Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Perhaps the greatest point of contention between Kabbalists (mystics) and the Halachists or the rational school of rabbinic thought is how much influence they believe that we have over God.  The more mystical team would have us believe that we have tremendous influence on God's behavior and presence in the world.  This is the underlying principle of many Chassidic stories.  The more rationalist group would have us believe that it's a chutzpah to think that we can manipulate God.  Probably the truth is somewhere in the middle.  At first glance, this week's Torah reading presents the rational squad with a seeming dilemma.  The story of the blasphemer (Leviticus 24:10-16) superficially seems to state that we can have a negative impact on God.  Let's look at the issue more deeply.

            The story part of this section is very sad.  The son of a mixed couple (Jewish mother, Egyptian father, according to the Midrash, this was the Egyptian killed by Moshe, Exodus 2:12) comes out and quarrels with a guy whose parents are both Jewish.  Traditionally we assume that the argument was about which area of the encampment this fellow could join.  Clearly, we could make sermons about the dangers of intermarriage or about how important it is to welcome these individuals into the community.  Of course, which issue one chooses to develop depends more on the needs of the contemporary scene rather than the truth of the incident.  But let's assume that this scenario describes the reality of the situation.  The man came out to engage in discussion with others about where his place in the Jewish nation should be.  When the legal decision is pronounced that he can't encamp with the tribe of Dan according to his mother's tribe (based on Numbers 2:2:  The children of Israel shall encamp each man by his division with the flags of their fathers' house.), his reaction is to curse God.  This is totally inappropriate, and the community is instructed to execute him by stoning.  The daughters of Zelophchad (Numbers 27:1-11) had a similar claim about the unfairness of the standard law of inheritance, but instead of exploding in expletives against God, they petitioned God through Moshe, and received a satisfactory settlement.

            But what is so bad about blasphemy, that it requires execution?  We live in a society that cherishes free speech, and I fully appreciate the value of that principle.  The exception to that rule was famously expressed by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes:  The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic… as to create a clear and present danger (Schenk v. United States, 1919).  I felt that this principle should have been applied to the Neo-Nazi rally in Skokie, IL; the courts disagreed.  So, we Americans have a principle that free speech isn't unlimited, and may be curtailed in cases of danger.  Even though Judaism doesn't have a First Amendment, I do believe that the Torah wouldn't be so tough on speech crimes unless there were a clear and present danger.  So, what is the tremendous threat in blasphemy?

            The mystics have no problem responding.  They believe that cursing God causes the Deity to move away from us.  The perpetrator causes a rift between our physical world and the divine realm.  This whole universe becomes God deprived.  That's a serious crime, and, therefore, deserves a severe punishment.  But what if I don't believe that any human possesses that power to banish God?  What menace has been introduced by speaking disdainfully to God?  Before I present a possible answer, allow me to reject one candidate.  When someone, God forbid, curses another human, I can sense the damage done to the other party, both psychologically and emotionally.  So, that's very bad.  However, vis a vis God, the rational rabbi doesn't admit that we can harm God.

            The great nineteenth century German rabbi, Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) provides an interesting possibility.  He suggests that the way to understand the negative impact upon society from blasphemy is to look at the larger context of this section of the Torah.  Immediately after this harsh law of cursing God, come the following laws: And if a man strikes down any human being he shall be put to death. And one who slays an animal shall pay for the life he took. And a man who inflicts an injury upon his fellow man just as he did, so shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Just as he inflicted an injury upon a person, so shall it be inflicted upon him (24:17-20).  Rabbi Hirsch points out that we are:  'bringing the rights of person and property under the thought of God in social life.'  What happens if there is no respect for God and divine law in society?  Chaos and anarchy result.  Without God society can quickly return to the jungle.  I believe that this is what Avraham had in mind when he said to Avimelech, King of Gerar:  surely there is no fear of God in this place (Genesis 20:11).  Avraham can't live in a place where awe, respect and reverence for God are not present, and neither should we.

            Again the disrespect for God doesn't adversely affect the Cosmic Director, but it can have terrible repercussions for us and those around us.  Ultimately what separates us from the animal or the barbarian is spirituality, and that requires us to connect in a positive way with whatever is greater than ourselves.        

            This week's parsha contains both the mitzvah of sanctifying God's name (23:32-33) and the prohibition of cursing God.  This is appropriate because the level of God's presence and influence in our world is dependant upon us and our behavior.  So, even though we can't harm God, we can severely harm our world by denying it the positive force of God's impact on our behavior. 

You can subscribe to Rabbi Walk's weekly articles at WalkThroughTheParsha-subscribe@egroups.com

The New Busy is not the old busy. Search, chat and e-mail from your inbox. Get started.