“Freedom of Expression” as idolatry

Apropos the issue underlying the Moslem fury at the irreverence embodied in the Danish cartoons, I have been thinking a great deal about the limitations that Jewish tradition places on the way we express, in writing and speaking, that which is sacred to us. Ask people what is the source of the restrictions halakha places on expressing the Names of the Creator. I asked, and most people pointed to this week’s parasha (Yitro) where we read in the third commandment, “You shall not take the name of Hashem, your G-d, in vain, for Hashem will not absolve anyone who takes His Name in vain.” (Shemot 20:7)
But that is not the source of the dinim about speaking and writing the tetragrammaton and other Names. The prohibition against writing the 4-letter tetragrammaton is ….

….Devarim 12:4 When speaking of destroying the altars of the foreign gods, the Torah says “You shall not do this to Hashem, your G-d.” Based on this, the Sifrei and Talmud (Shev. 35a) forbid erasing the name of God from a written document. Hence the laws pertaining to scribes who write the Name (if he makes a mistake it cannot be erased, that panel in the Torah scroll must be buried in a geniza; no interruptions allowed,even to greet a king, etc.)
As R. Avi Shafran points out below on Feb.10 (12 bShvat)in “Cartoon violence” :

“Jewish religious law …in fact places clear limits on expression.”

I am afraid many of the columnists in the secular press who are bloviating on the cartoon controversy, still don’t get it.

Example: Several Jewish essayists took a “people in glasses houses shouldn’t throw stones” approach and reprinted the cartoons that are published by newspapers from some Moslems countries depicting Israeli leaders (Ariel Sharon and others) with Nazi implications and other deprecations. Desecration of a leader of the secular state of Israel is not parallel to the desecration of someone whom the Moslems consider a prophet. Sharon is not a prophet, no matter how much we pray for his recovery. THe Moslems do have a point; Western secularists are very casual about religious symbols.

Example: Abe Foxman of the ADL predictably wrote, in an Haaretz op ed titled, “Three Lessons from the Cartoon Jihad”:

“A situation where newspaper editors, because they dare to criticize a set of beliefs, are fearful of losing their jobs or even their lives, is profoundly unhealthy.”

The writer of this line still doesn’t get it. The newspapers did not just “dare to criticize a set of beliefs.” Such criticism is leveled regularly in words by the Western press. The Danish paper printed images of the most important religious person to Moslems, and the images were derogatory. Foxman mistakenly thinks “criticizing a set of beliefs” is the issue. The issue is images, images of religious personalities, and desecration of religious beliefs.

There is a certain idolatry in the West concerning Freedom of Expression of the printed and spoken media. I am certainly no apologist for Islam. But Moslems do not seem to suffer from this particularly Western form of avoda zara, Freedom of Expression. The limits Islam places on itself (and others) in rejecting religious imagery (sculpture, pictures, depictions of the Deity,portrayals of religious personalities) are admirable, as are several other aspects of Islamic culture: modesty of dress in men and women, filial piety; hospitality; seriousness in prayer.The common thread is respect for boundaries, something often lacking in secular Western culture. No doubt my critics will point out that some Moslems carry these traditions to extremes. But that is not new (See Gen.16:12 Re Ishmael: Yado bakol vyad kol bo).
Let me end with a question on the double-edged sword of Islam. Would great swaths of continents have come under the influence of monotheism if it were not for the agressiveness of Islam?

Shira Schmidt

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. “That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered,” he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Mrs. Leibowitz acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. Today she lives with her husband, Dr. Baruch Schmidt, in Netanya. She co-authored, with Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, Old Wine New Flasks. She has co-translated from Hebrew to English (with Jessica Setbon) From the Depths (the autobiography of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau); The Forgotten Memoirs (memoirs of Rabbis who survived the Shoah, edited by Esther Farbstein); and Rest of the Dove (Parashat Hashavua by Rabbi Haim Sabato). She and her husband appear in the documentary film about the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe, “Hidden Face.” She is available to lecture in Israel and in the US and can be contacted via www.cross-currents.com.

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19 Responses

  1. Moshe Hillson says:

    Dear Shira,

    Three chhers for the courage to speak out politically incorrect truths.

  2. Calev says:

    This is a Jewish blog – so I’ll answer your question (in the last paragraph) with a question: Do the ends justify the means?

  3. Michoel says:

    In R. Zelig Pliskin’s “Growth Through Torah” (it might one of his other works), he brings a peirush on the pasuk that says Klal Yisrael camped at Pi Chiros. The avoda zora they worshiped their was that people could say what ever they wanted. Please see in side. I haven’t seen it in a while might be misquoting. That is the basic idea. The sefer he brings is not a recent sefer, one of the g’dolim of previous doros. I’ll try to find it and quote it acurately bli neder.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    Do you think that the aggressive behavior of non-Yishmaelite Muslims (such as Iranians) toward Jews is because they are Muslim or for some other reason? On balance, is the world better off because they were converted to Islam by the sword?

  5. Dr. Jeckel says:

    It seems to me that it is avodas zora to deify a navi sheker. Would
    there be less monstrous behavior on the part of his current followers were the turbaned bomber identified as some other being? I think so. Thus it is Mohamed’s “sacred” nature that causes the Muslim fury and that makes their “prophet” a false deity. We owe no respect in this case.

    We should furthermore be disturbed by the history of Muslim violence in subjugating much of the world to the Islamic religion. Mohamed personally led and endorsed , during the the decade of the 620’s, plundering, murdering, raping and kidnapping of Jews. Despite certain periods of relative calm, Islam has not been good for the Jews. Rambam was forced to run for his life from one band of medieval fanatic Muslims. Today, under the leadership of Saudi sponsored Wahabi Sunnis and now Shiites in Iran, the ancient hatred of Jews for scorning Mohamed in the seventh century when he presented himself as a false messiah is as frighteningly vicious as ever before.

    As an old time Polish Jew said, “Until you have had your own physical patch in panim from the anti-Semite, you don’t understand what he is like.” I say, Beware of any so-called monotheism that subscribes to tenets that are Avodas Zara and that would burn you as readily as it burns a flag it dislikes.

  6. S. says:

    > But that is not the source of the dinim about speaking and writing the tetragrammaton and other Names. The prohibition against writing the 4-letter tetragrammaton is ….

    >….Devarim 12:4

    Where does “speaking” come into it? There is no prohibition min ha-torah of speaking the name.

  7. mb says:

    There is a certain idolatry in the West concerning Freedom of Expression of the printed and spoken media. I am certainly no apologist for Islam. But Moslems do not seem to suffer from this particularly Western form of avoda zara, Freedom of Expression.

    Hmm. Strange observation. If freedom of expression is avodah zara( that’s amusing in itself) that Moslems don’t suffer from, how come they have the freedom to express their hatred of Jews, Israel, America.? Is that not Avoda Zara? In fact I found your arrticle difficult to comprehend.

  8. HILLEL says:

    Thank you for your courageous post.

    Well, at least I know I’m not alone when I quote Horav Avigdor Miller’s, ZT”L, statement that the Moslem way of life reflects many of the teachings that their grandfather Yishmael received from Avrohom Aveenu–Female modesty, hospitality to strangers, and belief in one G-D.

    We need to remember that the RAMBAM did not consider Muslims to be idol worshipers–they worship one G-D only, the Al-Mighty creator of the world.

    And–just to make the secularists who follow this blog really upset–here is a verbatim quote from the preamble of the official charter of the most religious branch of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas:

    “The Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement, August 18, 1988–

    “In the name of the most merciful Allah:

    “Ye (referring to the Jewish People) are the best nation that hath been raised up unto Mankind. Ye command that which is just, and ye believe in Allah. And, if you who have received the scriptures had believed, it had surely been the better for them.

    “There are believers among them, but the greater part of them are transgressors…”

    Horav Amnon Yitzchak, SHLIT”A, loves to quote this Hamas preamble to his listeners.

    The Zohar writes that Yishmael’s role before Moshiach arrives is to force the Jewish People to cry out and return to HaShem, so that they will be worthy of the redemption.

    May we all merit to see it very soon, in our days.

  9. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Would you trust Torah courts to enforce restrictions on speech? Probably.

    Would you trust Noahide courts to enforce them? Again, probably yes.

    Would you trust Archaot Shel Goyim (= non Jewish courts) that are not guided by the Torah? Before you answer, remember that we also have things that could be considered blasphemous, such as the references to Jesus in Sanhedrin 43A that you can find in Mechon Mamre (http://www.mechon-mamre.org/b/l/l44.htm), which comes from Yemenite sources, but not on E-Daf (http://www.e-daf.com/index.asp?ID=3695&size=1) that is taken from the Vilna Shas.

    Until such time as we are ruled by courts that can be trusted to regulate speech, we need free speech, with all the attendant problems.

  10. Charles B. Hall says:


    I looked at the Hamas covenant and could not find the language you cite:


  11. Calev says:

    Hillel may also want to remind us what Ramabam said about Mohammed himself… not quite so complimentary but an example of necessary straight talking by someone who knew what he was talking about.
    And Hillel, please, before you get carried away extolling the retributative virtues of Hamas and their ilk you may just care to be sensitive to those many fellow Jews – observant and not – who have suffered terribly because of these murderers.

  12. HILLEL says:

    Mr. Hall:
    Here is the link to the English translation of the Hamas charter.
    The language is also on the website you linked–right at the beginning–I don’t understand how you missed it.

    I do not admire the murder of innocent people by Hamas.
    I am simply giving you a Torah Hashkofo from authoritative sorces to offset the secular/political ideas that you get from the Edomite media. Just because Hamas believes in G-D, you don’t have to be a free-thinking atheist to prove that you’re different from Hamas.

    Calev: Be careful who you insult. If you truly care about the lives of your brethern, guard your speech–an insult can have far-reaching repercussions that you didn’t anticipate (as per the “Cartoon” riots).

  13. Calev says:


    If I insulted you then I am truly sorry. Although, to be honest, I don’t see how I did. I was responding to your earlier comment that, frankly, smacked of the spurious view that non-observant Jews brought down the Holocaust on the nation. While we must always look towards negative occurences as an opportunity for self-reflection and tshuvah it is mind-bogglingly presumptious for anyone to say that that particular occurrence was the result of this particular failing. That, after all is the message of Iyov, isn’t it? Approvingly quoting Jew killers to “upset secularists” is not only insulting, it’s immature.

  14. Bob Miller says:

    Is Hillel suggesting that Calev’s speech can make the radical Muslims hate Jews more than they already do?

  15. bvw says:

    Hillel, per your “as per the “Cartoon” riots” …
    Those aren’t riots those are acts of asymmetric warfare, planned and directed by people who would kill us. So Secretary of State Condi Rice has said, and so seems obvious to me, fwtw. See http://www.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/asiapcf/02/08/cartoon.protests/

    “Iran and Syria have gone out of their way to inflame sentiments and to use this to their own purposes, and the world ought to call them on it,” she said at a joint news conference with Israel’s foreign minister, Tzipi Livni.

    IOW any little thing would have done, if not the many months-old cartoons then something else.

  16. HILLEL says:

    Bob and Calev:

    Very good comments:

    1. Calev, I didn’t mean that you insulted me; I meant that, as a small minority in today’s world, we Jews must be very careful not to insult large groups–like the Muslims–who can retaliate against our brethern anywahere in the world.

    2. Bob, According to Rev Elchonon Wasserman, the leading disciple of the Chofetz Chaim, Z”L, the rise of Hitler from Germany was a direct punishment for the rise of Reform Judaism from that same country. The Bundists, Yiddishists, anarchists and secular Zionists in Eastern Europe were a direct outgrowth of the German Haskala.

    So, too, according to many contemporary Torah sages, the rise of Muslim anti-semitism is a direct outgrowth of the secular Zionist’s activities in the Holy Land.

    There is a passage in the Torah that explicitly warns of this: “If you defile the land, it will cast you out (Ve-Lo Sa-ki Ha-Aretz EsChem Be-Tamaachem Osah.”

    Toquote one of my favorite speakers, the leader of the Ba-Al Tehuva movement in Israel–Horav Amnon Yitzchak, Shli”ta–If you want the Muslims to quiet down, make peace with their master–our Creator.

  17. bvw says:

    Hillel — History, at least two-part harmony of Saudi oil development and the mostly-secular Kibbutz movement, sings chorus for the insights of the contempary Torah sages.

  18. Calev says:

    Thanks for the clarification. I’m glad that it turns out we do actually agree fundamentally – that it is our relationship with Hashem upon which all else rests.

  19. ja says:

    “Where does “speaking” come into it? There is no prohibition min ha-torah of speaking the name.”

    Af hahoge es hashem b’osiyosov, sanhedrin 90a. See tosfos sukah 5a. It’s a machlokes rishonim whether the issur (d’oreisa) is for shem havaya or shem 42.

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