By Alexandra Wright
Some years ago, the actor Stephen Fry was interviewed by the Irish radio and television presenter Gay Byrne on a programme called ‘The Meaning of Life’ in which he was questioned about his belief in God. ‘Suppose you walk up to the Pearly Gates,’ Byrne asked Fry, ‘and you are confronted by God, what would you say?’ Fry answered: ‘Bone cancer in children, what’s that about? How dare you. It’s utterly evil, why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain…? The God who created this universe is a maniac, utterly selfish…. Monstrous, utterly monstrous, he deserves no respect…’
Soon after the broadcast, an anonymous viewer filed a complaint with the Irish police and accused Fry of blasphemy, leading to an investigation, which was then halted because no other individuals came forward to support the original objector. At the time, Ireland still retained its blasphemy law, which was removed from the constitution in 2018.
In this week’s parashah, a man of mixed Israelite and Egyptian ethnicity gets into a fight with a fellow Israelite and in the midst of this struggle, the former utters aloud the divine name in a curse against God – transgressing a law in Exodus which prohibits ‘reviling God’ (22:27). He is placed in custody until the outcome of an inquiry has taken place.
The blasphemer is taken outside the camp; those who heard him curse and blaspheme lay their hands on his head and he is stoned to death by the community leadership.
This is a difficult and shocking story to be reading in our own time when most of the enlightened world regards laws against blasphemy as trampling on freedom of speech.
But before we throw out the baby with the bath water, perhaps we can have another look at the text and ask ourselves whether these verses can have any symbolic meaning for us today? The Hebrew says: Va-yikov ben ha-ishah ha-yisraelit et ha-shem va’y’kalleil. Few translations differ in how they translate this verse: ‘The son of the Israelite woman blasphemed and cursed the divine Name.’ One or two offer an interpretation, that the man treated the name of God with contempt – he said something outrageous about God.
The English word ‘blaspheme’ which comes into Middle English via Old French and Latin means ‘to revile’ or ‘reproach’, from the Greek blasphemos, meaning ‘evil speaking’. The Hebrew word, however, offers us a slightly different understanding, because the word va’yikov – ‘and he blasphemed’ comes from a root meaning ‘to pierce’ or ‘to bore through’ or ‘to perforate’. In Hebrew makevet – from the same root – is a hammer, a hole or an excavation. A woman, or more accurately a ‘female’ is known as n’kevah, because of her biological form.
So when the Torah tells us that the man ‘blasphemed,’ it is telling us that the man, as it were, pierced through and perforated God’s name.
I wonder if there is something symbolic encoded in these verses – something that can speak to us today. Let me offer three examples of contemporary symbolic blasphemy.
The Torah speaks of the ‘God of truth, without deceit, righteous and upright’ (Deut. 32:4). Truth, says the Talmud, is the seal, the signature of the Holy One, ever to be praised (b. Shabbat 55a). The perforation or distortion of truth and integrity is a form of contemporary blasphemy. The term ‘fake news’ refers to stories that are disseminated through the media and social websites that have no substance to them, no veracity or reality, and yet they attract millions of readers or viewers. Our biblical text, no longer obsolete when read in the light of these distortions of truth and outright lies, teaches us that when truth is hammered or punctured, there are tragic consequences.
A second example of our contemporary definition of ‘blasphemy’ is what Claude Montefiore, a founder of Liberal Judaism, calls ‘the divorce between officialism and truth’. What does he mean? I think, in the context of his writing, he is referring to a certain inflexibility and adherence to dogma that is in conflict with demonstrated truth. ‘Specious arguments are used about not disturbing the innocent faith of uneducated persons; about not making bad blood; about letting sleeping dogs lie; about letting error destroy itself; about the urgent practical questions which beset and menace the community…’ writes Montefiore. There are sadly examples of this kind of blasphemy even today, when extremist religious groups maintain an egregious inflexibility, or trample harmfully on the rights of others. The consequences of such symbolic blasphemy can be cruel and fatal.
A final example is drawn from the rabbinic tradition. The Talmud asks: ‘What is chillul ha-Shem – profanation of the Name?’ And it gives this answer in the name of the third century Babylonian teacher, Rav who said, ‘I profane God’s name, if I buy meat from the butcher and do not pay him straightaway’ (b. Yoma 86a). Rav makes the point here that even if he intended to pay the butcher, the appearance of walking away without payment could be construed as dishonesty. This is a form of chillul ha-Shem – profaning the Divine Name, whether it is stealing, lying, giving false witness statements under oath, or whether it is turning a blind eye to the suffering, inequity and injustice that exist around us. We puncture the Divine Name when we wound others with words, with our actions or indifference, with our neglect of putting right what we know is wrong.
To return to those words of Stephen Fry. I have always thought Fry was a highly intelligent and articulate individual and actor, but I have to say that I was shocked and hurt by the extreme nature of his language about God. I am sure that God can stand up for Godself; I don’t believe that God is harmed by such imprecations and insults. But just imagine if someone started to speak words of contempt about your parent, your friend or your child, in the way that Stephen Fry insulted God. I think you would be hurt beyond imagining by this offensive derogation of someone close to you. Fry, Dawkins and others who slate and deprecate the relationship that some of us nurture with that unseen Being, that deepest part of ourselves, are guilty of some form of profanation. They dismiss the powerful, moral and compelling message that comes through our texts and teaches us that human beings are created in the image of God. Stephen Fry’s words trample on the powerful sense I do have, at times, of God’s presence – when I listen to the music and prayers of our Shabbat services and feel all the broken fragments of the week coming back together, when I minister to the dying, when I sit with the bereaved or when I reflect on the nobility of our Jewish heritage and the enduring significance of our Jewish texts.
Share this Thought for the Week