On January 24, 1656, Jacob Lumbrozo, a Portuguese-born doctor and businessman, became the first documented Jew to settle in the Catholic colony of Maryland. Two years later, under provisions of the colony’s ironically named Toleration Act of 1649, which extended freedom of religion exclusively to Trinitarian Christians, Lumbrozo, himself a litigious person, was charged with blasphemy. He faced both severe economic sanctions and even punishment by death. Ten days after his trial began a general amnesty on such matters was proclaimed in England by the government of Richard Cromwell. The proceedings in Maryland were immediately terminated and the doctor was allowed to go free.
Blasphemy, however, was not outlawed in the colonies — or later in the United States — until the Supreme Court ruled in 1952 in Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson “that it is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches or motion pictures." Questions about the extent of freedom of religion remain unresolved to this day in United States and Jewish law with respect both to disestablishment and free exercise.
The Judaic concept of blasphemy, the basis for charges against Dr. Lumbrozo, can be traced back to this week’s Torah portion, Emor, in Leviticus 24:10-16. Here the Torah reports that during the Exodus, a man born of mixed Israelite-Egyptian descent “blasphemed the Name [of God],” was placed on trial, and was stoned to death. A law was then immediately promulgated that anyone, Jew or gentile, who blasphemed the name of God shall be put to death. However, in I Kings 21 we read a cautionary tale about how Queen Jezebel was responsible for having false charges of blasphemy fabricated to illegally obtain for her husband, King Ahab, a vineyard owned by a man named Nabot. Blasphemy, in the Hebrew Bible, is shown to be both a serious religious offence and a threat to the well-being of society.
In the early Rabbinic tradition an equally ambivalent view of blasphemy is evident. On the one hand, a prohibition against blasphemy is included as one of the Seven Laws of Noah (the Noahide laws), and therefore viewed as a cardinal offence for all of humanity and not just Jews alone. On the other hand, we read in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 7:5) that the penalty of stoning for the blasphemer applies only where he specifically used the Tetragrammaton (the four-letter name of God) to curse God. For both historical and theological reasons, the Rabbis desisted from prosecuting blasphemy as a capital crime, and instead evolved a system of public censure for a total of 25 serious religious offences and their proportionate punishments. For example, punishments such as nezifah, “verbal rebuke,”or niddui, “a seven-day period of limited social banishment or quarantine,” could be applied, and more familiarly, cherem, “lifelong excommunication,” could be imposed. Today, when we hear of anything from a simple act of impiety to gross misbehavior labeled as chilul HaShem, “desecration of the Name [of God],” it is an echo of an ancient, problematic biblical practice. Cherem continues to be widely practiced today, especially among various Orthodox groups.
As is well-known, anti-blasphemy laws also developed in Christianity and Islam, and punishments including the death penalty remain “on the books” in numerous countries. While the Torah defines blasphemy narrowly as “cursing God,” blasphemy rulings also came to include both laws that give redress to those who feel insulted because of their religion, and laws implicating those who denigrate or vilify religion in faiths that arose subsequent to Judaism. In some jurisdictions and traditions, the prohibition against blasphemy includes “hate speech” laws that extend beyond the imminent incitement of hatred and violence. On the other hand, blasphemy may or may not be invoked in the prosecution or refutation of heresy or heterodoxy. In some Christian circles, simply cursing or swearing is considered blasphemous. In some sectors of Islam, insults — or perceived insults — to the prophet Muhammad are considered blasphemy whether in word, deed, or image, including cartoons.
Accusations and the prosecution of blasphemy have also remained a part of Jewish life in the modern world. Perhaps the best-known case of blasphemy in its broadest sense in modern Jewish history was the excommunication of Baruch Spinoza on July 27, 1656 by the Talmud Torah congregation of Amsterdam at almost the same time Dr. Lumbrozo first settled in Maryland. Spinoza, then only 23 years old, was accused of “abominable heresies which he practiced and taught and about his monstrous deeds.” Reports of an apology by the young Spinoza have never been documented and he remains under cherem to this day.
Spinoza’s excommunication was hardly the last use of punitive ecclesiastical power in Jewish history. In the 18th century, the scholarly leader of the Lithuanian yeshivot, the Vilna Gaon, placed at least two Chasidic groups under cherem. In 1918, while under German control, rabbis in the Ukraine excommunicated Leon Trotsky, a Jewish-born Bolshevik and founder of the Red Army. On June 12, 1945 in New York City, the Agudat HaRabbanim formally excommunicated Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, and publicly burned copies of his prayer book. In 2006, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel placed the anti-Zionist group Neturei Karta under cherem for supporting an Iranian Holocaust denial effort. More recently, in February 2016 a Jerusalem rabbinic court excommunicated an Israeli scientist who refused to issue a get or “writ of divorce.” This is an important case because it goes beyond theological and ritual issues, and includes areas of domestic law and possibly domestic abuse, a civil offense.
Although little studied, there are also formal methods of punishment, shaming, and expulsion in general, non-halachic American Jewish life as well. Early in American Jewish history, synagogues regularly levied fines and even forbade membership either for “bad behavior” or failure to pay fines or dues. In the 19th century, traditional American rabbis were removed from their pulpits on suspicion of eating nonkosher food, holding unusual theological views (for example, Unitarian views), lack of responsiveness to lay authority, and general unpleasantness. Conservative rabbis have been banished from their rabbinic organization for officiating at mixed marriages and Reform rabbis have been suspended and expelled for a variety of offences including sexually predatory behavior and, in one case, murder.
Although at first blush, it would seem that we are culturally light years away from this week’s portion’s report of the first blasphemy case in Jewish history, and that charges of blasphemy are themselves blasphemous in the modern world, questions about religious norms and deviance persist in every aspect of life. Somewhere between “pick up the rocks and stone him to death” and “everything goes” there are paths appropriate for our time, place, and tradition. Figuring out the golden mean between justice and mercy, punishment and rehabilitation, and privacy and shame will never be easy but will always be necessary. Most importantly, how we enforce the borders of our beliefs and actions will ultimately reflect on who we really are as much as the nature of our ultimate values and the holiness of our most sacred traditions.
Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D., is the senior rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA. He has written numerous books and articles in the field of American Jewish history and has taught at Princeton University, Binghamton University (SUNY), and Hunter College (CUNY). Rabbi Sussman is currently working on a book on Jews, Judaism, and law in America.