By rabbi Jeremy Lawrence
Pictures of an infant Moses parting the waters in his bathtub do not inspire violence, nor have Jewish leaders taking to the streets protesting blasphemy.
Nonetheless, the Torah prohibits blaspheming the Divine Name and it is included by the rabbis as one of the seven universal mitzvoth for all humanity.
The Biblical sources are the injunction (Exodus 22:27) which says “You shall not curse Elohim”, which is alternatively translated as judges or God.
We have an instance of blasphemy (Leviticus 24:10) where the son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man curses God and is executed.
The Torah and commentaries try to avoid even the mention of this abhorrent idea. Accordingly, the Hebrew expression for cursing God is the euphemism Birkat Hashem (Birkat means to bless).
In Halacha, blasphemy requires both cursing God and doing it in his name. The Mishna (Sanhedrin 56a) raises the problem of a trial for blasphemy. How do we elicit evidence without forcing witnesses to repeat the language?
The problem was highlighted in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, where every time the officer of the Sanhedrin reads the conviction announcement, he is stoned for pronouncing the name of God.
The Halacha has two further strictures.
First, only the specific and holy names of God constitute blasphemy.
Second, mere mention of God’s name does not constitute blasphemy unless it is used in a formula such as the Talmudic one where God is cursed in his own name.
While not a capital offence, disparaging God using other names or alternative formulae is repugnant and held to be akin to blasphemy.
Rabbinic literature has extended the ambit of “akin” to such examples as Jewish litigants preferring to have their dispute tried before civil courts rather than going to the Beth Din, as this looks like they have forsaken or lost confidence in God’s Torah.
Also cited are men deliberately not wearing tefillin while reciting the morning Shema, (how can one sanctimoniously pronounce the mitzvah while flagrantly violating it?); and suggesting that shechita is cruel or brit milah is barbaric (the inference being that God mandates repugnant practices). Halacha is highly sensitive to any suggestion that our God or his Torah are anything other than perfect.
Nonetheless, we must deplore those who incite riotous behaviour and perpetrate or celebrate the slaughter of people as a response to perceived blasphemy. That is a desecration of God’s name.
• Jeremy Lawrence is rabbi of Finchley United Synagogue (Kinloss)