This week’s parasha ends with a jarring Biblical legacy. The Torah prescribes the penalty of death by stoning for the crime of blasphemy. Today, thousands of years later, around a quarter of the nations of the world have anti-blasphemy laws or policies, and a fair number of them still impose the death penalty for committing blasphemy. Ironically, Judaism, which introduced the Bible to the world, has a theological tradition through which the harshness of this particular Biblical injunction is undermined and its underlying value redirected.
The Talmud, citing a verse in Psalms, asks, “Who is strong like you, O Lord?” and answers, “Strong and firm in that you listen to insult and blasphemy yet remain silent. In the School of Rabbi Ishmael, they taught the verse, “Who is like you among the mighty ones (‘eilim’) O Lord?” may be read as “Who is like you among the mute (‘eilmim’).?” Through their interpretive technique, the rabbis are able to portray God as stoically enduring insult and remaining silent in the face of blasphemy. Moreover, this is no weakness on the part of God. Quite the contrary, it reveals God’s strength. In sharp relief to the extent we may worship a “jealous” God, the rabbinic approach exposes the weakness of being fanatically “jealous” for God.
Early on, Jewish tradition sought to emulate God, and adopted restraint even when provoked by an insult to the faith. According to Jewish Law, the appropriate response to hearing blasphemy uttered is to tear one’s garment. In contemporary practice, the tearing of one’s garment is the well-known ritual of mourning. Here, we see, it can also be an act of protest. I’ve wondered about the overlap between the two. If we are indeed “made in the image of God,” then the death of a human being is not only to be mourned; it is an objectionable sort of “blasphemy” itself.
Forbearance in the face of insult is not the same as ignoring it. Tearing the garment is not a violent response, but it is a dramatic one. It is an action directed inward, not outward; a way of bearing witness rather than inflicting payback on a perpetrator. Perhaps our tradition, given a wider, modern application, could elevate public protest to become more dignified and, especially, more effective. What if, in response to some perceived offense, the aggrieved party were to refrain from sparking violent clashes and hurling shouts and insults, but instead simply stood silently, and solemnly tore their garments? How much more powerful a demonstration of their despair might that be?
Rabbi Mitch Levine