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    Blasphemy in Judaism – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. A Christian woman in Pakistan is being tried for blasphemy. She is accused of making derogatory remarks about Islam and if found guilty she could be put to death. What does Judaism say about blasphemy?

    blasphemy lawA. As early as the Seven Laws of the Sons of No’ach there was a strict Jewish prohibition of Bir’kat HaShem, “cursing the Name of God”. (These Seven Laws are the Bible’s first code of law, even more basic than the Ten Commandments.)

    The Hebrew bir’kat literally means “blessing (of)”, but here it is a euphemism. The same euphemism is used later in Tanach in relation to sedition: in the story of Jezebel, Naboth is told, berachta Elokim vamelech, “You have blessed (i.e. cursed) God and the king” (I Kings 20:10).

    Ex. 22:27 says, “You shall not revile God”, which not only prohibits cursing God but cursing the judges who are sometimes called Elohim (e.g. Psalm 82:1), because human judges are regarded as partners with God and serving His purposes (Shab. 10a).

    The third of the Ten Commandments is a broad rule against taking the Name of God in vain (Ex. 20:7), which safeguards the sanctity and honour of the Divine Name, but it does not provide a definition of blasphemy.

    Lev.24:16 says that anyone who blasphemes God’s Name is to be put to death. However, the rabbinic sages understand this as publicly cursing the Divine Name (not just any synonym for deity, but the authentic sacred Name), and Mishnah Sanhedrin lays down the procedure if someone is accused of committing this act. Unless a person has specifically done what the law prohibits, it is not blasphemy in the technical sense, though it is certainly a grave moral wrong.

    For a Jew to make derogatory remarks about Judaism as a whole is certainly wrong, but it is not technically blasphemy. Similarly, saying negative things about another religion is not blasphemy in the eyes of Jewish law, nor does Jewish law prohibit a gentile saying something that has the effect of reviling his/her own deity or prophet or criticising his/her own religion.

    Judaism takes it for granted that human beings give respect to their religion but would not impose the death penalty on someone who failed to act in this way, whether to their own or someone else’s religion.

    Some years ago there was national debate in Australia about whether blasphemy should remain on the statute book (it was an early British import) and I was amongst those who argued that the blasphemy law had no place in a modern democratic society in which the marketplace of ideas included the airing of many points of view.

    If persons made hurtful comments that brought a particular religion into contempt or incited racial, religious or ethnic hatred – not to speak of violence – there were other legal sanctions and means of redress available.

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