יא  וַיִּקֹּב בֶּן-הָאִשָּׁה הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִית אֶת-הַשֵּׁם, וַיְקַלֵּל, וַיָּבִיאוּ אֹתוֹ, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וְשֵׁם אִמּוֹ שְׁלֹמִית בַּת-דִּבְרִי, לְמַטֵּה-דָן

And the son of the Israelite woman blasphemed the Name, and cursed; and they brought him before Moses. And his mother’s name was Shlomit, the daughter of Divri, from the tribe of Dan.
—Leviticus 24:11

After a long list of commandments, the very end of Parashat Emor brings us a startling narrative. In a few verses, we are introduced to a member of the community who blasphemes God’s Name, and is stoned for this transgression. The scene is startling not only in its violence, but in its very public nature. Moses informs the people that everyone who overheard this blasphemer’s words should draw close to him, placing their hands on his head prior to his execution. His stoning, similarly, is a national act, committed by the entire kahal. Interestingly, we are not privy to the words of the blaspheming man—perhaps the text does not wish us to also be complicit as readers in his immoral act.

In Tractate Yoma (86a), the rabbis of the Talmud puzzle over this moment, asking themselves: what sort of circumstances could result in the desecration of the Divine Name? The sages imagine these events not as words of blasphemy, but as actions that have the same net effect on the Divine, defiling God’s Name and honor. One rabbi offers the situation of a customer who does not pay for goods. Another imagines the situation of a scholar who is seen walking without wearing tefillin or keeping his mind focused on Torah, while his fellow suggests that anyone whose behavior causes their friends embarrassment desecrates God’s Name. 

But it is the sage Abaye who has the last word in the discussion. Even a scholar who devotes their life to study, he warns, but conducts their business dishonestly and speaks harshly to others, ultimately desecrates the Name of God. Engagement with sacred text is not meant as an avenue to honor, but instead a transformative practice that should change one’s treatment of others.  

It is through Abaye’s offering that we can perhaps understand Moses’ strange directive in our parashah. Both the blasphemer’s audience and the poorly treated community members of Abaye’s example are called into a broken relationship with the individual who desecrates the Name of God. The ways in which we interact with Divinity, our texts teach us, say something profound about the ways in which we treat one another—just as our relationships shift how we approach the Divine. 

Written By Margo Hughes-Robinson

Margo Hughes-Robinson is a fifth-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary.