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In one of the opening scenes of “Life of Brian,” Monty Python’s hilarious spoof on all religions, a man is about to be stoned for blasphemy, taking the Lord’s name in vain (he was speaking about how delicious his steak was).
The source of the scene, and countless other events connected with blasphemy, is in our parsha. After details about our holidays, the parsha relates that a man whose father was Egyptian and whose mother was Israelite got into a fight with a “full-blooded” Israelite and in the course of the struggle the half-Israelite cursed the name of God and was brought to Moshe for judgment. The Israelites knew that the action was wrong, they just didn’t know how to punish it.
God’s instructions to Moshe are to take the man outside of the camp where all the Israelites will stone him. And this is the punishment for anyone, Israelite, convert or otherwise, who curses God, in other words blasphemes. Ergo the scene in Life of Brian.
Was such punishment really carried out on a regular basis at any time? We know that the foreign queen Jezebel used blasphemy as an excuse to have Nabot the Jezreelite disposed of so that her hubby, King Ahab, could take possession of Nabot’s vineyard, which he coveted. But early on in rabbinic tradition, we are told, the rabbis exchanged capital punishment for a broad system of public censure up to and including cherem – excommunication. Think Baruch Spinoza, 1656. In fact, when we use the expression chilul Hashem, meaning a desecration of the name of God, for anything from a simple act of impiety to gross misbehavior, we are actually harking back to this problematic biblical practice.
Immediately after the punishment (death) is proclaimed we have what seems to be an aside with no connection, even tangential, to blasphemy. We read that a person who curses God shall die, then a person who kills another shall die and a man who kills an animal shall pay a soul for a soul. Then lex talionis, retaliative justice, rears its head. If you maim a person, so you shall be maimed. Fracture for fracture, eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. And two sentences later we read that the death sentence for the blasphemer was carried out.
It’s possible to see a tie between the blasphemer and the holiness that has been the subject of the last dozen chapters or so. Blasphemy defiles holiness. But where does retaliation fit in with blasphemy and holiness?
Dr. Shawna Dolansky proposes that the blasphemer story, shows that the laws of holiness pertain not only to the Israelites (and of course to its priests) but also to half-breeds – intermarried half-Israelites as well.
Ethnic affiliation makes no difference, “the outsider and the citizen who curses the Name shall be put to death.” OK, so this law applies to all people in the congregation. Immediately we are told that the laws of retaliation laws also apply. What the Torah is saying is that only one set of laws, for born Israelites and for foreigners or converts or strangers living in our midst is to be applied. In all matters. It’s as though the Torah takes this opportunity to remind us of the importance of equality before the law.
Getting back to blasphemy, while Judaism seems to have repudiated the letter of the blasphemy law, some haven’t. Christianity had its Crusades and inquisitions, which it has outgrown. Islam still has its extremists. We remember that cartoons “desecrating” Mohammed led to killings in France, and earlier, a novel by Salman Rushdie allegedly denigrating Mohammed led to a fatwa, an Islamic court ruling, calling for his life. In general, much terrorism today is camouflaged as actions to punish the heathens who desecrate a specific holy name.
Outside of terrorist activity, is there room for blasphemy in today’s modern world? This question was raised by Rabbi L.J. Sussman, who notes that in a world where anything goes, even the question of blasphemy is blasphemous (metaphorically speaking, of course). He says that somewhere between throwing stones and throwing away all distinctions between different ideas there must be a golden mean. “Figuring out the golden mean between justice and mercy, punishment and rehabilitation, and privacy and shame,” he says, “will never be easy but will always be necessary.” Even more importantly, how we protect our boundaries, how we react to those who oppose our views and practices will define who we really are as well as the nature of our ultimate values and the holiness of our most sacred traditions.
Is there room for compromise in religion? That depends on whom you ask. What is ironic is that in times of crisis, such as these, all sorts of compromises are made. They are temporary, or are they? (Who said, “There’s nothing as permanent as a temporary solution!”) What we have to work for and hope for as a people, as a country, is a modus vivendi that reflects mutual acceptance at the very least, and perhaps even mutual respect.
That may be stretching a bit, but in this period of renewed hope, why not!