There is much discussion currently about imposing limits on blasphemy. It seems clear that the vast majority of those in the West oppose it and many in Muslim-majority countries support it. I would argue that Judaism has not only tolerated blasphemy, but found a place for it in its sacred texts. This does not mean that communities have always handled heretics well. Nor am I suggesting that pluralism and liberalism are found everywhere in the community.
Jewish history has its fair share of controversies over belief, which includes book burnings even in the 20th century. Nonetheless, there is a model in Judaism that might contribute to a broad religious discussion and conversation.
Rabbinic literature has many examples of challenges to God, explicitly questioning God’s justice. An early precedent in the Bible is Abraham in Genesis 18 (“Will not the Judge of the earth do justice?”). A well-known passage from the Talmud (Menachot 29b) is where Moses questions God after seeing Rabbi Akiva being viciously killed by the Romans. Moses asks: “Is this Torah and its reward?” God responds by telling Moses to shut up!
These two passages share a number of things in common even as one is biblical and the other rabbinic. Religious figures are allowed to question God. Indeed, placed in their mouths are the most challenging questions. If Abraham can speak out against God’s justice, surely I can do so as well. If Moses cannot accept that there is reward in the world for following Torah, surely I do not have to accept that belief.
Secondly, and more importantly, what these texts suggest is that our role is not to defend God or attempt to offer interpretations that let God off the hook. Our job is to defend the people against God. Moses must stand up for Rabbi Akiva. Moses is doing much more than asking a question why good people, in this case Rabbi Akiva, suffer. He is raising it as blasphemy. “Is this Torah and is this its reward?” It is a rhetorical question that has no answer. God does not attempt one. The response of literally — “Quiet! Or shut up, so it has come to My mind” — fails to answer anything. Its abruptness only affirms the legitimacy of the challenge.
Judaism, by and large, can accommodate blasphemy and heresy as long as it is placed in the mouths of believers and practitioners. It is because nobody questions Moses’ faith that he can ask the heretical questions. While theology is being challenged, practice is not.
Ironically, it is the most traditional who can be the most radical and yet remain inside the fold.
Rabbi Michael Balinsky is the executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis. Previously he was director of faculty development for the Florence Melton Adult Mini-Schools and was a Hillel director for 22 years. A version of this piece first appeared on Rabbis Without Borders at myjewishlearning.com.