‘The Case of the Blasphemer’

‘The Case of the Blasphemer’

Rabbi Aaron Bisno
Rabbi Aaron Bisno

Parshat Emor

Leviticus 21:1-24:23

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.