A radio piece by Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur on RCJ on Jan. 9 2015*
“The prophet is avenged!” That’s what they shouted, only 48 hours ago, just after they had murdered 12 people. In the eyes of the terrorists, that’s what it was about: washing a newsprint blasphemy away in blood.
But what is a blasphemy? In the war we now have to wage against these fanatics, the question is critical, because this word from religious vocabulary with anachronistic overtones could, today, teach us something else.
I propose we take a moment to look at the way Jewish thought sees profanity and blasphemy. The Torah refers to such behaviour through a famous episode at the heart of the Book of Leviticus.
In Leviticus, Chapter 24, we are told something that might, initially, seem to be totally unconnected: Moses receives the order to place loaves of bread on a table in honour of the Eternal, and to replace the loaves every Sabbath. And then, immediately after that description, we are told the story of a man who profanes the Name of God VAYEKALEL VAYAVIOU OTO EL MOSHE (Leviticus 24: 11) and is brought before Moses to be judged.
The verb used, LEKALEL, means to blaspheme, curse, or profane, and comes from the Hebrew root KAL, which means light or lightness, as if, for Hebrews, blaspheming was to treat God lightly, and to do the opposite of treating him with the KAVOD, i.e. the honour or glory, that he deserves, that Hebrew word literally meaning weight or heaviness.
But what wrong did that man do? What exactly did he say or do?
The surprising answer from the Midrash (Tanh’uma): His blasphemy concerned the loaves laid out before the Eternal, the loaves of which the Torah just spoke.
Apparently, the man refused the idea that we could offer stale bread to God, stale because it was changed only once per week. In that man’s eyes, God deserved better than that.
According to our sages, that intention constituted blasphemy! By imagining he was defending the Lord’s honour, he was reducing God to an insignificant being who becomes vexed for being insufficiently well treated, and well fed. So you see: according to our sages, the blasphemer’s fault was not to have said bad things about God or to have made fun of him, and was not to have insulted him or disapproved of him… On the contrary, the fault was to have imagined that God’s honour depended on a little flour and water.
To profane is to imagine that God, his prophets or his messengers are so vulnerable and so oversensitive that they need us to take their defence. By standing up and avenging their God who is so great, blasphemers make him tiny and insignificant.
Why am I telling you this this morning. What does this tale have to do with the tragedy that we are experiencing?
When murderers assert they are avenging their prophet, they are doing nothing more than profaning him. While they think they are serving him, they are reducing him to such an insignificant thing that they are then his true blasphemers.
On Wednesday, an act took place that our tradition calls a CHILLUL HASHEM, a negation of the Name of God, and of his image murdered in each of the victims. Each of those murdered men had a NAME, and, for some of them, that name was recognised for the talent of using drawings more effectively than words to make us think, to make us laugh, and to make us react. Their strength was their humour, their cheek, and their insolence, that our Jewish tradition calls Hutspa (Chutzpah). A quality that is more than ever necessary in the war that we must wage against the obscurantism and morbid idolatry of those whose Gods and prophets have no humour.
*This piece was recorded before the deadly hostage-taking in the “Hyper Cacher” kosher supermarket at Porte de Vincennes.
The Republic faced with Cain, by Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur
Obscurantism?, by Antoine Strobel-Dahan, Editor-in-chief of Tenou'a
A Eulogy for Elsa Cayat, Who Laughed at Her Killers, by Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur, Editorial Director of Tenou'ad