Recent events in the news teach us again to be careful about the words that come out of our mouths. This week’s fiascos in sports culture and foreign policy illustrate that when public figures spew out their anger or frustrations particularly in situations when they wrongly assume the conversation is private they are being self destructive. Private and public communication continue to be blurred in today’s world especially when it comes to public officials or celebrities let alone any of us who use of social media.
First I am referring to the racist and misogynist comments made by the LA Clippers magnate Donald Tokowitz or Sterling. Second we listened to unfortunate comments by the US Secretary of State suggesting Israel would become an apartheid state if it didn’t make peace with the Palestinians. Each man has felt the sting, incurring the public wrath of the nation in the Sterling case and as for Kerry- Israel and the American Jewish Community. The question is whether they realized how their words were in a modern sense blasphemous by stripping the dignity and humanity from their offended parties?
The Torah teaches us that blasphemous and volatile speech can create serious and adverse repercussions. In fact we learn in this week’s parasha Emor by reading Leviticus chapter 24 of a situation where one person speaking blasphemous speech was adjudicated by Moses to have committed a capital crime! The Torah describes a fight that broke out in the Israelite camp between two men. One was the son of an Israelite Mother and Egyptian father. The other was, I infer from the text, an Israelite on both sides. It appears that the former uttered blasphemous speech against God by actually pronouncing the unpronounceable Divine name of God which is only to be uttered by the Priests. He was brought to Moses for adjudication for this crime of blasphemous speech. Remember just by saying the Name of God one violates the ritual and spiritual laws of proper respect for the Deity in ancient times. In ancient religions great power underlay the authority and ability of a priest to invoke the actual Name of the Deity.
The sentence for this half Israelite man was, according the Torah and to God’s own words, to take him outside the camp and stone him. The Torah says that he shall be put to death and ultimately that is exactly what the text says happened to him. We are at a disadvantage here because we do not understand this practice in today’s world nor why it is such a major sin. Yet vestiges of it still survive in Orthodox Judaism where serious adherents to the tradition never say the word Adonai except in communal worship. They substitute other words like Hashem which means the Name. They will, for example, write God’s name as G-D. The point is that they will not say the actual name of God unless it is in prayer and to do so outside of prayer is to diminish the respect and reverence for God.
What is a blasphemer? This is someone, in traditional terms, who speaks of god in an irreverent and impious manner. It can also mean to speak evil or even slander against someone as well as against God. We have seen the definition of blasphemy leveled against Salmon Rushdie by the Iranian Ayatollahs. Do we recall the reaction to the Arab filmmaker in LA who came out with that film mocking the Prophet Mohammed? Judaism in its biblical foundations viewed blasphemous language as a capital crime. Christianity has a long tradition amongst its theologians dealing with punishments and reparations for committing the sin of blasphemy.
In a modern context speech which demeans the fundamental humanity or dignity of another human being or especially a religion could be viewed as examples of blasphemy. Briefly what Donald Sterling said about women and his black ballplayers and other African Americans fit into a narrative in our culture that triggered a secular kind of blasphemy which runs counter to proper and respectful speech today. In a sense the NBA director’s pronouncement of his lifetime ban from professional basketball seems to be the equivalent of taking him out to be stoned until death.
Secretary of State Kerry is a different situation altogether. He made the remarks likening Israel to an apartheid state in private during a report to the Trilateral Commission warning that if Israel did not embrace the two state peace plan it could become an apartheid state. The criticism was enormous and he has since retracted the use of the word acknowledging that it was not the best word to express his vision for a shared peace. One could infer from his invoking this term apartheid a shift not only from Mr. Kerry but from the entire administration to a less supportive American position towards Israel. Yet once the word is out the damage has been done even if he did take it back. Mainstream Jewish organizations viewed his remarks as if they were blasphemous since they felt his comments completely stripped Israel of its legitimacy as a democracy.
Back to the torah portion for a minute, the rabbis in commenting on the verse where it says, “And the son of the Israelite mother and Egyptian father went out into the camp,” said that the phrase he went out really meant that “He had left his world which is the Divine Presence that invests himself in the worlds god created.”(Luria) Another commentator said, “He went out of his own world since a man is a world of his own.” (Bahya ibn Pakuda). I interpret their comments to say that they felt the blasphemer in the torah lost touch with reality, that is, the basic and fundamental norms and proper behaviors of his culture by pronouncing profane words about God. Similarly can we extend the lesson to the mindset of Mr. Kerry who should have stayed away from that kind of language knowing full well the reaction he was going to provoke?
Here we are close to the eve of Israel’s 66th birthday next Tuesday. Does the use of this word apartheid suggest, even in a weak moment, that Israel has betrayed all its core values? Sadly, his remarks cannot take back the words and the unalterable effects they have upon Israel and all its supporters in this country and around the world. The word apartheid fuels the fires in the propaganda wars that currently rage on around the world. Some may agree with his viewpoint who are Jewish and who care deeply about Israel. My question is whether the use of the term apartheid by an American Secretary of State dehumanizes Israel and denigrates its purpose for existing?
The lesson here for Mr. Kerry, let alone for LA Clippers owner Mr. Sperling, is that one must be extremely careful and cautious about the words we say in public or private. Whether or not the intention is to denigrate or criticize someone else, one must beware of the severe consequences and volatile reactions of the community or the nation to harsh words which undermine the foundation of goodness and integrity of others let alone God. The upshot is that words matter.