It’s About Words, the Power to Heal or Harm


Blasphemy, blame and blessing: Can we break the cycle of violence?

What is blasphemy? Most widely understood as disrespect for God or that which is considered sacred, blasphemy is in the international news. In January, a new law went into effect in Ireland stating that any abusive utterance concerning sacred matters of any religion is punishable by a fine of as much as $35,000.

On April 19, Indonesia's Constitutional Court upheld a law banning religious blasphemy, supporting the illegality of religious groups that "distort" or "misrepresent" any of six recognized religions. These regulations reflect deep concern for protecting and maintaining boundaries around religious speech.

This week's portion, Emor, is dominated by regulations for creating and maintaining a holy community. The narrative of a man who gets into a fight, and "reviles … and insults" God's name, illustrates a powerful challenge to accepted social order.

We may remember that the third of the Ten Commandments exhorts: "You are not to take up the name of your God for emptiness." God's name represents the quintessence of meaning, the contradiction of emptiness. The scholar Rachel Adler points out that the Hebrew verb that is often translated as blasphemy "suggests that cursing God is an act of violence" that "generally means 'to pierce' or 'to bore' a hole in something." The blasphemer denies meaning and order. His words become a weapon against creation.

This troubling narrative reminds us of the power of language in creating and preserving — or destroying — community. Emor means "speak," or "say," so the very name of this portion points to language as a primary mode of discourse. How do humans use language to draw near to — or distance ourselves — from one another?

The protagonist in this story is named as " … a man whose mother was an Israelite and whose father was Egyptian." By distinguishing him in this way, the biblical text underscores him as different, marginal, other. In spite of our tradition's clear mandate of equitable treatment of the stranger repeated 36 times in the Torah, we Jews have, throughout history, struggled to welcome others into our midst, to treat the "stranger" as the "home-born."

And throughout history, those who have internalized difference, real or imagined, have also often lashed out. After the words that rip and claw at civility are uttered, Moses directs the Israelites to respond with violence, continuing the cycle of pain. He instructs them to "lay their hands upon his head," confirming the man's guilt, and then to pelt him with stones. The portion concludes: "The Israelites did as the Holy One had commanded Moses"; the offender who attempted to destroy God is destroyed.

The portion concludes with a reiteration of lex talionis, the retaliation laws, that call for "life for life … fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth." Metaphor or message? Should violent language be responded to with violent acts?

Emor reminds us that because speech distinguishes us from all other beings, we must use it with care. The Hebrew word d'var means both "word" and "deed." Every time we speak, we, like the Holy One in whose image we are created, have the potential to create — or destroy — worlds. Words uttered in anger and pain insult both the Creator and creation. And words also create worlds.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as the worship specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism. E-mail her at: [email protected]


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