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Parashat Emor

April 29, 2010

A Dialogue on “HaMekallel”/ The One Who Curses God

Leviticus 24:15 – “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying : Take the one the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him.” (NJPS).

LIAT: I find it difficult to accept that God would be so vindictive and so concerned about what people on earth say about HaShem that God would order their death. I believe in a loving, compassionate, merciful, forgiving God Who is above such seemingly petty, human-like behavior.

DORIT: I don’t think this is about God being vindictive or about having feelings of hurt; it has more to do with setting boundaries, drawing lines, making laws for the preservation of life. People have to behave with respect towards God if they truly believe in God.

LIAT: What is this “people have to do this or that” – don’t we have free will? And what if a person has suffered some great loss and is so emotionally in pain from grief that the only expression they can utter is to curse God for what has happened – like those who survived the Holocaust but lost their entire families. Are we going to condemn them and call them sinners for this? This is what they believe empowers them because they feel so helpless.

DORIT: Certainly there are some situations where people may be excused because they are in such deep grief and shock. Yet even, here our tradition has the mourners reciting the Kaddish, sanctifying God, the Source of Life, at the very moment when their loved ones have died and are being buried.

LIAT: I think most people are just comforted that there is some kind of prayer that they can say at the graveside and afterwards; the act of saying Kaddish and not the meaning of the words is what most people focus on when they are grieving. You certainly can’t legislate feelings and some may rather feel like cursing rather than blessing God.

DORIT: OK, but at some point – after going through the grieving process we slowly bring people back to being able to recite blessings over God; otherwise, if we allow this cursing to continue, it will spread to others, bringing doubt, cynicism, and ultimately questioning the value of life. And what about those who curse God out of a sense of defiance or self-aggrandizement? Isn’t this why we have the Third Commandment, not taking God’s name in vain?

LIAT: But don’t these people also have the right of free speech?

DORIT: Even free speech has its limits in Judaism and in our American society. Our Sages knew that words had more power than swords to create greatness or to wound and even kill people. That is why we are so often warned against leshon hara– evil speech. How much more so we must oppose words that are Hillul HaShem (a desecration of God’s name)while honoring words and acts of Kiddush HaShem (a sanctification of God’s name).

LIAT: Yet there are those today who do the opposite: they express their belief and blessing of God by killing others – like the suicide bombers.

DORIT: Unfortunately those who think this is a way to bless God, the Source of All Life, do not see that they are really being used by people who put themselves above God, who control others through fear and hatred, who are creating the kind of chaos that the law against cursing God is meant to prevent.

LIAT: And to me, the law will not prevent this behavior; the only thing that will work will be to keep our own strong faith in God, and understand that they -who were also created b’tzelem Elohim –are really cursing THEMSELVES. That is whom they are really destroying.

DORIT: OK, so if we take this law and apply it to ourselves, then we would concur with the biblical commentator Sforno who said: “We have witnessed the perfection of God’s actions in this world and should ourselves reciprocate by acting with perfection. To achieve this we must follow the precepts of Judaism and not profane God’s Name” (cited in Abraham Chill, The Mitzvot, p. 276).

LIAT: And I would also add here that it depends on the situation. As Rabbi Gershon Schwartz wrote in his Swimming in the Sea of Talmud, (p. 129) we need to apply the talmudic idea that there are times when it is better to ignore rather than harp upon another’s wrongdoing, especially when done without forethought. “Better that they be uninformed transgressors than deliberate transgressors.” (Betzah 30a).


Cantor Liat Pelman-Forst (NY) and Rabbi Dorit Edut (Michigan) are AJR ’06 alumni who have remained best friends since meeting at AJR.

We are dedicating our D’var Torah to the memory of Liat’s mother whose birthday is this month: Shifra Bat Esther v’Moshe Pelman.