Name Abuse

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Much in our world desecrates the name of G-d – in Hebrew, that is called “chilul Hashem.” Whether murder and mayhem in the name of religion or misbehavior on the part of religious individuals, actions that push holiness away from a world that so direly needs it are considered by Judaism to constitute a singular sin.

Recently, though, a quite literal desecration of G-d’s name unexpectedly came to my attention. A cataloger at a law school library, Mrs. Elisheva Schwartz, called with a disturbing discovery. She had come across an online vendor seeking to make a few dollars off the marketing of clothing and kitsch bearing the holiest Hebrew name of G-d.

The Tetragrammaton, to use its Greek appellation, is a four-character word (tetra means four; grammat, letter) that Judaism considers so holy it is forbidden today to pronounce or ever to treat in anything but a deeply honorable manner. According to Jewish law, a piece of parchment, paper, cloth or pottery bearing the Name must be carefully preserved or solemnly buried. Religious Jews refer to the word simply as “the specified Name” and when it occurs in the Torah reading or prayer service, it is not read as written; a less holy Hebrew word meaning simply “my Lord” is substituted instead.

The vendor in question, for reasons unknown, had decided to print the holy Hebrew letters on an assortment of tee shirts, mugs, buttons and other articles, including underwear and dog sweaters.

We live in a free society, of course, and nothing prevents anyone from exercising his or her right to personal expression, even if it may be offensive to others. But nothing prevents anyone, either, from voicing pain born of such offense. And so I contacted Café Press – a sort of online flea-market that the vendor was using to sell his or her wares – to register Agudath Israel’s chagrin at the commercialization and degradation of G-d’s name. Please consider making a decision, I wrote, that is “respectful of Jews and Judaism.”

Within hours, what seemed a stock reply arrived. Café Press, it informed, provides its services to “a rich and vibrant community of individuals across the globe who differ in their views about what is considered offensive.”

Well, I’m sure it does and they do. All the same, though, I’m also pretty sure that the site isn’t being used to peddle dog sweaters bearing, say, the Arabic word for Allah.

So I inquired about whether Café Press had any code of standards regarding offensiveness. Again, a reply arrived quickly, directing me to where I could find the company’s standards. To its credit, the code is a responsible and comprehensive document. And one category of prohibited content was: “Material that is generally offensive or in bad taste, as determined by CafePress.com.”

And so I wrote again, reiterating that “from the perspective of all religious (and many less-than-religious) Jews, the placement of G-d’s holy Hebrew name on a piece of apparel, not to mention apparel like underwear or pet sweaters, is profoundly offensive.”

“Which leaves us,” I concluded, “with the ‘as determined by CafePress.com’ clause.

“And so I ask: What is your determination?”

That was many days and two more inquiries ago. Thus far, no reply. Perhaps the administrators of the site are in the process of informing the vendor that his or her merchandise doesn’t meet their company’s standards. Or perhaps they are not.

Either way, though, should any readers of these words happen to share Mrs. Schwartz’s and my feeling of offense at the commercial debasing of something deeply holy to Judaism, please consider making an e-mail inquiry of your own to Café Press. The address for such communications is [email protected] . Needless to say, inquiries should be polite and reasoned. And if – as I hope – the company’s response is that the merchandise at issue has been removed from the site, then a sincere expression of gratitude to the company is in order.

In that case, not only Café Press’ decision but our expressions of thanks will constitute a kiddush Hashem, a “sanctification of G-d’s name.”

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24 Responses

  1. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Oops, I should have verified that the seller I found matches everything in your article. Since “pawned” is slang for “owned”, this person indeed doesn’t seem to have much in the way of religious feelings.

  2. Rabbi Avi Shafran says:

    I’m grateful to Ori Pomerantz for identifying the individual he cites (perhaps he/she might be persuaded to use the English letters YHWH, which would be more recognizable to others!).

    But that was not the posting I referred to. The url at Cafe Press with the Sheim emblazoned not only on fairly respectable things but, as I noted in my article, on underwear and dog sweaters is:

    http://www.cafepress.com/notapawnedsoul

    I’m pretty sure that that individual is not motivated by any sublime religious feelings. And that Cafe Press is the only potential address for having the items removed.

  3. Ori Pomerantz says:

    I researched it a bit more. The person who made the design seems to be a sincere Christian, who did it in attempt to be respectful to G-d. His/her e-mail address is [email protected] and the Web site is http://www.freewebs.com/praiseyah/inhisname.htm . Now we can deal with a person, not a faceless corporation.

    Anybody who contacts him/her, please be polite and respectful. This isn’t somebody trying to mock our religion. This is somebody trying to show his/her love and respect to G-d. Being wrong is not the same as being evil.

  4. Rabbi Avi Shafran says:

    Dear Yoni Gershon,

    You are correct about what Cafe Press does and how there is no legal recourse here; I certainly didn’t suggest any.

    What I did note, though, in my essay is that the company has a code of standards in place and that, at least arguably, the designs at issue may violate it.

    True, there will always be people doing things that are offensive to others, and to us Jews. But that does not, I think, absolve us of trying to prevent what chilul shem Hashem we can — especially if it’s being done through the agency of a world-famous internet merchant, and especially if enough polite expressions of pain might be able to convince the company that the items at issue should indeed be considered offensive.

  5. Yoni Gershon says:

    Rabbi Shafran and everyone:

    Just to clarify (it seems not everyone realized this) Cafe Press has nothing to do with these designs.

    They are a company which allows users to design, manufacture and sell user designed imprinted items online. They do not sell items that they have designed themselves. They are basically an online print shop.

    They don’t “specialize in printing offensive designs” as one commenter here said: they just allow for user generated content – and unfortunately that’s what the users want.

    Someone out there (not Cafe Press but a Cafe Press customer) uploaded the design and chose T-Shirt or whatever. It then goes automatically to their outsourced production line.

    So the question is really: what responsibility does a third party manufacturer bear for so-called “offensive” products?

    Hard to determine. Certainly some responsibility but probably not all. In the USA it’s certainly legal to produce “offensive” items. The only recourse is the free market and our own right to free speech and protest.

    Yes it’s a terrible misuse of our holy Names. Certainly worth a protest – BUT – If I got offended by every goy (or Jew) doing public anti-Jewish hate speech or misusing sacred icons etc. I would certainly have no time in my life for anything else! So, let’s protest but also be sure: Hashem can and will take care of the miscreants who in any case are probably just ignoramii who visited the Kaballah Center, think the Name is cool and have no idea what they’re doing.

  6. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Hillel, I did not explain myself properly. The list I gave was not my ideas for merchandise that could be offensive to Muslims. It was a list of merchandise that Cafepress.com already sells (with links). No Muslim did anything about it that made them stop – they’re still on sale.

  7. Aaron says:

    FWIW, the company name is Cafepress.com, not Café Press, never two distinct words. They also never go by plain Cafepress or CafePress. The é is only hinted at in their logo, but isn’t anywhere else in the text on their website.

  8. HILLEL says:

    ORI:

    You see, this is what happens when you start LaiTzonUs–kidding-around.
    Suddenly, we’re in a contest to see who can be more offensive.

    I withdraw!

  9. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Hillel, how would that be more offensive to Muslims than Allah with a pig, Muhammed learning about bad PR, or Allah’s name (in Arabic) on immodest clothing?

  10. HILLEL says:

    If you want to get rid of CafePress–once and for all– just tell them to print tee-shirt with a picture of Mohammed, and an excerpt from Samlman Rushdie’s book underneath!

  11. Rabbi Avi Shafran says:

    Thank you all for your comments, suggestions and criticisms. I never insisted that anyone had to agree with my judgment on this matter; on the contrary, my words were: “Should any readers… happen to share my feeling of offense…”). That said, I am unmoved by the reasons suggested for better ignoring this.

    Please let me reiterate what I think is clear in my essay: I am not suggesting that Café Press or any business be harangued for disseminating any offensive material. I am sure there are many items on that site that are “Messianic” in nature and perhaps even anti-Semitic. It’s a free country — a fortunate fact, of course, but with its downsides. I am sure there is mockery on the site of Islam, and of Judaism, and of Christianity. But this, I think, is very different from simply mockery or even tastelessness.

    What I asked – and invited others with similar feelings to ask — Café Press was to confront the fact that the Sheim Havaya is an object of Jewish veneration itself in the Jewish religion. It is not a mogen david or even a talis but an object d’kdusha, if you will. An “edgy” tee-shirt mocking Jews, or even Jewish practice, might evoke a frown from me, but not a letter of protest. However, were a firm selling parchment columns from sifrei Torah to be used for windowshades, you bet I’d speak up – and would hope that most Jews would too. This is perhaps not quite the latter, but it’s not quite that far from it either.

    Whether or not the vendor finds another outlet is besides the point. Firstly, Café Press is a very well-known company and there is gain in getting even it alone to dump the vendor. And secondly, as all of us hopefully realize, a Jew’s mandate is not necessarily to “tu uf,” but rather to “tu” – not to “accomplish,” but rather to “make the effort.” And efforts that are proper to be made have to be made even if Jay Leno may decide to monologue about them. I don’t allow comedians’ reactions to determine what I think is right or wrong.

    Finally, I was not making a legal case; there is none. I was appealing in good will to Café Press’ own code of conduct, simply informing them of how using the Sheim as a marketing tool is deeply offensive of a certain community. They may well decide to ignore my inquiries (and the dozens that have already been sent them by individual subscribers to Am Echad Resources – and that’s even before the essay has had time to make it into print) and if so, so be it. But perhaps it will decide that the items at issue do indeed cross the line from edgy to obnoxious. In either event, I and those who have written the company have acted on our consciences.

    As to the fear of drawing more attention to the site and the vendor at issue, that is a valid point, and one that I considered long and hard. What I decided, though (and anyone can certainly disagree with my conclusion) is that if I saw a page of a Chumash being trampled underfoot on lower Broadway on my way to work, I would stop to rescue it – even if it caused others to stop to see what I was doing, even if it caused some of them to mock me. I would do my best to explain why the page is holy to me and hope that the inconvenience of my stopping on the busy sidewalk would be outweighed by the others’ realization that there are things that are holy to a Jew. And should this “campaign” reach the media (which I have no reason to think it will), I will do precisely the same. And without regrets.

  12. Ori Pomerantz says:

    There may be a way to get them to stop – but I don’t think it’s worth doing. They are a for-profit company. If you want to get them to stop, the way to do it is an effective boycott:

    1. Create a number of Jewish designs and upload them to CafePress.

    2. Get enough people to buy younr designs.

    3. After CafePress made a lot of money out of your designs, tell them you just discovered the blasphemous design, and you’ll have to withdraw your own designs, which make them a lot more money, unless they remove that.

  13. ariel says:

    You probably didn’t realize CafePress specializes in selling offensive merchandise. It’s not really worth it to make a fuss, it won’t help. If a there’s too much of a protest, it will just draw attention to it and boost its sales. Probably very few are sold now, there are more important things to worry or write about.

  14. joshwaxman says:

    “And so I wrote again, reiterating that “from the perspective of all religious (and many less-than-religious) Jews, the placement of G-d’s holy Hebrew name on a piece of apparel, not to mention apparel like underwear or pet sweaters, is profoundly offensive.””

    except of course the tzitz.

  15. Aaron says:

    The likelihood of any of us ever seeing CafePress-printed Tetragrammaton-swag is minimal.

    I have communications with CafePress confirming their getting violent threats for permitting anti-Islamic designs. I know many of the designers of such items who have gotten similar threats.

    There is almost no surer method to ensure the eternal preservation of the memory of something than to seek to ban it.

    Given a 24-hour day, which is the more deserving of our finite resource of time devoted to constructively directed outrage: protesting CafePress or protesting the closer approximation of “taking G-d’s name” for monetary gain by quacks who lure souls away like the Kabbalah Centre?

    CafePress is hardly the hill we need to choose. I’m reminded of the futile and vast waste of time spent — and risks to our computer security as well-meaning people fowarded huges lists of email addresses of strangers in Tolstoyesque-length CC fields — trying to convince Google of removing an antisemitic website that appears prominently in their rankings for searches on “Jew”.

    Maybe a greater chillul Hashem we’ll have to answer for is choosing to remain urbanized where our children are persistently exposed to ads and billboards with toxic messages?

  16. Ori Pomerantz says:

    G, it won’t work. A trademark is only valid if you actually use it to identify goods, and only against similar goods. I guess you could make a line of clothing with Yud-Kuf-Vav-Kuf on it and then claim it’s too similar and people would get confused – if you used the trademark before them.

    Everybody who is upset that Cafe Press isn’t taking us as seriously as they do Muslims, may I suggest a little research before accusing people? They are equal opportunity offensive. Selling funny, edgy, and potentially offensive merchandise is a big part of their business.

  17. Gil says:

    Avi,

    It seems to me that the majority of the merchandise bearing the Tetragrammaton are being sold not to mock but as Messianic Jewish garb, could your rage have something to do with that?

    While you perceive the erasure of the name of God or its use on a t-shirt as a grave sin, many religions and cultures, who share that name of God do not.

    Moreover, what do you hope to accomplish? Getting some bad press because Orthodox Jews are so stuck up they can’t take a joke. Direct the might of the Jewish community on this and expect to show up as a joke on Jay Leno.

  18. kurkevan says:

    There is a very easy way to resolve this:

    1) Open an account with Cafe Press and start a line of apparel with the word “Mohamed” as an emblem;

    2) Go to a few hard-line Arabic blogs and link to “Mohamed on your underwear”;

    3) After Cafe Press is forced to remove these “offensive” items from their site, kindly point out that they will be perceived as discriminatory if they don’t remove the items that Jews consider offensive.

    The fallacy, of course, is that they know the Jews will not be calling them with death threats, as the Muslims presumably will. But nobody is going to admit that!

  19. Garnel Ironheart says:

    > I’m also pretty sure that the site isn’t being used to peddle dog sweaters bearing, say, the Arabic word for Allah.

    Naturally. That would be racist and insensitive. It might also get people killed as the followers of peaceful Islam riot to show their disapproval.

    A few years ago the artist of the editorial cartoon in Britain showing Sharon biting the head off an Arab baby was interviewed and asked why he never drew similarly derogatory cartoons about Muslims. His answer was simple: The Jews won’t try to kill me because of this.

    Perhaps not, but Rav Shafran has an excellent idea at the end of his article. Not just CafePresse but any other websites that sell this material should be flooded with e-mails expressing disapproval. What’s more, the same Western newspapers that refused to print the Danish anti-Muhammed cartoons and expressed tacit approval of the Muslim response should also be contact and asked why they’re not making a similar fuss now.

  20. Bob Miller says:

    Rabbi Shafran said,
    “Well, I’m sure it does and they do. All the same, though, I’m also pretty sure that the site isn’t being used to peddle dog sweaters bearing, say, the Arabic word for Allah.”

    Since Café Press probably doesn’t respect Islam either, one might guess that thay feel safer in abusing Jewish sensibilities.

    Is it possible to determine who is actually making these items and whether they are also distributed through other websites or stores?

  21. Jewish Observer says:

    are there halachic sources for the obligation to voice the pain born of such offenses? and from a pragmatic perspective what is the desired outcome of such voicing?

  22. rejewvenator says:

    I find this offensive too, but what I are you going to do? Get Cafe Press to stop this company, and they’ll just find another fulfillment house. Will we then try and get the new company to stop also? It’s unfortunate, but we’ve got bigger problems to worry about than this.

  23. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Rabbi Avi Shafran: All the same, though, I’m also pretty sure that the site isn’t being used to peddle dog sweaters bearing, say, the Arabic word for Allah.

    Ori: I searched their catalog. I couldn’t find Allah dog sweaters, but I did find baby bibs and immodest women’s apparel. They also have a lot of merchandise that mocks Islam. Lest you think they are biased, their catalog also contains merchandise that mocks Christianity.

    I don’t think CafePress cares about religious feelings.

  24. G says:

    Just a thought. Could it be trademarked and then prevented from use through legal means?