In this week’s Torah portion, parshat Emor, we learn the story of an unnamed man who blasphemed G-d’s name. Moses asks G-d what the punishment should be, and the punishment is quite severe – death by stoning. Blasphemy has, for centuries, been a crime with a high price. Charges of blasphemy were often used to go after political enemies regardless of the truth of the claim. In the United States, laws against blasphemy came under fire in the 20th century. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” People have successfully argued that laws against blasphemy are unconstitutional. Although I believe some laws are still on the books, the last person to be jailed in the United States for blasphemy was Abner Kneeland in 1838.
Phrases that would once have been considered positively scandalous have now become a common part of most people’s every day speech. You hear something surprising, and you don’t even think before you say, “Oh my G-d.” I won’t even go into what people say when they stub their toes! But a death sentence is a mighty harsh punishment for words spoken in haste. Clearly the Torah is trying to get our attention, to teach us an important lesson about the power of speech.
The world was created with words. “Let there be light,” G-d said, and there was light. It didn’t happen with a waving of magical arms, but with and through language. Words are very powerful because they create the realities that exist in our minds. Scientists teach us that if we hear something a few times, we will begin to believe it. So given the immense influence that words hold, what happens when we speak casually of G-d? What happens when we invoke G-d’s name in a circumstance that has nothing to do with holiness? Does it really matter?
Holiness in the Torah is about setting things apart for a special purpose. Perhaps by avoiding speaking G-d’s name in vain, we can better distinguish that relationship from all others. A thoughtful approach to the Divine rather than a casual one might help us to use our words for holy purposes, to bring blessing into our lives and the lives of those around us. By doing this, we may elevate G-d’s name rather than “damn”ing it.
Cantor Sally Neff