On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - What Is Blasphemy, Anyway? - Emor

In ancient times, crimes of blasphemy were punished by stoning - but what does it really mean today to blaspheme? Rabbi Rick Jacobs explains the biblical prohibition against Chilul HaShem, desecrating God's name, and talks about what we are called to do to combat it. (This episode originally aired in May 2019.)

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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the Torah portion in just about 10 minutes or less. But for the first time in four years, this podcast is going to go on a little bit of a hiatus, as we work on some new and exciting ideas for its future. But in the meantime, we are re-airing some of the best episodes of years past, our greatest hits if you will.

This week we're going to hear Rabbi Jacobs teach us about Parashat Emor, from May 13th 2019, when he talked about the difference between honoring things that are sacred and desecrating those very same things.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week we focus our attention on Parashat Emor from the book of Leviticus. Emor opens with a focus on the Jewish holy days in the Bible. That gets most of our attention. But we're going to turn for this podcast to chapter 24 of Leviticus, which focuses in on blasphemy. Chapter 24, verse 13, "And the eternal spoke to Moses saying take the blasphemer outside the camp and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him."

You get the message here. Blasphemy is a serious offense. It warrants in Biblical language the death penalty, stoning. And blasphemy is not so clear, not only in our own day, but what was the actual crime. Remember, for our ancestors, saying the Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh, the most holy sacred name of God that we even don't pronounce. We say Hachem in Hebrew, which means The Name. You know the name, but we can't speak it.

And in ancient Israel, it was spoken really only by the high priest on the holiest day, Yom Kippur, in the holiest place, which was the holy of holies in the temple. So what is blasphemy? Is it using God's name in a curse when you are playing basketball with your friends and you miss a shot by about five feet, and you yell out a curse with God's name? Is that what blasphemy was, or is?

Well, I think there's actually much more to this, and it's worth unpacking a little bit. So some interesting history. If we think about it, maybe the best known case of blasphemy in history, in Jewish history that is, is the excommunication of Baruch Spinoza on July 27, 1656 by the Talmud Torah Congregation of Amsterdam.

And it coincides with a similar case that was brought against a gentleman named Jacob Lumbrozo on January 24, 1656 here in these emerging United States of America. And I learned this from Rabbi Lance Sussman, who is a brilliant historian of American Jewish history, now the rabbi at Knesset Israel, outside of Philadelphia.

And Lance has this very, very amazing story about Jacob Lumbrozo, a Portuguese-born doctor and businessman who came, was the first documented Jew to settle in the Catholic colony of Maryland. And two years later, under provisions of the colonies ironically named Toleration Act of 1649, they brought a blasphemy charge against him.

But it turns out here, in these United States, blasphemy was not outlawed until the Supreme Court ruled in 1952 in the case of Joseph Burstyn, Inc. versus Wilson that it is-- and I'll quote-- "that 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."

So this has been a part of our world, and it is still a part of our world. We know that in faith communities if you say derogatory things about someone else's spirituality or way of being religious, that can be called blasphemy. We don't make it a capital crime.

But I would like us to broaden this. So the Hebrew word that best reflects blasphemy is chilul Hashem, which means the desecration of God's name. Now, I don't think it's simply about speaking the Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh, or cursing when you miss a shot in basketball, or when you kind of bump your knee against the table leg.

It is about doing things in God's name that should not be done. So there's this great passage in the Babylonian Talmud. Aren't there so many great passages? So in this great passage in Tractate Yoma, page 86A, which is Yoma usually talks about things that are related to the day which is the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur.

Here we have this wonderful debate. The Gemara asks, "What are the circumstances that cause the desecration of God's name, chilul Hashem?" Ha Rav said, the great sage Rav said, "For example, in the case of someone like me, since I'm an important public figure, if I take meat from a butcher and do not give him money immediately, people are likely to think that I did not mean to pay it that all."

That, for Rav, is chilul Hashem. He is publicly behaving in a way that will bring shame upon the Jewish people, shame upon believers, shame upon God, by virtue of what he is or is not doing. I think that's what blasphemy is all about. And when people today, now I'm going to get into a little bit of a riff here, so just be with me here. Take a deep breath and come with me on this riff.

People today do things in God's name. When people are, in the name of God and may be wearing religious garb, say hateful things about other children of God, that is a chilul Hashem. That is a desecration of God's name. People who steal, that is a desecration of God's name. People who every day behave in ways that are harmful to the environment, that are harmful to the core ethical teachings. That is a chilul Hashem.

That brings shame and brings a sense of undermining and draining all of the holiness out of an act. And I've got to tell you, I look around the world. I could see a lot of chillul Hashem. People parading around as religious leaders, as religious people, but doing unspeakable things.

Now, forgive me this one. If someone says that there is a religious teaching that says we should separate families at the border between Mexico and the United States and they say that the Bible tells us to do that, as a very prominent member of the current US government said, that feels like something close to chilul Hashem.

Our holy teachings can not be telling us to separate families. Our holiest teachings cannot be telling us to be cruel to the stranger, to the widow, to the orphan. That is a chilul Hashem. So what's the opposite of a chilul Hashem?

It's kiddush Hashem. It's something that's sanctifies God's name, an act of such pure unadulterated holiness and love and care. That is what upholds God's name. That's what brings not just meaning but radiance to what it means to be a holy person living a holy life in today's world.

So let's learn the Biblical teaching. We don't need to stone people who blaspheme. We need, first of all, to change them. We need to bring them from acts that are so filled with desecration to acts of consecration.

And I love Pope Francis, who I had the privilege of meeting. He said no one must use the name of God to commit violence. To kill in the name of God is a grave sacrilege. To discriminate in the name of God is inhuman.

I think Pope Francis had it just right. And that's I believe what's at the heart of blasphemy. It's not respectful to make fun of someone else's god or someone else's religious practice. I'm with you on that. People I don't think should be put to death for that. But they should be educated and elevated. And obviously, here in the United States it wasn't until very recently that we eliminated blasphemy as a crime.

But we need to do much better than just eliminate it from the legal codes. We need as religious people to emphasize what it is that we do that upholds our religious traditions. So chapter 24 of the Book of Leviticus, blasphemy is a dangerous thing. So the final teaching comes from a amazing passage from Saul Ansky's very famous play, The Dybbuk.

And I love, if you just can give me a few moments here to share with you the opening-- sorry, the closing of this amazing play. He says, "The holiest place in Jewish tradition is Jerusalem. The holiest place in Jerusalem was the Temple. And the holiest spot in the Temple was the holy of holies. Since there are 70 nations in the world, the holiest among these is the people Israel. The holiest among the Jewish people is the tribe of Levi. In the tribe of Levi the holiest are the priests. Among the priests, the holiest is the high priest. There are 354 days in the Jewish year. Among these, the holidays are holy. Higher than these is the holiness of the Sabbath. Among the Sabbath, the holiest one is the Day of Atonement."

Now, he concludes, "Every spot where a person raises their eyes to heaven is the holy of holies. Every person having been created by God in God's own image and likeness is the high priest. Every day of a person's life is Yom Kippur. And every word that a person speaks with sincerity is the holy name of God."

That's kiddush Hashem. That putting into every act how to I uphold and uplift and elevate and consecrate the world through my deeds, through my words. And how do I avoid chilul Hashem, the emptying, the desecrating of God's world, of God's family. Those are the fundamentals of a life of religious commitment. Obviously, Spinoza's community thought that everything he was teaching was anathema. They called it blasphemy.

Even other examples, obviously, can be brought. But let's be inspired today and tomorrow to be people who are practitioners of kiddush Hashem. May our lives in the very specificity of our deeds and words, may we speak the holiness and the uplift that is at the heart of our Jewish tradition.

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple podcasts, or Google Play, or Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review, or share the podcast with a friend.

For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events, and more, visit ReformJudaism.org, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at @URJPresident. On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week, l'hitraot.