Should Britain have a law against blasphemy?

An Orthodox and a Progressive rabbi tackle questions of Jewish life


Protest on behalf of Denis Lemon, the Gay News editor whose 1977 conviction for blasphemy caused outrage. The law was abolished in 2008 (Photo: Alamy)

Question: If one of the Noahide laws is to prohibit blasphemy, should we be campaigning to reintroduce a law against it in the UK?

An Orthodox view:

Recently, Network Rail removed a hadith (Islamic epithet) from the departure board at London King’s Cross after the message sparked a backlash. The rail operator faced criticism for displaying a “hadith of the day” to celebrate Ramadan as part of a diversity initiative which read “All the sons of Adam are sinners but the best of the sinners are those who repent often."

Regardless of whether such action was appropriate or not, it just highlights how any expression of religion in the public arena is a delicate issue that has the potential to inspire and offend in equal measure.

In relation to the Noahide laws, the Gemara derives from a verse in the Torah that the descendants of Noah were instructed to observe seven mitzvot including not to murder or steal, not to worship false gods and the prohibition of blasphemy – not to curse God’s name.

In addition to the obvious interpersonal benefits of them, Maimonides explains that any human being who faithfully observes these laws also earns a place in heaven. He also teaches that: "Moses was commanded from the mouth of God to convince all the inhabitants of the world to observe the commandments given to the Children of Noah”.

Although these laws apply for all times, places and people, it is clear from the context in which this ruling is given that it was only enforceable in the religious courts that existed in the times of the Temple. While we could certainly make an argument for greater respect for God in the modern world, to suggest that we should campaign for legislation to be introduced that would prohibit blasphemy risks blurring the lines between state and religion. This could also be viewed as attempting to impose religious adherence on those who choose a secular life.

At the same time, even if we were to agree that it would make sense to have a universal set of regulations for humanity to live together in harmony, given the diversity of opinion, we might struggle to reach a consensus as to what they should be. We could legitimately question whether blasphemy would make it on to everybody’s top seven list.

We should also remember that laws made and imposed by humans may change according to circumstance but laws made by the Creator of all souls over all of time remain the same for all people at all times. Ultimately, how each person relates to G-d is an individual decision, whether they choose to have a relationship with Him and how close or distant it might be, will be different for everyone.

Rather than seeking to enforce a universal standard in this area, we should instead direct our energies to fostering peace and harmony, tolerance and co-existence as this is certain to bring greater benefits to humanity and will invoke far more Divine satisfaction than any law could possibly achieve.

Alex Chapper is senior rabbi of Borehamwood and Elstree (United) Synagogue

A Progressive view:

Most of us do not like anyone blaspheming aspects of Judaism, something which we find very hurtful, while we shield the original name of God (Yud-Hay-Vav-Hay) with substitute names. Many even substitute other names (eg Hashem) to protect God’s name from misuse.

However, if we demand a law preventing blasphemy against our faith, that has to apply to other people’s beliefs too. If we want protection, they must also have it.

But that would mean a massive limit on freedom of speech. Surely it is right to call out belief systems that are daft, especially if they harm people. Do we not want to condemn the warped faith of Isis that leads to such murderous acts, or which the Taliban use to oppress women?

What about the beliefs of cults that cause the suicide of members, as in Jonestown, Guyana or Waco, Texas? Are not they reprehensible? Even mainstream faiths have elements that are totally bonkers. But sensible criticism can be taken as appalling insensitivity by adherents. One person’s truth is another person’s blasphemy.

In addition, free speech is a weapon for reform, enabling us to expose religious hypocrisy or abuse of religious power. It certainly has biblical precedent: think of the Hebrew prophets attacking the corruption of the religious hierarchy (Isaiah 1.11-15).

Some went in for religious satire too: as when Elijah tells the followers of Ba’al that the reason Ba’al is not answering their prayers is that maybe he’s fallen asleep...or gone to the toilet…and they should shout louder to get his attention (1 Kings 18.27). Was he not insulting the belief system they held precious?Meanwhile Isaiah mocks those who cut down a log of wood, use half for firewood and the other half to carve a god to be worshipped (44.14). We may agree with him, but remember that there are many traditions we hold dear that seem either ridiculous or even harmful to others.

There is also another angle: what does it say about a faith if it feels it cannot stand up to satire or criticism — is its God of the universe so fragile that he needs protection from newspaper cartoons or a harangue on YouTube?

There is no reason for us or others to blaspheme someone else’s beliefs gratuitously, but we should all have the right to lambast it when necessary, and not be prevented from doing so.

Jonathan Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue

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