This week, we read Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23) which contains priestly laws and rules of sacrifice. At the end of this portion, in contrast to all the rules of sanctity, appears a story of an offensive man who blasphemes God.
The Torah tells us that the son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man goes out amid the camp and a fight breaks out between him and a certain Israelite. The son of the Israelite woman, Shlomit, daughter of Divri, blasphemes God, and he is brought to Moses for judgement. The man is kept in custody until his fate is decided. God tells Moses to take the man out of the camp and let all who heard him stone him to death. Moses then recites the law of blasphemy to the Israelites.
Though Moses tells the Israelites they must not blaspheme God, we do not know exactly what the man in this story did to warrant such a severe sentence. The American Heritage Dictionary says that blasphemy is “irreverent or impious activity, attitude or utterance in regard to something considered inviolable or sacrosanct.”. Going back to the Torah, prior to this story, blasphemy is only mentioned once, in Exodus 20:7. The citation is vague, saying that one “shall not swear falsely by the name.” The Jewish philosopher Philo questions, since the law of blasphemy in Emor says that whoever blasphemes his God—meaning his own God—shall bear his guilt, is it only our God who we should not blaspheme? What of deities of other nations? And can people of other nations blaspheme God, if God is not their God? Philo answers this question saying that God also does not want us to revile deities of others.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says blasphemy is pronouncing the “ineffable” name, which is a mystery, and unknowable. In the text, the ineffable name is represented by the tetragrammaton, which is four Hebrew letters, yud hei and vav hei. We do not speak the tetragrammaton aloud, but instead replace it with Adonai, HaShem, or other acceptable substitutions.
It would seem then that blasphemy implies a public utterance, so can we then say the name in private, if no one else is listening? Rabbis say that in public, it is a more serious offense, but people need to be consistent. Speech elevates us above animals and is a gift that enables us to worship God and pray to God. We should not abuse our privilege by blaspheming, and when we do blaspheme, it makes us as low as the beasts, whether done in private or in the company of others. The rabbinic sages teach that pronouncing the name in public is much more serious, because if one person says the name, it begins religious breakdown of others. Not only does disrespect injure the spirituality of Jews, but it misrepresents God to members of other nations. Rabbi Heschel says human wisdom is taken for granted. Humans forget that God gave us wisdom, and God can take it away from us. Rabbi Telushkin says that our ability to demonstrate ethical behavior and display honorable character represents God well, and if we blaspheme and ridicule God, we misrepresent God.
In case you are not aware, religious groups trying to enforce their understanding of blasphemy violates the US Constitution. Blasphemy laws violate the First Amendment. They promote religion, specifically Christianity, over nonreligion in violation of the Establishment Clause. They prohibit speech in violation of the Free Speech Clause. They violate the guarantees of religious free exercise and free press. In general, blasphemy laws assault the First Amendment’s protection of the freedom of conscience.
Considering the recent breach of confidentiality of the Supreme Court case that may overturn a women’s right to make her own choices about her health, I wonder if the attempt by some religious groups to restrict a woman’s choice is a form of blasphemy. As stated in the National Council of Jewish Women toolkit, “As people of faith, we believe in compassion, justice, and dignity for all. We understand that those who support restricting access to abortion often cite religious beliefs as their motivation and seek to force these views on others. The US Constitution supports the freedom of religion and demands that no one imposes a single religious viewpoint on all. Laws and regulations limiting access to abortion are at odds with our nation’s founding principle of religious liberty and trample individual moral agency.”
Supporters say an abortion ban would protect unborn children; a belief largely shaped by other religious views outside of Judaism which claim life begins at conception. For Jews and others who don’t share the religious view that life begins at conception, a total abortion ban may not only prevent access to necessary medical care but also violates religious freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment to practice one’s faith without government intervention. This is using religion and God’s name in vain – this is modern blasphemy.