Salman Rushdie and the Religious and Cultural Blasphemies of Today

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, August 19, 2022 / 22 Av 5782

Summary: In this week’s Oasis Songs, I reflect on the stabbing of author Salman Rushdie and what blasphemy can teach us about both religion and our own secular culture.

Reading Time: Five minutes

It’s been a week since the celebrated author, Salman Rushdie, was stabbed on the stage of a Chautauqua lecture hall, where, ironically, he was planning to discuss protections for writers who are persecuted. It’s a topic in which he has the deepest expertise ever since he was forced to go into hiding after an Iranian mullah issued a fatwah on him back in 1989. The Islamic death penalty on Rushdie was decreed because the way the Prophet Mohammed was portrayed in Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, was considered blasphemous by Ayatollah Khomeini.

In the week since the attack, I’ve been pondering the attack on Mr. Rushdie, what value free speech holds in today’s society, and the religious concept of blasphemy as they all intertwine into a fascinating and disturbing cord of madness.

Blasphemy does not play a large role in Judaism, but it is worthwhile examining its presence in the tradition. The Hebrew term for blasphemy, birkat hashem, is a euphemism which literally means “blessing the name.” There are two primary Biblical passages in which we learn about the prohibition; the first is in Leviticus, 24:10-23, and the second is found in I Kings 21:8-13. According to Leviticus 24:16, the death penalty is applied to the megadef, the blasphemer, who meets his end by stoning.

Yet whenever the Torah decrees the death penalty, it neglects in the same set of verses to explain the evidentiary requirements needed to judge the case or apply the penalty. These rules are found in the Mishnah and Talmud, where difficult and unclear Torah passages are explained in detail. In Mishnah Sanhedrin 7:5, we learn that it is only considered blasphemy if the person used the Tetragrammaton (YHVH) and not a different name of God; moreover, two witnesses must first warn the person that taking God’s name in vain in this way would make the person liable for the death penalty. Additionally, only the Jewish High Court, or Sanhedrin, had the authority to enact capital cases, which means there has been no application of the death penalty in Judaism since the Sanhedrin was disbanded in 425 CE. Instead, the only remaining response in our tradition to blasphemy is excommunication, or herem, and that is thankfully almost never used.

As a religious tradition, we are fortunate that by mechanisms such as the above, Judaism has better come to understand God’s will and has repeatedly evolved and resisted the sorts of fundamentalism that can result in a famous author getting stabbed. It is hard to reconcile the God of love, freedom, and redemption with one who denies freedom of expression and demands the death of those who speak their conscience.

Are there still lessons we can glean from the concept of blasphemy? In Sefer HaChinukh, the 13th century book on the Commandments, we learn that blasphemy empties out a person’s soul, tethering it to evil. Cursing God’s name is a repudiation of life itself. This is a very Jewish concept in that it shifts the locus of blasphemy from what it might do to God and instead asks us to focus on preserving our own honor and steering our thinking so that we can avoid becoming spiritually or psychologically alienated from ourselves.

There are other things we can learn from this incident. Journalist Bari Weiss reflected on a change in our culture. At the time the fatwah was issued, the top thinkers and journalists all stood up for the integrity of free speech. Weiss writes that “We live in a culture in which many of the most celebrated people occupying the highest perches believe that words are violence…that it’s possible to create something even better than liberalism, a utopian society where no one is ever offended…The words are violence crowd is right about the power of language. Words can be vile, disgusting, offensive, and dehumanizing. They can make the speaker worthy of scorn, protest, and blistering criticism. But the difference between civilization and barbarism is that civilization responds to words with words. Not knives or guns or fire. That is the bright line. There can be no excuse for blurring that line—whether out of religious fanaticism or ideological orthodoxy of any other kind. Today our culture is dominated by those who blur that line—those who lend credence to the idea that words, art, song lyrics, children’s books, and op-eds are the same as violence. We are so used to this worldview and what it requires—apologize, grovel, erase, grovel some more—that we no longer notice. It is why we can count, on one hand—Dave Chappelle; J.K. Rowling—those who show spine.”

What Bari Weiss highlights for us is that far from the domain of religion, we have developed a culture in which all sorts of blasphemy exist, open discussion on complicated social issues is forbidden, and those who don’t agree with our narrow-minded orthodoxies are routinely excommunicated, or cancelled, as we call it today. What she misses is that while there is a difference between physical and verbal violence, the latter often creates the conditions for the former.

If we are horrified about what happened to Salman Rushdie, we ought to make sure that we aren’t guilty of suppressing free speech or of supporting a culture which ostracizes those whose ideas we abhor. Engagement remains the best defense against fanaticisms large and small.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. Do you believe that some ideas and those who espouse them should be suppressed? Why or why not?
  2. Even if you believe free speech is close to an absolute value, are there things you try to avoid saying? What are they and why do you refrain from saying them?
  3. What topics do you consider off-limit?

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