By Rabbi Joel Levy
The Dark Side of the Quest for Sanctity
On April 13th this year an outspoken journalism student, Mashal Khan, was seized from his dorm room by a mob that stripped and beat him and then shot him dead. Khan had been accused of offending Islam – a dangerous charge in Pakistan, where perceived disrespect for that religion can ignite violent anger. Over 1000 people have been accused under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws in the last 30 years and over 65 people have been murdered after being accused of blasphemy.
The primary Torah source dealing with the laws of blasphemy appears in Vayikra (Leviticus) at the very end of Parshat Emor:
(Vayikra 24:15-16) “And you shall speak to the children of Israel saying, whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. And he who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: both the stranger and he that is born in the land, when he blasphemes the name of the Lord, shall be put to death.”
Rabbi Yitzchak Karo explains, in his commentary Toldot Yitzchak, why the laws of blasphemy are located here, following a series of laws about the sanctity of the priesthood, sacrifices, Shabbat and Holydays, and certain ritual items in the Mishkan (Tabernacle). He explains that the blasphemer comes and “repudiates all – the offerer, the sacrifice, and the very existence of God, by blaspheming, as if there is no Law and Judge.”
In other words, the Torah first teaches us at length about the significance of sanctity in Israelite society and then presents us with the blasphemer – the arch-desecrator of the sacred. A society which concentrates on promoting the quest for sanctity will necessarily express its revulsion when that sanctity is desecrated. Such a society will certainly understand blasphemy as a most extreme form of deviance. The Torah reveals here the dark side of the quest for sanctity.
Friends remembered Mashal Khan as an inquisitive and pious Muslim intellectual. “He dreamed of a system where everyone could enjoy justice and equal rights. He was against corruption and the corrupt political setup. I can’t imagine him being against any religion,” said a friend, Saddam Hussain. Khan’s father, Muhammad Iqbal Khan, said his son was, by his nature, out of sync with the traditional values of Pakistan. “He was the kind of a person this society can never tolerate,” he said. “You can call him a revolutionary, reformist, humanist, whatever, but he wasn’t a conservative person. My son was a voice of the voiceless.”
Is it true that the stronger the emphasis on piety and sanctity in a particular society, the more likely that society will be to purge members who challenge the sense of the sacred? As we read the central chapters of the Chumash which extol us to be holy and then go on to describe the features of a community committed to holiness, the biblical case of the blasphemer who is to be stoned to death comes as a wake-up call.
If piety inevitably leads to this kind of acute, purging violence, then many will choose to create societies less committed to piety! Most liberal Jewish individuals and communities do indeed opt for a muted form of piety and its concomitant inclusiveness and compassion. Is it impossible to imagine religious communities that are God-fearing and pious and yet celebrate difference and allow for dissent?
Rabbi Joel Levy is the rabbi of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue, and Rosh Yeshiva at the Conservative Yeshiva, Jerusalem.