At the end of Parashat Emor, a disturbing incident is related. In the heat of a fight, a man curses God and is stoned to death for blasphemy (Leviticus 24:10-23). It is understandable that readers may be repulsed by this narrative, and shocked and angry to find it in the Torah. I want to examine the incident more closely, however, to understand the meaning of what occurred in terms of the world of the story.
The narrative does not give us the man's motive but presents him as socially marginal; the first fact we are given is that he is of mixed ancestry. His mother is an Israelite, while his father is an Egyptian. Significantly he is never called by name; his name has been erased by the text for his aggression against God's name. We learn only that a fight broke out in the camp between this man and an Israelite man, and during the fight, the man of mixed ancestry pronounced a curse on God using the Divine Name . He is brought to Moses and kept under guard while Moses consults God. We are even given the perpetrator's mother's name and lineage: She is Sh'lomit, daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan, the only woman named in the Book of Leviticus.
The blasphemer is sentenced to be taken outside the camp. In a chilling ritual, all who heard him lay their hands upon his head, transferring their guilt for hearing the blasphemy onto the blasphemer himself (see Hilary Lipka on Emor in The Torah: A Women's Commentary, ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss [New York: URJ Press, 2008], p. 739). Then he is stoned to death. God further instructs that anyone, Israelite or stranger, who curses pronouncing the Name YHVH shall be put to death.
A curious term is used for pronouncing the Name: nokeiv sheim YHVH. The Hebrew root nun-kuf-vet generally means "to pierce" or "to bore" a hole in something. Leviticus 24 is the only place in the Bible where this root is used to mean "to curse" (Francis Brown, S.R. Driver, Charles Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968], p. 666). In Leviticus 24:15, another phrase-with the Hebrew root kuf-lamed-lamed- is used to mean cursing God: y'kaleil elohav , meaning "to treat [God] contemptuously" or "to despise" God. Cursing God is not the same as taking the name of God in vain, which some commentators interpret to mean swearing falsely by the Divine Name (see Ibn Ezra and Ramban on Exodus 20:7) and others explain that this means using God's name lightly or inappropriately (Rashi on Exodus 20:7).
What did it mean in ancient Israel to blaspheme? The verb nun-kuf-vet suggests that cursing God is an act of violence. The name YHVH, derived from the verb "to be" may mean "The One Who Is" or "Was-Is-Will Be" or "Being" or "Becoming" (see Exodus 3:14). This is the name that is associated in Rabbinic texts with the attribute of mercy (see Sh'mot Rabbah 3:6). In ancient Israel, as in many cultures, the name partook of the reality it represented. Hence, the blasphemer who tears a hole in the Divine Name, tears a hole in the integrity of all that exists, all that the One Who Is Being called into being. Mary Douglas suggests that the blasphemer who hurled insults at God must be punished by having death hurled at him, in the form of stones. That is how she explains the repetition here of the law of "an eye for an eye" from its original location in Exodus 21:24 (Mary Douglas, Leviticus as Literature [London: Oxford University Press, 2000], pp. 206-207).
The name of the parashah, Emor, means "Say." The entire section is about the divine sayings to Moses that establish an Israelite universe of meaning: regulations about fitness for the priesthood, fitness for sacrifice, sacred times of Sabbath and festivals, regulations about the sacred place, the Mishkan. The man who utters the blasphemy, it is hinted, is an "un-sayer." His mother is the daughter of Dibri, which can mean "the speaker." To blaspheme is to abuse language, the building blocks with which God created the universe. To blaspheme is to unspeak the world of meaning that one's community inhabits, hurtling it toward chaos and unmeaning.
We are foggier than our ancestors on the concept of blasphemy but we still recognize that words are dangerous. An old adage declares, "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me," but anyone who has ever been verbally abused can attest that words can indeed hurt us and more lastingly than physical damage. Any history of propaganda or prejudice demonstrates how words can lead to bloodshed. A number of European countries have laws against hate speech. In Germany, Holocaust denial is a criminal offense. And even in the United States, free speech does not mean the freedom to say absolutely anything.
We moderns have ideals we do not want to hear blasphemed but the name of God is not one of them. We no longer understand insulting God as insulting the wellspring of being itself nor do we understand how we tear holes in the world of meaning we inhabit, although we are constantly lamenting the drain of meaning and the proliferation of meaninglessness. Nevertheless, for millennia, Jews have preserved this name for God that we do not speak, a name whose inarticulable consonants overflow with meanings waiting to be revealed. In English as opposed to Hebrew, we use the name of God so lightly that it has become almost emptied of meaning. Go on Facebook, and you confront the ubiquitous OMG (oh my god) in entry after entry, a meaningless verbal tic analogous to "like" and "uh." Would any of us want our own names used this way?
A return to executing blasphemers is obviously undesirable. Yet we live in a universe constituted by words. With lies, deceptions, threats, and curses we break and unmake the power of words to connect and sustain us. Names of God capture sustaining truths about the Divine. In a world of broken language, they are both infinitely powerful and infinitely fragile. How can we protect the name of God? I suggest two ways: first, by truly learning what God's names mean and growing within ourselves the human equivalents of divine attributes; second and paradoxically, by continuing to surround one unfathomable name with an eloquent silence.
Rachel Adler is professor of Modern Jewish Thought and Judaism and Gender at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. She was one of the first theologians to integrate feminist perspectives and concerns into the interpretation of Jewish texts and the renewal of Jewish law and ethics. She is the author of Engendering Judaism, which won the National Jewish Book Award for Jewish Thought, and many articles.