Do you know the story, referred to as “The Case of the Blasphemer”? Candidly, I’d be surprised if you did. “The Case of the Blasphemer” isn’t often included in collections of Bible stories. That’s a shame.
It should be. Found in this week’s Torah portion of Emor, this otherwise simple story is central to understanding how Jews do and don’t speak about God. On the face of it, the story is about a man accused of misusing/profaning God’s name who, as a result, is stoned to death for his crime. Clearly, the blasphemer’s crime was serious. As Jews, we know this all but instinctively. God’s name can’t be spoken. Don’t take God’s name in vain!
The Talmud states that blasphemy is one of the seven crimes prohibited by Noahide or natural law; thus, there was a time when blasphemers were killed for their words. In time, some Jews would rend their clothes even upon hearing blasphemy. Though after the Temple fell in 70 C.E., according to Rav Hiyya, “One who hears blasphemy is no longer obliged to rend his garments, because otherwise all our garments would be nothing but tatters” (Sanhedrin 56a).
In time, however, such a lenient approach meant the fear of death no longer deterred blasphemers. By the ninth century, Rab Amram, gaon and editor of the first Jewish prayer book, had had enough and declared, “One who hears another blaspheme must excommunicate him. It makes no difference if one uses the Ineffable Name or speaks only of God’s attributes. A blasphemer must be excommunicated.”
As sources explain, the blasphemer’s excommunication was a substitute for the death penalty — not per se to preserve a life but to spare a witness having to repeat the offensive remarks. We ought to note that, even so, Abba Saul was of the opinion that, in addition to any punishment inflicted by human power, one who blasphemes will also be excluded from life in the world to come.
Given its role in catalyzing jurisprudence, why isn’t this story better known? Though simple, the story is challenging. As we can see, even from this brief history, over time community mores vis-à-vis blasphemy varied, as did a proper response. This is not surprising in a rapidly changing world, where one can just as easily contemplate, deconstruct or disregard God.
But let us reimagine the crime of blasphemy. What if, rather than our saying that cursing God or discussing God or even disrespecting God is blasphemy, we were to agree the crime of blasphemy cannot be what one could say of God in human terms.
Consider: For a crime’s commission to be worthy of being excluded from a life with people, and perhaps even from a life in the world to come, surely it cannot concern what we say about a God who is beyond our reach but must have everything to do with how we treat one another here on earth. If so, blasphemy can be redefined to reflect those times when we humans take to speaking of ourselves in Godly terms.
If we believe any of us are inherently better than others, treat people in this way or tolerate others doing so, then that is blasphemy, pure and simple. All the more so, if we maintain we behave this way for our alone being in possession of God’s truth or because we are perfect and without flaw. Blasphemy! Blasphemy! Blasphemy!
“The Case of the Blasphemer” can be found in Leviticus 24:10-23. I urge you to read it.
Rabbi Aaron Bisno is senior rabbi of Rodef Shalom Congregation.