If the daughter of a priest defiles herself through harlotry, she has disgraced her father and is put to death through burning. (Leviticus 21:9)
We are all familiar with the horror of so-called “honor killings”:
Hiyam Souad, 23, of Gaza was strangled by her father and brother in their home because she was there with a young man who lived nearby.
Nilofar Bibi, 22, of India was forced into an arranged marriage at the age of 14. She escaped. Her brother found her, dragged her into the street, and decapitated her saying, “She sinned and had to be punished.” The family supported his effort to uphold the family “honor.”
In Kingston, Ontario, an Afghani couple and their 18-year-old son brutally drowned the couple’s three teen-age daughters (ages 19, 17, and 13) and the husband’s first wife in a polygamous marriage because the girls weren’t obeying all the rules that had been set for them.
Unfortunately examples abound. I cannot imagine anything more dishonorable than killing one’s own child. It is violence erupting from ego, from concern for one’s image above all else — even above human life. It is narcissism at its absolute worst.
The verse with which we began does not use the word “honor” (kavod in Hebrew), but the defilement (m’chalelet) it speaks of affects the father’s honor. When the verse says “harlotry” (liz’not) it could mean prostitution (see Genesis 38:15 and Leviticus 19:29) or promiscuity (see Genesis 38:24 and Deuteronomy 22:21). In either case, Torah makes it clear that the daughter’s unseemly behavior reflects poorly on her father who is a priest. Two observations: First, burning is rare in Tana”kh (the Bible). We find it in three other cases: Judah demands that Tamar be executed by fire; Leviticus 20:14 stipulates burning for a man who marries both a woman and her mother; and we are told that the Israelites both stone and burn Achan and his household for appropriating spoils that had been dedicated to God (Joshua 7:25). The very fact that burning is so rare tells us that Torah considers the kohen’s daughter’s crime enormously significant. Second: the punishment (burning) is not commensurate with the crime. Prostitution and premarital sex are not punishable crimes, and burning is not prescribed for adultery. The concern clearly is, as the verse states, her father’s honor.
We are long past the period of the active priesthood. That ended in 70 C.E. with the destruction by the Romans of the Second Temple. No doubt, if there were a Temple standing today, only the most fanatical and psychopathic among us would even suggest that such a “law” could be carried out. For those who insist that we must obey the requirement of the verse, as well as those who are troubled that the verse exists at all, I offer the old and reliable Jewish staple: interpretation. Here is how Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev explains this deeply troubling verse in his commentary Kedushat Levi:
We already know that when someone in our domain of the universe commits a sin that this leaves a corresponding “stain” or defect in the celestial domain. In practice this means that sins committed on earth strengthen the forces of the kelipot (peels), that is, the forces that surround holiness and thereby make it less effective or ineffective, much as a peel prevents us from getting at the fruit within it. The best remedy available to repair this spiritual damage is by burning it in fire. “Burning” need not be a physical process but can be service to the Lord with so much enthusiasm that it bursts into “flames.” (Kedushat Levi, Emor on 21:9)
Levi Yitzhak reads the verse as an allegory. The “daughter” represents a person’s soul that is subject to the influences of the yetzer tov (inclination to do good) and the yetzer ra (inclination to do evil). “Harlotry” happens when we give in to the yetzer ra and make wrong choices. Our choices do not affect us alone; there is a ripple effect to everything we do because everything is interconnected. Ultimately the entire universe suffers the effects of the evil each of us does.
Kabbalists describe God’s holiness, which they understand as having been shattered in a cataclysmic cosmological explosion, as a myriad sparks of divine light or holiness or goodness, each trapped within a kelipah (pl. kelipot: peels, shells, husks — something that traps its content within). Kelipot are the evil that conceals holiness. Another way to think about kelipot is that they are the spiritual, emotional, and psychological obstacles that separate us from our better selves.
Kelipot are often identified with idolatry. In the case of those who engage in violent and despicable “honor killings” the object of their idolatrous worship is themselves and their images: pure narcissism. They hold their self-image more valuable, more important, more sacred than even the life of their child.
It is easy to condemn “honor killings” but how many of us are tainted (as Rabbi Levi Yitzhak put it) with this sort of idolatry? How many of us worry that our children will not reflect well on us, and out of this primacy speak to, pressure, and direct them in matters of love, marriage, education, and career in ways that serve our purposes more than theirs? How many of us worry how our spouse or partner reflects on us? Or how our house, car, clothing, or other material possessions reflect on us?
In the end — after all kelipot, facades, and excuses are stripped away — the only thing that reflects on our honor is us: our choices and our behavior. Are we reinforcing kelipot, and preventing God’s holiness from shining into our lives, or are we obliterating the kelipot and freeing holiness to enter the world, thereby adding to the stock of goodness in the world? Remember that ripple effect? It happens as much with good as with evil.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman