it used here, the rabbis mused?
Their conclusion changed the understanding of this verse completely. This verse became the proof text for, among other things, what we might today call ‘insider trading’. In other words, the rabbis found a hidden meaning, referring to metaphorical, rather than literal, blindness. In other words, this commandment came be one that prohibited using your knowledge, or anyone else’s lack of knowledge to take advantage of them. Blindness was replaced, if you like, by hoodwinking.
So, in rabbinic literature, we find examples of this text linked with:
• Advising that a girl is fit to marry a priest (Sifra)
• Avoiding giving advice that could lead to someone being harmed, either by violating their soul, their body, or their worldly goods. (Sifra)
• Marking graveyards so that a Kohen would not unknowingly enter them. (Moed Katan 5a)
• Causing a Nazirite to break their vows (Pesachim 22b)
• Causing a non-Jew to breach the Noachide laws (the seven laws from Genesis incumbent on all God-fearing people). (Pesachim 22b)
• Maimonides even forbids Jews from selling weapons of war to non-Jews based on this verse! He goes on to forbid the sale of anything that could cause the public harm, such as knives, manacles, iron chains, bears, and lions! 1
So we find ourselves with a vast set of laws derived from the rabbinic search for meaning in this verse. While we as Progressive Jews would not hold with their analytical and exegetical framework, we would not want to jettison all of these laws. True, we do not hold that Kohanim may only marry certain, qualified, women. However, we would support an injunction against giving advice that puts another at risk, be that monetary, physical or emotional.
Yet, I would argue that the p’shat meaning ought not be ignored, as it holds great importance for us, as Jews. What are the stumbling blocks that we place before the blind? This equates to the social model of disability, arguing that society turns a sensory impairment into a disability by the way we construct – physically and in other ways – our world. We have a responsibility in our synagogues, in our workplaces, shops and stores, and in our social and communal settings to enable a person with serious sight loss to partake in, and contribute to our activities. Beginning in our synagogues, we might ask if they can they access our services, read the liturgy through large print books, ascend to the bimah easily via steps that are properly colour contrasted? Widening to other disabling barriers – does the induction loop always work properly? Would a person in a wheelchair be enabled to read from or see the Torah? How comfortable would a person with learning difficulties be in our synagogue services or social activities and events?
Twenty-one years after discrimination on grounds of sex and race were banned, this country declared illegal any discrimination against people with disabilities. In this verse from Leviticus, our religion got there over 2000 years earlier. Sadly, it’s only in very recent times that we have understood this level of meaning of the commandment – perhaps this is another example of progressive revelation. We still have a lot to do to bring about a discrimination-free environment for many people with physical, sensory or mental/psychological impairments. If our congregations are to be holy, and this verse is part of the holiness code, then we should be striving hard to ensure we become more inclusive, more genuinely open to all.
My understanding of the chapter has evolved and changed much in the past forty years, but I think I would still say that this is a divinely-inspired commandment. Let’s be divinely inspiring in the way we implement all its levels of meaning in all our communities.
Rabbi Richard Jacobi
1 Cited by Nechama Leibowitz Studies in Vayikra (1982), Kedoshim 3, p175
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.