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?