Thursday, 29 Apr 2010

Written by Leo Baeck College principal, Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein

Toward the end of our parashah comes a seven-verse narrative about a criminal offence and its punishment. It is certainly not the most inspiring or uplifting passage in the Bible but is packed with meaning.

There came out among the Israelites the son of an Israelite woman, whose father was Egyptian. And a fight broke out in the camp between an Israelite man and that son of an Israelite woman. The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name in blasphemy—now his mother’s name was Shelomith daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan; they brought him to Moses and placed him in custody until the decision of the Eternal should be made clear to them.

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. And to the Israelite people, speak thus: ‘Anyone who blasphemes his God shall bear his guilt; if he also pronounces the name YHWH he shall be put to death. The whole community shall stone him; whether a stranger or citizen, if he has pronounced the Name, he shall be put to death’” (Lev. 24:10–16).    

  I would like to highlight three points about the passage.

First is the identity of the offender. He is described three times as being of mixed parentage: his mother an Israelite, his father an Egyptian. Apparently he was part of the “mixed multitude” (erev rav) that joined the Israelites at the time of their Exodus from Egyptian slavery (Exod. 12:38). Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz wrote on verse 10, “Note that the blasphemer is not ‘an Israelite’ but ‘the son of the Israelite woman’. Only one of the mixed multitude could be guilty of so heinous an offence.”

But of course the Orthodox position is that Jewish or Israelite identity is conferred by the mother. The halakhah—which the Orthodox believe was in effect at this time following the revelation at Sinai—does not accept the idea that someone can be “half Jewish”. According to halakhah, the son of the Israelite woman would have been fully an Israelite. The very fact that the Torah narrative identifies him differently, contrasting him with “an Israelite man”, shows that halakhah developed and changed over time, which is how progressive Judaism and modern scholarship understands it.

The second point pertains to legal procedure. This is one of four cases following the revelation at Sinai where no legal decision is made until further instructions from the supreme law-giver are provided. In this case, the prohibition of the act in question had been stated: elohim lo tekalel, “You shall not revile God” (Exod. 22:27), and this is precisely the verb used here: va-yekalel, he blasphemed by pronouncing the divine name. But the punishment was not specified in the Exodus passage; for that Moses needed a new ad hoc revelation from God, which comes as an answer to the specific case, supplemented by new a general legal principle: the punishment for anyone in the future who blasphemes with the divine name is death by stoning.

There is an obvious problem here for us: do we really believe that this was an authentic revelation, that God wants someone to be executed by stoning because of something the person said in the heat of battle? More on this in a moment. But beyond the specifics of this case, there is a more general problem. No effective legal system can function in this manner. For a judge to appeal for a new revelation whenever the applicable law does not fully fit the case at hand is asking for trouble. Assuming that this new instruction was not communicated in a voice from heaven that would have been audible to others, it makes the legal system dependent upon the unsubstantiated assertion of one individual claiming unique access to the divine, which cannot be verified by anyone else.

What happens if the authoritative judge misunderstands the divine word?  What if there are other judges who claim to receive new revelations inconsistent with each other? This basis for inevitable confusion and conflict is why the rabbis decided that in their time, regarding matters of law, no claims of new revelations, not even a voice from heaven unambiguously heard by all, would decide the law. The Torah is no longer in heaven; it has been given to human beings, and it must be decided by human reasoning, based on commonly accepted rules of interpretation, or in response to the pressing needs of the time.

Third is the issue of blasphemy itself, according to this passage a capital offence not of deeds but of words. More specifically, it is uttering of the divine name, YHWH, the proper name of the Israelite God. To protect against this offence, a series of safeguards were enacted: to substitute Adonai, “my Lord” for the four-letter Name (the tetragrammaton), then to avoid even this substitute except in prayer or in public reading of the Bible through a secondary substitution of “Adoshem” or “ha-Shem” (“the Name”). The true pronunciation of the divine name was known only by the High Priest, to be uttered at a climactic moment on the Day of Atonement when the Temple was in service. Note that in this passage it is not clear that the offender cursed God. He may have cried out in pain in the midst of battle. Yet the consequences were devastating.

The idea of blasphemy as a capital crime of speech pertaining to a core religious belief had broader application beyond the four-letter name of God. Perhaps the most famous and repercussive passage about blasphemy in all of literature is focused on the theme of blasphemy:

The High Priest questioned him: “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated on the right hand of God and coming with the clouds of heaven.” Then the High Priest tore his robes and said, “Need we call further witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy. What is your opinion? Their judgment was unanimous: that he was guilty and should be put to death (Mark 14:62-64).

How much mischief throughout the centuries has been triggered by that passage!

And “blasphemy” remains an issue today. We hear of it frequently in the Islamic world. The 1989 fatwa of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini accusing Salman Rushdie of blasphemy and calling for his death through assassination without legal process, because of his book The Satanic Verses. The riots responding to the 2005 Danish cartoons and the 2007 arrest of the British schoolteacher in Sudan because of a teddy bear named Mohammad: these and other cases show that the concept of blasphemy remains very much alive.  

In the United States, laws prohibiting blasphemy were declared unconstitutional in 1952, but there was a successful UK prosecution for blasphemy in 1977, and an unsuccessful complaint under the blasphemy statute against the BBC for broadcasting Jerry Springer, the Opera in 2005. Blasphemy was made a criminal offence by the Irish Parliament in July 2009.
Assuming that the death penalty is justifiable for especially heinous crimes, is it right to condemn someone to death for what the person has said, even if it is deeply offensive to religious believers? Should such speech be punishable by a monetary fine imposed by the government? Does this concept of blasphemy as an actionable offence violate a fundamental principle of our legal tradition, enshrining freedom of thought and freedom of speech as integral to a free society? How can we strike a proper balance between such freedom and the social goal of fostering respect for the deeply-held beliefs of our neighbours? These are some of the questions stimulated by our account of the man identified only as the son of an Egyptian father and Shelomith daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan.

Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein
April 2010

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.