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Speaking to the Ill Use of Blasphemy

May 10, 2012 By:
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell
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The portion we read this week is named after the fourth word in the opening sentence: emor, speak. "God, said to Moses, speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron ... " Following the directions for holiness outlined in K'doshim, the previous portion, Emor continues to establish guidelines and parameters for creating and sustaining the holy community. Near the conclusion of Emor, we are introduced to the case of an individual who challenges accepted norms of speech. He aims angry words at God, the source of speech.

"There came out among the Israelites a man ... (who) pronounced the Name (of God) in blasphemy." Blasphemy is not an everyday term. It is variously defined as "irreverent speech or action concerning sacred things," or "insulting or showing contempt or lack of reference for God."

Professor Rachel Adler teaches that the Hebrew verb used in the description of this act of defiance, nun-kuf-vet, "generally means "to pierce" or "to bore" a hole. "To curse ... the blasphemer," she writes, "... tears a hole in the Divine Name, tears a hole in the integrity of all that exists, all that the One Who is Being called into being." The individual who blasphemes, then, becomes an "unsayer," one who "undoes" speech. It is as if he loads an automatic rifle and empties the magazine into the heart of the world. Words, like bullets, destroy. Speech has power to create or destroy worlds.

We Jews acknowledge each new day with P'sukei d'zimra/verses of praise. The opening prayer in this collection begins, "Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came to be." Every morning we celebrate the mystery of Creation. We use the metaphor of speech for the creation of the cosmos.

As we read Emor, speak, we are confronted with the naysayer, the assassin, the one who would deny this mystery, this power, this hope.

The voice of denial is, for many of us, not the voice of another. Rather, the blasphemer lives inside of us. The blasphemer is the voice that whispers in our ear and increases our doubts, repeating words that echo in our minds and tell us that we are small and weak and powerless.

The blasphemer plants words that grow into obstacles in our path, words that blind us to beauty, words that bore holes in our self esteem. The blasphemer screams so loud that we cannot hear God's still small voice.

In Emor, the punishment of the blasphemer is immediate: he is surrounded by all "within hearing" and then pelted with stones until he perishes. The following verse reads, "If anyone kills any human being, that person shall be put to death."

Our tradition thus acknowledges outrage at one who denies all we hold sacred. But the juxtaposition of these verses warns us against swift, violent public retaliation; one who takes a life is responsible for that life.

We humans are uniquely gifted among God's creations with the gift of speech. Emor reminds us of the responsibility that comes with that gift.

The Amidah, the central prayer repeated three times each day by observant Jews, concludes: "O my God, guard my tongue from speaking evil and my lips from speaking guile." Emor, "speak," reminds us of the power of speech: to make -- or unmake --relationships, connections, worlds.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell serves as the rabbinic director of the East Geographic Congregational Network of the Union for Reform Judaism.

 

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