Parashat Emor 5775 (On Blasphemy and the Image of God)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

This week’s parashah ends with a sin:

וַיִּקֹּב בֶּן-הָאִשָּׁה הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִית אֶת-הַשֵּׁם וַיְקַלֵּל.

The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name [of God] and cursed. (Lev. 24:10-23)

Maybe we don’t need to overthink why a law code seen as given by God would determine that cursing God is not ok, but how severe a crime is this? Evidently, Moses was uncertain, as the culprit was detained while Moses checked in with God. Because, perhaps, the negative consequence of this act seems unclear. After all, what harm can possibly come to God through human words?

In v. 14, those who hear the blasphemy lay their hands on the blasphemer before he is stoned to death, the same way that the high priest transfers the community’s sins to the scapegoat.This implies that they have been implicated in this sin just by hearing it and thus must take action to absolve themselves.

With lashon hara (another spoken sin), we usually focus on the relationship between the speaker and the one they spoke about, as in, the parable that compares lashon hara to scattered feathers that cannot be readily returned, but what about those who were told the rumour?  Every time they see the milkman, they can’t shake what they were told about him, however hard they try. What they heard can never be unheard.

If you misspeak when davaning, for example, saying ha-el hakadosh instead of ha-melekh hakadosh in the Amidah from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, how much time do you have to undo this egregious error, and avoid going back to the beginning? You have tokh kedei dibur — the amount of time it takes to say “shalom rabi” – maybe 3 seconds. And this applies for nearly every case in Jewish law when you want to take back what you said:

והילכתא תוך כדי דבור כדבור דמי חוץ ממגדף ועובד עבודת כוכבים ומקדש ומגרש

The law is (says the gemara) that replacement words said within 2-3 seconds are taken as replacing the original words, unless the original words were: blasphemy, idol worship, betrothal, or divorce. (BT Nedarim 87a)

That is to say, some words are simply so powerful that they cannot be taken back.

Back in our parashah, what is the effect of the blasphemous utterance on the listeners? To answer that we need to know what we mean by blasphemy. Our verses themselves make clear that two distinct elements are required: 1. using the Divine name, and 2. cursing God , that is, calling for something bad to befall God. This is not a matter of denying a tenet of faith, or casting aspersions on the true religion or its leaders, but an attack aimed directly at God, Godself. Biblical scholar Baruch Schwartz suggests that the essence of the crime is that the Name of God is considered to be a sacred object, and this is a misuse of that object. In keeping with the themes of Leviticus, this is a serious matter: everything has its place and its order, and the holy must be protected and kept apart from the impure.

This gives us some insight into why the crime was taken so seriously, but if this were the whole story, someone who uses the ineffable name to advertise their commercial product (“The only engine oil ‘Hashem’ would use”), or names their pet yud-hey-vav-hey should suffer a similar punishment.

According to the Mishnah (Sanh. 6:4) only blasphemers and idolaters have their bodies displayed after execution (think heads on pikes at the gates of the city). But the Torah (Deut 21:23) states that this can cause further cursing of God, and so must last no longer than until the end of that day. The Gemara in Masekhet Sanhedrin gives two different, almost contradictory, reasons as to why leaving out the body of the executed causes God to be cursed: The first explanation is that passers by will say “oh look, there’s the person who said ________”. (BT Sanh. 45b)

This suggests that the problem with blasphemy is what it does to the relationship between people and God: if people are constantly reminding themselves that God can be insulted by humans, how can they continue to understand God as transcendent, Almighty, the apex of Holiness? Just as hearing of the misdeeds of one’s neighbor can affect how you think about them forever, so too, even the recounting of the crime of blasphemy has essentially the same effect: conjuring up the notion that God is less than supreme.

The second reason given, just one page later, is related by way of a משל, a parable:

תניא אומר ר”מ משלו משל למה הדבר דומה לשני אחים תאומים בעיר אחת אחד מינוהו מלך ואחד יצא לליסטיות צוה המלך ותלאוהו כל הרואה אותו אומר המלך תלוי צוה המלך והורידוהו:

It is taught: Rabbi Meir said: they told a parable: what is this analogous to? To two twin brothers in a city. One of them was the King, and the other became a brigand. The king ordered that his twin be hanged. All who saw the hanged one said “the King was hanged!” So the King ordered that he be taken down. (BT Sanh. 46b)

I was struck by this parable’s use of “תאומים” – twins- to describe the king, (God), and the brigand, (our blasphemer). Not just lookalikes, not just siblings, but twins. It is no mere coincidence that these two are confused by the onlookers: they are identical in appearance, in lineage, even in their DNA. The lesson of the parable seems to be that Divinity and humanity are inextricably connected, in a such a way that they are destined to shared dignity: where one lacks it, the other cannot retain it.

Paradoxically, the crime of blasphemy must be punished so severely, because to curse God is to curse all of humanity, even including the blasphemer themself. If God can be cursed, what hope is there for all of us, who are twinned with God?

Quite rightly, we often push ourselves to acknowledge–and create–a world where human dignity is paramount, as, after all, we are made in the image of God. The law of the blasphemer emphasises a slightly different side of that same challenge: to recognize that God’s dignity is a reflection of our own dignity, and insulting either one is always an offence against the other.

Shabbat shalom.

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