January 9, 2015 admin

An incomparably greater blasphemy

The shocking murder of the staff of Charlie Hebdo concerns us all. Martin Luther King wrote in his 1963 Letter from Birmingham City Jail that ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’. Similarly, an attack on liberty anywhere is a threat to freedom everywhere.
To perpetrate such a crime in God’s name to avenge blasphemy is itself an incomparably greater blasphemy; there is no greater desecration than the unjustifiable taking of life.
As Ed Hussain wrote in yesterday’s Guardian, the act is ‘also an assault on Islam and the very freedoms that allow 30 million Muslims to prosper in the west’. Those same freedoms allow Jews to prosper too. We have here the same interests at heart.
The spontaneous vigils which filled the streets of Paris, Berlin and London on Wednesday night were important indications of the refusal to be intimidated, of a vigorous popular response, not only in solidarity with the victims of the crime and their families, but also with the essential values of democracy and freedom of expression. However, these powerful feelings must not be betrayed by letting them turn into collective hatred and xenophobia, but must remain focussed on what truly matters.
The modern world can be accused of many faults but post-Enlightenment civilisation has, at its best, created the safe spaces in which we currently thrive, spaces defined by democracy, equality, freedom of expression and access to justice. Though these are all imperfect, they are not feeble, and we owe them the openness which allows Jews to be Jewish, Muslims to be Muslim, Hindus to be Hindu and atheists to challenge the lot of us, all within the same civic space. It troubles me as a religious leader to know that the most significant attacks on this space come today from religion itself, albeit religion distorted and misused. 
What does Judaism say about freedom of speech? It has never been an explicitly central rabbinic theme. As Mathew Stone writes, ‘The clearest indication that the Talmud supports debate is the document itself’. It interrogates every proposition and consistently includes dissonant voices. It fearlessly challenges even God. Apologising with a stock phrase like ‘one mustn’t say it, but’, it accuses Heaven itself. ‘Moses threw words at God’, it declares. Jewish blasphemy law is scarcely applied; God can take care of God.
Jews are far more sensitive to attacks on fellow Jews and Judaism, knowing that verbal assault is often the precursors to physical attack. Even then, recourse is to protest and laws against incitement. Where Jews themselves are responsible for the curtailment of legitimate liberty of expression, be this in the domains of politics or theology, we must defend freedom of speech as a matter of urgency. We’ve known all too well what it means to live without it. My grandparents used to tell me how in Frankfurt in the 1930’s they stopped by a poster with an ugly caricature and the slogan ‘The Jews are our misfortune’. ‘I quickly nudged your grandmother “Shsh!”’ my grandfather recalled, ‘The Gestapo were watching’.
Judaism has a vibrant tradition of defiance, beginning with the midwives who ignored Pharaoh’s decree to kill the Hebrew boy-babies and continuing through such poets as Osip Mandelstam, whom Stalin deported twice in the 1930’s:
    You gave me my shoe-size in earth with bars around it. 
    Where did it get you? Nowhere? 
    You left me my lips, and they shape words, even in silence
Yet the use of language has limits. ‘Freedom’ is not entitlement to say whatever we like, however hurtful. Judaism condemns heedless gossip, lashon hara; the exploitation of another person’s vulnerability, ona’at devarim; cruelty with words and unwarranted verbal assault. Careless or needless humiliation of another person or group, especially in public, is a serious wrong. But where there is cause to call conduct to account Judaism upholds the right to challenge anyone and anything in the name of integrity and justice.
A poet in exile was once asked in my home ‘Is there freedom of speech in Zimbabwe?’ ‘Well, there’s freedom before speech’, he answered. We want to live in a world where the way we use speech ensures that there is freedom before, during and after it.
Our thoughts are with the families and friends of all those who were murdered in Paris and in the hunt for the killers.

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