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Everyone is Wrong About Zion, and Blasphemy

Sermon Parshat Emor 5779

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona

I saw a headline online yesterday that definitely got my attention: it screamed out, “Everyone is wrong about Zion!” It was clearly click-bait, but certainly something worthy of a rabbi’s attention; everyone is wrong about Zion? That indeed is potentially compelling. I mean, Zion has, at various times, has referred to Ir David, the City of David, the original palace center of Jerusalem; to the Temple Mount itself, Har HaBayit, location of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, holiest place on earth for Jews; and Zion often refers to all of Jerusalem, and even all of Israel, as the term Zionism makes clear. “Everyone is wrong about Zion…” I had to see what that meant.

When I followed the link I discovered that it was indeed about a real incident that took place last week, and it involved Zion alright but not that Zion, not our Zion. You see, in the middle of the NBA basketball playoffs they held a lottery to determine who gets to pick first in the draft of college basketball players next month. And the best prospect to come along in years is an incredible athlete from Spartanburg, South Carolina, where I used to be the rabbi, a basketball forward who is 19 years old, 6’7” tall but weighs 285 pounds, can jump out of the gym and is incredibly fast and skilled. And his name is: Zion Williamson. In the televised draft lottery on Wednesday the team with the best chance of drafting him was the New York Knicks, only instead the lottery ping-pong balls landed on New Orleans. When that was announced Zion Williamson looked very unhappy and suddenly left the room. So everyone assumed that he had really wanted to play in New York City, the Big Apple, not in little New Orleans, the Big Easy, and that he might even decide to go back to college and play another year for Duke.

But then the next day’s headline informed us that everyone was wrong about Zion—and he will be happy to play for New Orleans starting next fall. Not a word about Jerusalem or Israel. Ah.

All of this reminded me of the fact that it’s very easy to be misled about things. You see a headline or a tease and when you probe deeper you realize you have been sucked into something that isn’t at all what you thought it was going to be. An attractive image suckers you into a story about the economy, or a dramatic declaration turns out to be much less interesting and controversial than you were led to believe when you clicked on it. You really can’t just take the things you see at face value. Often people say things that turn out to be partial truths, or not true at all, but they say it with conviction and repeat it a lot and, well, it’s very easy to be misled.

I thought of that when reading this week’s Torah portion of Emor, which, like most of Leviticus, is focused on creating holiness in our lives, primarily through ritual observances. As Lori Riegel so effectively taught us, this portion is filled with ways to worship God on Shabbat and each of the Biblical festivals, and passages describing just how the priests are to do what they must do to bring God’s presence into the midst of the people of Israel. Emor, like most of this middle book of the Torah, teaches us the way to live holy lives, primarily through the ritual experiences of our people. It is focused on the specifics and quality of the rituals, from the careful observance of the counting of the Omer, which we did earlier tonight, to the purity of the oil used for lighting the menorah in the Tabernacle and Temple.

And then, seemingly out of nowhere, we are given a very challenging event to consider that involves blasphemy. There is a troubling passage that describes what appears to be a real incident in the history of the Israelites. A man engaged in a fight blasphemes the name of God. He curses God and is apprehended for this offense. Moses then asks God directly what is to be done in such a case, and God informs him that the punishment is death by stoning, and they execute the blasphemer.

This is a difficult section for several reasons. First, in today’s world we have no idea what blasphemy is or even why it might be considered to be bad. Second, what is there about it that is so bad that it requires capital punishment, let alone by stoning?

Technically, Blasphemy is understood to be the denial of God or of sacred scriptures or objects. It has often been considered a severe crime by societies, and the ways that accusations of blasphemy have been used are quite diverse and sometimes ironic. The Hebrew word for the blasphemer is m’kaleil, one who curses God. That word is used for evil or curses in a more general way: in prayers we sometimes ask for livracha v’lo liklalah, for blessing and not for curse. The act of blasphemy is usually expressed as a chilul HaSheim, blaspheming God’s Name.

While in our Torah portion the person who commits blasphemy is an Israelite—or at least a half-Israelite—blasphemy laws have been used against Jews by others far more than by us against our own offenders. Throughout the Middle Ages Jews were accused, especially by Christian authorities, of blasphemy and punished for it, often by execution.

The most famous incidents took place in Europe, where rabbis were forced to engage in public show trials with Catholic theologians to defend Judaism against the capital charge of blasphemy. The most dramatic of these, the Disputation of Paris in the year 1240, resulted in the mass burning of the Talmud: twenty-four carriage loads of hand-copied Jewish religious manuscripts were set on fire in the streets of Paris. Ironically, the translation of the Talmud from Hebrew into vernacular languages made it available to those who wished to destroy Judaism and called it blasphemous, and they took full advantage. The Disputation of Barcelona in 1263 saw the great Rabbi Nachmanides successfully defend the Talmud against the charge of blasphemy—he actually won the rigged dispute, only to be expelled from Spain anyway. You can see copies of the Talmud or prayer books with sections that Catholic censors blacked out because they were considered blasphemous. I own a Machzor, a High Holy Day prayer book printed in Rome in the year 1540, with censored passages blacked out because they were considered blasphemy by the Catholic authorities there.

Lest you think blasphemy is an ancient, irrelevant crime in today’s world, you should know that there are blasphemy laws still on the books in many countries—more than 30 of them, mainly Muslim, but a number in Europe. And in many of those countries blasphemy is punishable by death. That appears on the surface to be a medieval approach to speech, a way of enforcing respect for religion under penalty of death, outdated. After all, the last execution of a person for blasphemy in England took place 300 years ago… Still, there remain states in the US that have blasphemy laws on the books still, and not just Alabama: Massachusetts has blasphemy laws in its original charter. In the past these blasphemy laws were often used to attack atheists; tomorrow I am going to speak about Judaism in China for a group called the “Jewish Secular Humanist Society” here in Northwest Tucson. That group would have been considered blasphemous not all that long ago.

In the past, blasphemy laws have been used to preserve religious orthodoxy in society, to prevent people from saying things others might find disagreeable or offensive. But today they are more likely to be used to protect groups from attack by those who are truly motivated by hatred. In a contemporary twist, hate-speech laws, which we recognize and celebrate as promoting tolerance and preventing the spread of evil, virulently dangerous speech in society, have created a new application for blasphemy rules. 87 nations now have hate-speech laws that prohibit defamation of religion and the public expression of hatred against any religious group. Hate speech laws have been used against some really bad people: neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers, the Ku Klux Klan, those who promote racial purity and other terrible and violent ideas and language directed at religious communities. Hate speech laws primarily protect religious minorities, typically Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and others who hold religious beliefs that ignorant people try to suppress. And just this year, 2019, a number of laws have been passed in America—and last week in Germany—defining the BDS movement, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that targets Israel and Israeli products, as a form of hate speech.

Which raises the real question: what is blasphemy, really? In a country like ours, America, whose First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees free speech, what constitutes verbal sin at the level of blasphemy?

I believe that there is a foundational misunderstanding of the term “politically correct” speech today. It is not that only certain kinds of words can be uttered, because there are more words uttered and recorded now than ever before. It is that certain terms or phrases have moved into the realm of blasphemy, and have the capacity to brand the user permanently as someone outside the realm of appropriate society.

Today, blasphemy really means saying something so despicable that you are liable for the most extreme punishment, if not actual stoning, then being expelled from society, total social ostracism. With the advent of the Internet and social media and viral circulation of anything remotely controversial, certain forms of speech have the capacity to brand the user as, well, a contemporary blasphemer. Vile words and phrasing now reach far more people far faster than ever before, and so can the backlash against them.

In recent years this has evolved in ways interesting and surprising. For example, any use of the “N” word in our society, even in an artistic piece like a poem, play or film or as an example of hate speech, has become a form of contemporary blasphemy, branding the user a racist and unfit for public expression. In general, racist and bigoted wording has become a form of blasphemy, and terms that were fully acceptable in earlier generations no longer can be used at all. More examples from the world of sports: I remember Al Campanis, the longtime General Manager of the Dodgers, making racially discriminatory comments on TV and losing his job the next day, and Donald T. Sterling, the awful owner of the LA Clippers until a few years ago, being forced to sell his team when his privately uttered racist comments were recorded and released to the public.

In another area, sexist and objectifying speech has begun to move into that realm of blasphemy, as has reference to LGBTQ individuals in discriminatory terms. This qualification has not gone into effect to the same degree as the cultural prohibition on racially charged speech, but it certainly qualifies.

The use of slanderous terms for religious groups hasn’t gotten to that point yet; you can still see many examples of such words applied to Jews and Muslims in public discourse, on social media and all over the Internet. Whether the new hate speech laws will be able to stop this isn’t at all clear. That means it’s still socially safer to say awful things about Jews than it is to say something terrible about, say, Latinos. This is especially true if you can couch it as an attack on Israel and “her supporters,” of course, rather than just a nasty comment about members of a religious group.

Why was blasphemy such a problem for our ancestors in the Torah? Because it undercut the very basis of community. Saying certain things must be off-limits, and some uses of deceitful and derogatory speech are so harmful that they have the capacity to destroy the very fabric of society. And the same is true today, even without the death penalty being imposed.

I must say, that one of the great gifts that our Congregation Beit Simcha has provided me, and I hope all of us, has been a community in which speech has been used to help and support, to teach and inspire, for joy and celebration, for respect and honor. We have not had to spend much time or energy trying to limit blasphemy of any kind at Beit Simcha, and I hope and pray that we will continue to live in such a way that this is always true.

And in case we need to be reminded, we always have this portion of Emor and the curious incident of blasphemy to help. For it is up to us to make certain that we use words, always, to build and heal, to learn and to teach, for good.

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