Mishpatim 5784 – The Meaning of Blasphemy

D'var Torah | Exodus

On January 8, 1697, Edinburgh university student Thomas Aikenhead was led to the gallows where he was hanged: the last person in England to be executed for blasphemy, although it still remained a capital offense in Scotland until 1825 and in Ireland until 2018. In 2017, English actor Stephen Fry caused a stir when he said during a television interview in Ireland that if he ever met God he would say: “How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It is not right. It is utterly, utterly evil.” Prosecutors ignored the outburst and declined to prosecute. Perhaps assuming that God created the world saved him from trouble.

Nowadays, laws regarding blasphemy are considered a relic of the past that sides with despised attempts to throttle free speech. These laws are more reminiscent of the culture of ayatollahs than of Western democracies. And yet, the Torah is quite clear on the matter: “You shall not revile God nor curse a ruler of your people” (Exodus 22:27). Later on (Leviticus 24:10f), the actual commission of blasphemy results in death and the categorical condemnation of the crime. How can Judaism’s general openness to contrary opinions be squared with the punishment of blasphemy?

Perhaps a close reading of the text provides us with a clue. Exodus 22:27 connects the condemnation of God with condemnation of governing leaders since both appear in the same verse. The condemnation of either will likely result in a loosening of the bonds of authority and open the door to anarchy. Blasphemy is not, in its essence, a crime against God. After all, is God so sensitive that words uttered without caution would cause Him hurt feelings? And, as a result of those hurt feelings He would demand the death of the perpetrator? Hardly. As Rabbi Louis Jacobs (What Does Judaism Say About…? p. 76) writes: “We live in a world where ideas are not weakened by any attempt to deny their existence.”

Blasphemy is thus an undermining of the authority by which any society is ruled. An intolerable situation as this requires a severe response.

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