The Sceptic Blog

Random thoughts of a random chappy


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  1. A few thoughts on the Torah reaction to the events of the last few days around the publication of cartoon caricatures of the Islamic prophet Mohammed.
  2. The concept that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me” is not in accordance with Torah thought.  The rabbis have always taught us to be aware of the power, constructive and destructive, of words.  A life can be ruined as effectively by a few words spoken at the right time and place as by a blow.
  3.  The Torah has a concept of blasphemy that imposes obligations even on those who do not subscribe to our religion.  One of the seven Noachide laws – incumbent in Torah thought on all humans – is a fairly extensive prohibition against idolatry.  There is nothing ideologically tolerant about Judaism.
  4.  In order to become liable for a penalty in respect of blasphemy, however, a person has to perform it, after clear warning, with clear knowledge and intent; not out of mere ignorance or even out of gross discourtesy.  Although there is one notable instance of extra-judicial punishment of blasphemy – that of Pinchos (as to which see the 21st July 2005 Sceptic Tank) – as a general rule an infringement of the Noachide laws can be punished only through the usual judicial channels.
  5. Collective punishment is in theory contrary to Torah law.  There are, however, some instances – whether general categories such as the city given over to idolatry or specific historical examples such as the punishment inflicted by Shimon and Levi in the matter of Dinah’s maltreatment – that illustrate that the concept is not unknown to Torah law, in particular circumstances.
  6. All of which puts us in perhaps a slightly ambivalent position in respect of the present crisis.  We can certainly understand the strength of feeling that religious Muslims will feel upon seeing a disrespectful picture published in a form that contravenes their law.  And we are not inclined to dismiss it as “mere words or pictures”, being well aware of the force that words and pictures can command.  But we feel deep antipathy towards any scene of mass hysterical violence, of a kind which would not be justified in Torah thought by any breach of Torah law.  We also feel, and are required to practice, an innate respect for the law of the land, even in some cases (but admittedly not all) where that law diverges from Torah law.
  7. It seems, unhappily, likely that we are all going to have to develop at greater speed than had previously been thought our ideas about ways to achieve balance between inherently incompatible ways of life.  Not only will we find incompatibilities between cultures, but within our own we will find, as is shown above, principles which can be difficult to apply compatibly in a particular situation.  As with most difficult projects, however, if it is undertaken by all those for whom it is necessary with a genuine wish to arrive at a solution which provides the greatest ease of mind to all, we can hope with God’s help to achieve a result which will certainly be better than mere reaction by instinct to each new class of culture.

Written by Daniel Greenberg

February 5, 2006 at 12:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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