Sacrilege begets violence

Sacrilege begets violence

THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH

Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom

evanhoffman@gmail.com

Parshat Va’era – פרשת וארא

January 1, 2022 – כח טבת תשפב

Sacrilege begets violence

When, in his capacity as redeemer of Israel, Moses initially approached Pharaoh, he did not ask for the Israelites’ complete and permanent liberation. He began with the relatively modest request for the Israelites to be permitted to observe a religious festival in the wilderness. “Let us go, we pray, a distance of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord our God, lest He strike us with pestilence or sword (Exodus 5:3).” Before the second and fourth plagues, God instructed Moses to tell Pharaoh “Let My people go, that they may worship Me (7:26; 8:16).”   It is not until the postscript of the fourth plague that it becomes apparent why any sacrificial worship by the Israelites of their national Deity needed to take place at a geographic distance from the Egyptian populace. At that juncture, having seen that Egypt had already been stricken with plagues of blood, frogs, lice, and swarms of wild animals, Pharaoh was ready partially to accede to Moses’ demands. He recognized that terrible things were happening to his land because of the Israelites’ inability to placate their God with sacrifices (Ibn Ezra). Pharaoh said to Moses and Aaron: “Go sacrifice to your God within the land (8:21).” He was willing to grant the Israelites a brief respite from their labors for cultic purposes, but would not yet agree to their wish to travel into the wilderness lest they abuse his trust and depart forever.   Moses was unimpressed by Pharaoh’s offer of local worship and responded with a comment meant to convince him of the folly of his own proposal. “It would not be right to do this, for what we sacrifice to the Lord our God is untouchable to the Egyptians. If we sacrifice that which is untouchable to the Egyptians before their very eyes, will they not stone us (8:22)?” There is a measure of (possibly deliberate) ambiguity in Moses’ statement. The words תועבת מצרים can be understood to mean “that which is taboo to the Egyptians.” Alternatively, it can be understood from an internal Israelite perspective to mean that animal divinities are an “Egyptian abomination.” But the import of Moses’ remark is entirely clear. It would be dangerous and likely fatal for the Israelites to offer, in Egypt, the kinds of sacrifices demanded of them by their God; that worship would be seen as sacrilegious by the Egyptians. Accordingly, Moses reiterated his request for the worship festival to be conducted at a safe distance from Egypt’s settled regions. “So, we must go a distance of three days into the wilderness and sacrifice to the Lord our God as He may command us (8:23).”   Pharaoh accepted the correctness of this assessment. Hebrew worship in the midst of Egyptian society was untenable. He grudgingly conceded that the Israelite holiday would have to take place in no-man’s land, though worries lingered in his mind about what the Israelites might do if permitted unsupervised leave. Pharaoh warned Moses not to deceive him. “I will let you go to sacrifice to the Lord your God in the wilderness; but do not go very far. Plead, then, for me (8:24).”   Ultimately, of course, Pharaoh’s suspicions were well founded. There did not occur any Hebrew religious festival on the periphery of Egyptian territory; the former slaves in fact left Egypt permanently for their Promised Land.   Moses’ prediction about what would happen were the Israelites to sacrifice animals venerated by the Egyptians assumes that people react violently, even murderously, to perceived sacrilege. In primitive societies lacking a strong rule of law, or in any environment saturated with religious fervor and ideological zeal, such an assumption is warranted.   The Mishnah rules that a zealot may carry out the extra-judicial execution of a Jewish man who fornicates with a heathen woman – a ruing consistent with the Torah’s account of Phinehas’ actions against Zimri and Cozbi. The Mishnah permits the same vigilante justice to be meted out against one who sacrilegiously steals a Temple vessel (Sanhedrin 81b). And a priest who disgraces the Temple by officiating therein while in a state of ritual impurity is taken out of the Courtyard by young fellow priests and clubbed to death with blows to the skull (Mishnah Sanhedrin 9:6).   Non-Jews were forbidden to enter the inner areas of the Temple Mount (Mishnah Kelim 1:8). A sign written in Greek and warning trespassers of dire consequences was affixed to the gate beyond which heathens were forbidden to pass. “No foreigner is to enter within the forecourt and the balustrade around the sanctuary. Whoever is caught will have himself to blame for his subsequent death.” Paul was nearly lynched when he entered the Temple because the masses accused him of bringing Trophimus the Ephesian onto the sacred grounds (Acts 21:28-31). Rabbi Judah ben Bethera tricked an Aramean, who regularly trespassed in the Temple and consumed the flesh of the Paschal Offering under the guise of being a Jew, into exposing his non-Jewish identity. He was summarily killed for his sacrilege (Pesahim 3b). A staple of the retelling of the Hanukah story is the incident at Modi’in in which Mattathias spontaneously slew the Jew who dared sacrifice a pig at the behest of Antiochus’ agents (I Maccabees 2:23-26).   In the medieval period, false accusations of sacrilege regularly were leveled against the Jews. The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation meant that the wafer (host) and wine of the Eucharist were literally (not just symbolically) transformed into the body and blood of Jesus. Mistreatment of those Christian ritual items became a grievous sacrilege deserving the most extreme forms of punishment. In Paris in 1290, a Jew was accused of acquiring a host wafer (whether by stealing it or as collateral for a loan), stabbing it, and throwing it into boiling water. In this early version of the “desecration of the host” libel, the Jew is merely curious whether the host has supernatural powers. (In the Christian telling of the story, after the Jew put the wafer into the boiling water, that water turned to blood.   The Jew became convinced of the powers of the host and baptized his family.) The later iteration of this libel has the Jew defile the host out of pure hatred for Christianity. The Christian reaction to such desecration claims was to massacre scores of Jews.   In recent decades, westerners have tended to associate Islamic fundamentalism with the phenomenon of violent reaction to perceived sacrilege. In 2011, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published a cartoon depicting Muhammad saying “One hundred lashes if you don’t die laughing.” The magazine’s offices were firebombed shortly thereafter. This magazine (as well as other targets, including a kosher market) was again targeted by Islamic terrorists in 2015, resulting in the deaths of seventeen victims.   The country that most exemplifies this phenomenon is India, with its massive and intermingled population of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. Last week, a man was lynched for attempting to desecrate the Guru Granth Sahib at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab. Hindustan Times published an editorial titled “Sacrilege: The law must prevail,” which reflected a sober, modernist attitude toward religious zealotry: “A constitutional democracy cannot afford to normalize mob violence, and any constriction of due process and fair trial must be contested. Act against desecration, but do not allow people to take the law into their own hands.”   Exodus 8:22 teaches that we do not always have absolute freedom of action in our religious lives. Prudence and enlightened self-interest dictate that we restrain ourselves from acting in ways that are likely to turn someone else’s murderous rage against us. Moreover, as decent people, we should not seek to aggrieve others through gross violations of their religious sensibilities. A Jew should not be needlessly provocative. If we want respect accorded to our religious traditions, we must reciprocate.  Though Jewish theological principles circumscribe us in several ways with respect to affirmative acts on our part concerning the religious symbols and beliefs of others, it remains necessary that we avoid any disrespectful behavior toward the cherished symbols of the faiths of others.