A question at the core of a modern discussion of blasphemy was suggested by a member of the audience in advance of the program: “Is it blasphemy if the person is not a believer?” Over 800 years ago Maimonides stated that one who hears someone curse God must tear their clothing in mourning just like one would if a parent died. Yet this law only applies if the person blaspheming is Jewish, but if the blasphemer is an idol worshipper one is not required to perform this display of grief (1). This ruling is also confirmed in the code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch (2), and extends this to also apply to a lapsed Jew (3). One commentator takes a practical view of this, “if we were to tear our clothes for (the blasphemy uttered by) idol worshipers, all the clothing will be full of tears (4)”.
I place great value on the freedom to believe differently and to express my beliefs. In the middle ages Jewish scholars would be invited to the royal court for staged debates with Christian leaders. Debating religion in the presence of a Christian monarch was dangerous because the Jew could easily be accused of blasphemy and put to death. The freedom for people to express their beliefs is imperative and must be permitted. While speaking against the God one believes in is forbidden in Judaism, this is not the case for the beliefs of others. A theme I explored in my blog post on Mockery (5).
The British writer and comedian, Stephen Fry, has recently shared the angry attack he would unleash on God if he ever met Him on account of all the suffering he created in the world. The Archbishop of Canterbury has rightly defended his right to express these views. The substance, rather than the style, of Fry’s comments about questioning God would be embraced by some religious Jews. A dramatic example of this was at the huge outdoor funeral of a Rabbi and his wife who were murdered by terrorists in Mumbai in 2008. Kfar Chabad’s Rabbi Ashkenazi cried out bitterly in the voice of their orphaned son Moshe, Lamah! Why? Why? The words echoed off the hills. After Rabbi Ashkenazi, another Rabbi asserted that we had no right to ask why. Yet, Moses himself argues with God, asking why did you do evil to this people (6)?
Alongside our considerations of the need to protect free speech, we must consider the impact on people arising out of unrestrained speech, and particularly which people are likely to be most significantly impacted (7) by our decisions to either self-censor or throw insults. I had a discussion with a group of Muslim young men in September 2012 after the media widely reported on a group of Muslim who rampaged through the city of Sydney demonstrating against a film mocking the prophet Mohammed. The reports included an image of a child holding up a sign that said behead those who insult the prophet. There was an intense backlash against Muslims. I thought the boys would feel bad about being misrepresented, or stereotyped. I was surprised by the deep personal hurt they felt from the film, ‘why do people mock our religion and prophet’ they asked. It was an intense sadness, rather than anger. We can’t avoid offending some people some of the time, but if we are considering hurting people, the benefits must outweigh the harm. Otherwise we would do well to tactfully refrain from the mockery. I think this is an appropriate price to pay for preserving interfaith harmony. Essentially it is what most of us are doing already.
1) Maimonides, Yad Hachazaka, laws of Idol Worship, chapter 2:10
2) Karo, R. Yosef, Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 340:37
3) Rabbi Moshe Iserrlis- Rama, comment on Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 340:37
4) Turei Zahav, TAZ, Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 340:22
6) Exodus 5:23
7) Gross-Schaefer, Arthur, A Suggested Strategy for Ethical Decision Making, Reform Judaism Magazine, November 1997