G-d Damn It!: Jewish, Christian, and Legal Perspectives

Several days ago, we discussed R. Chaim Ozer Grodzinski’s responsum on printing Hashem’s name in a language other than Hebrew in newspapers. Here is my halachah column for this week:

In parashas Re’eh, Hashem commands us to obliterate the names of other gods, but “You shall not do this to Hashem, your G-d.” (12:3-4) One interpretation of this verse is a prohibition against erasing Hashem’s Name (Rashi). It is even improper to write His Name in any ephemeral context, since this may result in it being discarded in a disrespectful manner (Rosh Ha’Shanah 18b, Rema YD 276:13). Based on this, R. Yonasan Eybeschütz is sharply critical of the practice of writing “ad-ieu”, meaning “to [or ‘with’] G-d”, in correspondence. He insists that this is a pernicious habit learned from the non-Jews, and it is based on the misconception that Hashem’s Name in a language other than Hebrew does not have the holiness of the Divine Name (Urim Ve’Tumim siman 27 urim #2). R. Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, however, defends the practice on the grounds that today “ad-ieu” has lost its original meaning and is used merely in the sense of a parting blessing (Achiezer end of III:32).

A practice that R. Chaim Ozer does recommend against on the grounds that it may cause the Divine Name to be discarded disrespectfully is the writing of it in newspapers, even in a language other than Hebrew. Ideally, a description of Hashem such as “the Eternal Creator” should be used instead, or the letters of the Name should be separated by a dash (as done throughout this article). If this is difficult, however, the Name may be written outright, at least in a newspaper containing words of Torah and Biblical verses in Hebrew, which will anyway not be treated disrespectfully. It is additionally appropriate to publicize in the newspaper itself that the paper should not be treated disrespectfully due to the Biblical verses and words of Torah, and if this is done, there is basis to permit the writing of the Divine Name in a language other than Hebrew.

R. Eybeschütz’s comments:

ובלאו הכי בעונותינו הרבים אינם נזהרים בכינוי, וחושבים מה שכותב או מדבר בלשון גוים אינו אלא תואר השם, וטועים הם וכותבים בכל החילופי כתב “אדי-ע” והוא לשון צרפית כינוי ופירושו “עם ד’”, והוא מוטל באשפה. וכבר קבעו חז”ל [ראש השנה יח:] יום טוב שלא יהיה נזכר שם שמים בשטרות, כי למחר פורע זה חובו והשם מוטל באשפה, וכעת בעונותינו הרבים למדו ממעשה גוים וחוזר הדבר לקלקולו ביותר. וזהו המרי הגורם אשר בעונותינו הרבים וידל ישראל למאד במקום ששם שמים מצוים ובפרט בבזיון ועל חנם, וצריך התחכמות ושקידות תוכחת חכמי הדור לבטל זה מהמוני עם:1

These comments follow his condemnation of another popular practice as a violation of a Biblical prohibition: the uttering of imprecations (in German or Yiddish) such as “May G-d punish him!” or “May G-d smite him!”

ובעוונותינו הרבים רוב המוני עם אינם נזהרים, ואומרים בלשון אשכנז גאט זאל איהם שטראפין, גאט זאל איהם שלאגין, ועוברים לאו של תורה.

Curiously, in Christian culture (at least in the United States), there is a common, rather incoherent, assumption that the English equivalent of these imprecations is somehow blasphemous, and a violation of the commandment against taking G-d’s Name in vain, although it is unclear why this should be so, and at least some serious Catholics understand the sin involved in the manner of R. Eybeschütz, as stemming primarily from the maledictive character of the utterance rather than from the mere taking of G-d’s Name in vain:

Q: Is using inappropriate language sinful?

A: A: Yes. Using inappropriate language is sinful. However, let’s look at each segment of the all encompassing term of “inappropriate language”. These segments include using G-d’s name in vain, cursing, blaspheming, and profanity.

The second Commandment specifically forbids using G-d’s name in vain: “Thou shalt not take the name of the L-rd thy G-d in vain” (Ex 20:7; Dt 5:11). Therefore, one of the three criteria for a mortal sin is clearly in place – it is a serious sin. If the other two conditions are in place – deliberately doing the action and knowledge that it is wrong – then taking G-d’s name in vain is a mortal sin, which deprives the soul of sanctifying grace. Saying “O my [G-d’s name]” without reason and in a vain manner is using G-d’s name in vain. And, if a person dies in mortal sin, he/she will indeed go to Hell. …

Cursing is likewise a mortal sin. Cursing is defined as calling down evil from G-d usually by invoking G-d’s holy name. Using such horrible expressions, the person calls on G-d to send a soul to Hell and/or inflict punishment on a person. How can we actually do such a horrendous thing – ask G-d to send a soul to Hell? Cursing is quite clearly also a mortal sin. …

Here’s NPR’s Ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen:

David Carr of Zionsville, IN wondered why NPR bleeped out two words but not “g-ddamn,” which he found offensive.

“Whatever it bleeped out could not possibly be as bad as what it left unbleeped,” wrote Carr. “The uncensored language is a violation of the 10 Commandments and HIGHLY offensive to many Christians. I am astonished at the insensitivity of NPR. If I want to listen to Howard Stern, I know how to turn the dial.”

It was easy for NPR editors to bleep out the other two well-known swear words that never make it on the air. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) guidelines make it crystal clear. The guidelines define profanity as “language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance.”

Using “g-d damn it,” for example, is not “legally profane” according to the FCC.

But taking the L-rd’s name in vain — although not all see it that way — is more problematic for all mainstream media.

“G-d Damn is more complicated, especially because of the juxtaposition here to the other bleeped words,” said Chris Turpin, ATC’s executive producer. “Usually we don’t bleep G-d Damn —there is no legal reason to do so — although we realize there are some in the audience who find this exceedingly offensive.” …

It turns out that NPR rarely airs those words g-d and damn together. A search showed 52 references in transcripts of the phrase “g-d damn” all the way back to 1990. When there’s no space between the two words (as in goddamn), there were 163 references since 1990.

But it did make me wonder how other news organizations handle these words.

When I asked CBS’ standards & practices editor, I got back a succinct email: “No gd on cbs,” wrote Linda Mason.

“As a general rule, we would not permit ‘GD’ to be used on our air,” wrote NBC’s David McCormick, who is the network’s standards & practices editor. “We would bleep one or the other….usually the first word.”

The Washington Post used the words “g-ddam” only twice in recent years. Post guidelines urge great caution in dealing with words or material that is profane or obscene, urging that it not be published except in cases where it’s essential (such as quoting from a court case on obscenity).

The New York Times has used the words 9 times in the past year — five were a direct quote from Obama’s former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s famous speech. …

That said, why needlessly offend listeners? Bleeping out “g-ddamn” would have been so easy and lost nothing.

Incidentally, Jensen’s assertion that:

Using “g-d damn it,” for example, is not “legally profane” according to the FCC.

is a highly inaccurate summary of what the FCC (and the court opinions it cites) actually say, which is that such language when uttered in anger, i.e., as a mere expression of vehement emotion, similar to

a rude request or order to go to hell, with no necessity to obey, no power to enforce obedience, and no intimation that the irresistible Power had condemned, or was invoked to condemn, them to go to hell

is not considered legally profane – but if meant seriously and literally, as an “imprecation of divine vengeance” or an “[implication of] divine condemnation”, it may very well be profane.

In Duncan v. United States, 48 F.2d 128 (9th Cir. 1931), the court affirmed a conviction for the utterance of profanity over the radio, concluding that:

[T]he defendant having referred to an individual as “damned,” having used the expression “By G-d” irreverently, and having announced his intention to call down the curse of G-d upon certain individuals, was properly convicted of using profane language within the meaning of that term as used in the act of Congress prohibiting the use of profane language in radio broadcasting.

More of the decision (including much colorful context and precedent):

The appellant was accused in that count of knowingly, unlawfully, willfully, and feloniously uttering obscene, indecent, and profane language by means of radio communication and by interstate radio transmission from his radio broadcasting station known as KVEP situated in Portland, within the state and district of Oregon. …

[T]he district attorney asserts in the argument that the taking of the name of the Diety in vain is profane within the meaning of the law. …

We will now consider whether or not the language is profane. …

In that connection we will examine the following statements: “You’re the infernal gang that put in and turned the dairy industry over to that damn scoundrel. * * *” (We omit the name.) “You’re a fine example, by G-d, for the children of this school district.” “He will do anything, there’s nothing in G-d A-lmighty’s world that * * * wouldn’t do.” And, “Wait until I get through some of the trouble you’re getting an ex-convict to make for me and I’ll put on the mantle of the L-rd and call down the curse of G-d on you, that’s what I’ll do. You infamous harlot, you arch criminal, the people should tar and feather you and yours,” etc.

The question of what constitutes profane language has been before the courts for centuries. The subject is usually dealt with as a branch of the common-law offense of blasphemy, but in the United States particularly it has been a frequent subject of legislation. In the Century Dictionary, “profane” is defined as follows: “Irreverent toward G-d or holy things; speaking or spoken, acting or acted, in manifest or implied contempt of sacred things; blasphemous: as, profane language; profane swearing.” In Gaines v. State, 7 Lea (75 Tenn.) 410, 40 Am. Rep. 64, decided in 1881, the defendant was charged with uttering a profane oath in a public place, etc. It was said: “Any words importing an imprecation of divine vengeance or implying divine condemnation, so used as to constitute a public nuisance, would suffice. Isom v. State, September Term, 1880; Holcomb v. Cornish, 8 Conn. 375.”

In Sanford v. State, 91 Miss. 158, 44 So. 801, in dealing with the following language, “Go to hell, you low down devils,” the court said: “The language does not violate the statute, since, upon strict construction, which is required of the courts, it lacks any `imprecation of divine vengeance’ and does not `imply divine condemnation.’ State v. Wiley, 76 Miss. 282, 24 So. 194, 71 Am. St. Rep. 531. There was simply a rude request or order to go to hell, with no necessity to obey, no power to enforce obedience, and no intimation that the irresistible Power had condemned, or was invoked to condemn, them to go to hell.”

In a more recent case, City of Georgetown v. Scurry, 90 S. C. 346, 73 S.E. 353, 354, the court said: “It is true that profane language is language irreverent toward G-d or holy things.” …

In Holcomb v. Cornish, 8 Conn. 375, decided by the Supreme Court of Connecticut in 1831, defendant was found guilty of the use of profanity in referring to another as a “damned old rascal,” and also using the name of the Deity in that connection. The court, speaking through Williams, Justice, in answering the contention that the language used did not constitute profane cursing and swearing, said: “Some of these words, I have no doubt, are clearly within the statute. They are imprecations of future divine vengeance upon the magistrate. Others may be of more doubtful import. It will hardly be denied that they are profane. * * *”

The Supreme Court of Mississippi in Orf v. State, decided in June, 1927, 147 Miss. 160, 113 So. 202, said: “We think the language `Well, the damn thing is done broke up’ (referring to the Sunday school being held in the church), implied Divine condemnation, and was `so used as to constitute a nuisance.'”

In reaching that conclusion the court quoted the definition of “damn” given in Webster’s Dictionary, as follows: “To invoke condemnation; to curse; to swear; to invoke condemnation upon; to condemn to eternal punishment in a future world; to consign to perdition.” …

Under these decisions, the indictment having alleged that the language is profane, the defendant having referred to an individual as “damned,” having used the expression “By G-d” irreverently, and having announced his intention to call down the curse of G-d upon certain individuals, was properly convicted of using profane language within the meaning of that term as used in the act of Congress prohibiting the use of profane language in radio broadcasting. …

In Dominic Peter Gagliardo, Appellant, v. United States of America, Appellee, 366 F.2d 720 (9th Cir. 1966), the court, citing Duncan, wrote:

Appellant also contends that his motion of acquittal should have been granted because the language alleged to have been used was not “obscene, indecent, or profane.” The government concedes, and we agree, that the language alleged to have been used can in no way be considered “obscene” because the language as a whole can not be viewed as appealing to the prurient or calculated to arouse the animal passions, but rather was made during a moment of anger. Roth v. United States, supra; A Book Named “John Cleland’s Memoirs of A Woman of Pleasure” v. Attorney General of Com. of Massachusetts, supra; Duncan v. United States, 48 F.2d 128 (9th Cir. 1931).

Although the district court’s instruction defining “profane” is not criticized by appellant, the government does not contend that the words used were “profane.” Since the only words attributed to appellant which could even remotely be considered as being “profane” were “G-d damn it,” which were also uttered in anger, there is no basis for holding that the language was “profane” within the meaning of the statute. See Duncan v. United States, supra.

Finally, the FCC, citing Gagliardo among other cases, asserted:

First, Sharp argues that licensee violated the statute by broadcasting the portion of “The West Wing” program wherein character President Bartlet “scream[ed] at G-d,” and made irreverent references toward the deity “[y]ou’re a sonofabitch, you know that?,” and “have I displeased you, you feckless thug?” Sharp cites FCC v. Pacifica, 438 U.S. 726 (1978) and Schenck v. U.S., 249 U.S. 47, 52 (1919) as precedents that support a finding that the language at issue is legally profane.

However, the cases Sharp relies on are inapposite. The courts have held that material, such as the phrase “g-d damn it” uttered in anger, while offensive to some, is not legally profane for purposes of section 1464. Gagliardo v. United States, 366 F.2d 720, 725 (9th Cir. 1966) (CB radio transmission); see also Warren B. Appleton, 28 FCC 2d 36 (1971) (broadcast of “damn” is not profane). The United States Supreme Court has also struck down a state statute banning “sacrilegious” movies as violative of the First and Fourteenth amendments. Burstyn v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495 (1952). In so ruling the court stated: “[i]t is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine. …” Id. at 505. Because we believe the language at issue here falls within the scope of Gagliardo and Burstyn, we do not believe it was actionably profane.

Note: Throughout this post, I have altered the names of G-d by the insertion of dashes, as per R. Chaim Ozer’s recommendation.

  1. אורים ותומים, סימן כ”ז אורים ס”ק ב’ []

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