Emor: Religious Secularism

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

Two of the most dangerous threats to society are religious fanaticism and rampant secularism. The dangers of the former have received more attention in recent years, as people literally fear for their physical safety. Furthermore, violently extremist positions that claim to be divinely based are a desecration of the name of G-d and affect all practitioners of religious faith. When people are convinced G-d is on their side even as they engage in the most heinous of activities, there is little one can do to dissuade them from evil. Yet no less dangerous are those who consider themselves accountable to no deity. Using only human reason and feelings as a moral compass has brought us the Holocaust and the horrors of Stalin.

The real dangers inherent in dealing with a man acting without fear of G-d, a man who feels accountable to no one, is what led Abraham to feel he had to lie to protect his family.  "I said, there is no fear of G-d in this place, and I could be killed on account of my wife" (Breisheet 20:11).

Most dangerous of all is the combination of religious extremism and rampant secularism. While such a combination may appear contradictory, and often it is, the Torah relates one such example in this week's parsha. "The son of an Israelite woman who was the son of an Egyptian man went out among the Israelites and had a quarrel with an Israelite man in the camp. The Israelite woman's son then blasphemed G-d's name with a curse" (24:10-11).

It is one (albeit terrible) thing to ignore or even deny the existence of G-d. However, it is even worse to accept the existence of G-d, but then curse Him.  This is the most degrading way to pervert religion.  Instead of explaining evil as a lack of G-d, in which case evil is readily understandable, one actually accepts the existence of G-d, but claims He poorly manages the world. At a superficial glance, such a claim is understandable, if mistaken. A believing Jew may, even must, question G-d as we try to decipher His unknowable ways; but that questioning must not lead us away from Him, and certainly not serve as permission to curse Him. "He is a faithful G-d, never unfair, righteous and moral is He" (Devarim 32:4) must be the mantra of the Jew. The severity of blasphemy is such that it is considered one of the sheva mitzvoth bnei Noach, one of the seven universally binding Noachide laws, for which (theoretically) the penalty for violation is death.

After telling us that one "who blasphemes the name of G-d shall be put to death" (24:16), the Torah tells us of a seemingly unrelated law, one which the Torah has stressed previously, one that appears to need little reinforcement. "One who takes a human life must be put to death" (24:17).  The Torah appears to hint that a murder is an inevitable byproduct of a society that can curse G-d. Human life is a reflection of the image of G-d, and once we deny that source, it is easy to justify murder.  It’s just the destruction of a cluster of cells that make up the mass of matter we call a human being.

We must always be wary of the inescapable relationship between blasphemous speech and blasphemous action.  It is rare for evil to flourish without being preceded by words of hate and propaganda.

The speech of a Jew is one that must always sanctify the name of G-d. We are bidden to sing the praises of G-d, to give thanks to Him for all of our blessings even while simultaneously praying for the fulfillment of our needs. That is the greatest safeguard to society.