Parshat Emor 2017
In the desert, the son of a mixed marriage (Israelite woman and an Egyptian man) got into a fight with an Israelite man, and he cursed the name of God. The people were stunned. He was brought to Moshe to clarify what to do with the blasphemer. And the decision handed down from on high was – stone him.
Does blasphemy, which is considered one of the most egregious of sins in all religions, play a role in our lives today? Think Salman Rushdie, Theo van Gogh, Charlie Hebdo, 9/11, the Crusades, the inquisition. Maybe it does.
Blasphemy is one of the Noahide laws, meaning it applies to everyone. According to Rabbi Lance Sussman, blasphemy was on the law books in the US until 1952 when the Supreme Court ruled “that it is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches or motion pictures.“
Punishment for blasphemy seems to wax or wane in terms of strength and enforcement over the years. In Judaism we had the case in today’s parsha, we had Jezebel, Ahab and Nabot, we had two foreign kings who denigrated the God of Israel and their armies were struck with supernatural disasters that routed them completely. Some say that David slew Goliath because Goliath made fun of the God of Israel. And in 1656 Baruch Spinoza was excommunicated because of his writings and his views, which were considered blasphemy. Today, we still find the charge of blasphemy and chilul hashem thrown around, and some Chassidic courts put others in cherem – excommunication, but stonings are out.
Christianity had its heyday of punishing those who did not accept their religion, from Roman times to the Crusades to the Inquisition. They got a lot of mileage and money out of blasphemy.
And today it is Islam, radical Islam, that is keeping the tradition alive. Just look at the newspapers for the past 15 years for examples.
The question that arises is why is it so important to protect the name or reputation of God? Being omnipotent he can mete out punishment better than we can, whenever and however he chooses. If a pagan says, the idol I worship is stronger than your God – let him live in his illusions. Truth will out eventually. Why do we have to get involved?
Two answers come to mind immediately, one from the divine side and one from the human side. From the point of view of the divinity (and I am oversimplifying for brevity), you can’t let people get away with mocking you. You are the Lord, you have to protect your domain and more importantly, you have to give backing to your followers. And having them participate in keeping the faith makes it much stronger and more personal.
From the people’s point of view, if someone mocks your most fundamental belief, the bedrock on which your existence is built, shouldn’t you be upset? Shouldn’t you take action to protect your own identity?
Here’s a third answer, more metphysical, from Ariel Seri-Levi. A name is part of an entity whether divine or human. Cursing or blaspheming upsets the cosmic balance of the God or the person because of the curse. Only suitable punishment can reset the normal order.
Does this mean, then, that if we don’t burn, stone, throttle or otherwise eradicate blasphemers, we don’t have as deep a belief in our God and religion as do those who do send nay-sayers to an early hell?
We occasionally do read of people (other than terrorists) who go out and burn and kill because their religious sensibilities have been insulted. But for the most part, we have been socialized and civilized. There are laws about killing for whatever reasons, and unless you are ISIS you abide by them, for the most part.
At the same time, we see people who are genuinely offended by slights to their religious beliefs and traditions, and if they could, they very well might replenish their stock of stones and stoke up a funeral pyre.
Today, however, such extremism is considered primitive in many places because it does not reflect the socializing processes that have shaved away the rough edges of old-time religion and have replaced them with free speech and freedom of beliefs.
But we don’t change just because there is a law. Our DNA is such that when one avenue of action is closed another opens. We may not be able to stone and hang others in the name of religion, but we can certainly vent our spleen against the rival soccer team, for example, or set garbage bins on fire in the middle of the street.
I would argue that our political system has replaced religion. In politics today, in the US, France, Russia and Israel, it is US against THEM or OTHERS. In our country laws are being promulgated which will make discrimination legal, which is a highly sophisticated form of blasphemy laws. We also see agitation of US against THE OTHER US – divisions within our society based on ethnic origin or sectorial affiliation.
Some say that such steps are the result of power. I think they come from fear – on the one hand, fear of what others will do or think if I don’t show my power or on the other fear that my followers may be tempted to go elsewhere if I don’t remove other options to choose from. Thus, the political body has taken over the role of the divine power in maintaining fear among the populace.
Did someone already say there is nothing new under the sun?