During our religious services, every time we return the Torah scroll to the Ark, we sing words from the book of Proverbs, “Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace” (3:17). In light of the concluding scene of this week’s parasha, we are left to wonder regarding the extent of this pleasantness and peacefulness.
Parashat Emor relates the story of an unnamed son of an Israelite woman who blasphemes the name of God. We are given little details regarding this man’s age or name; all that we know is that he is from the tribe of Dan. Judgment is pronounced and the blasphemer is to be brought outside the camp where the community is obligated to stone him to death (Leviticus 24:10-16).
Sadly, there is no pleasantness and peacefulness to be found here – not for the person who is to be executed, and not for the community who must enforce this horrific punishment. For a punishment of this magnitude to be carried out, the crime committed was truly one of immense proportions.Today, countries throughout the world respond differently to the issue of blasphemy. Many countries, Israel included, have provisions in their penal code, specifying imprisonment for acts that revile another person’s religion, and for the issuing of publications and spoken words that offend another person’s religious faith. Other countries that govern according to sharia continue to regard blasphemy as a severe crime, punishable by death.
According to the Wikipedia article on Blasphemy laws in US, Pennsylvania has one of those in the books. The last U.S. Conviction for blasphemy—at least that of any significance—was of atheist activist Charles Lee Smith in 1928. The case then dragged on for several years until it was finally dismissed.  we could not imagine putting anyone to death for openly speaking their mind, expressing their opinion, or even claiming that God doesn’t exist. Debate, disagreement, and discourse, within reason, are part of our everyday culture. If we take offense at what someone says, we may either confront him/her and request an explanation, or simply walk away.
But even open dialogue has its limits. For example, this week I came across a website of a Japanese restaurant in Philly . The disclaimer the read as follows:
“We love comments that articulate a different point of view, a witty insight, some humour or a shared experience. Our moderators will reject comments that personally attack the author or other commentators. We also wont publish comments that are aggressive, sexist, racist or in any other way discriminatory or derogatory. We hope these guidelines make the process of commenting on stories and reading the comments left by other users as enjoyable as possible.”
Speaking about religion, speaking about another person’s conception of God involves great sensitivity and thoughtfulness. Though Torah’s proscriptions seem neither palatable to us nor directly applicable to today’s American culture, we can still benefit from their warning to us – to watch our words mindfully, to assess the potential impact of our words before speaking, because once spoken, we cannot take our words back. Herein lies the timeless message of Parashat Emor, the word “Emor” meaning, “Say.” We are instructed to be mindful not only of what we say, but of how we say it. May all our words and our ways, be ones of pleasantness and ultimately of peace.