“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…”
In 1985, I was invited to a meeting between local rabbis and African-American ministers and pastors at the home of Stanley Sheinbaum, a great, progressive activist who always had his finger on the pulse of what needed society’s attention. Looking back at the list of prominent figures from both the Black and Jewish communities who attended that gathering, it’s kind of a miracle that a young rabbi, barely five years into his career, made the roll call. I felt honored and humbled to have had that experience and still feel so today.
Mr. Sheinbaum brought us all together to talk about the impending appearance by Minister Louis Farrakhan in Los Angeles. He was to speak at the Los Angeles Forum before an estimated 18,000 people. As it still is with Beth Shir Shalom and Macedonia Baptist Church today, in wake of the Civil Rights Movement of the 50’s and 60’s, many Jewish congregations were, by the mid-1980s, long-partnered together with African-American churches of various denomination. Many pairs of those Jewish and Black clergy were in the room that day. The rabbis came with one basic question: “Why hadn’t their African-American colleagues said anything to denounce, if not Minister Farrakhan entirely, at least some of his more controversial, derogatory, hurtful and provocative statements, especially about Jews and Judaism? In particular, why hadn’t the pastors discouraged their congregants from attending Minister Farrakhan’s presentation?”
What we received in response was certainly not what I, and I don’t believe most of my rabbinic colleagues, expected. The pastors and ministers said that the Black voice had been stifled since the beginnings of slavery in the pre-colonies and that now was vital to hear every Black opinion and perspective, both to compensate for all that suppression as well as to guarantee the freedom of Black expression in the future. They maintained that no matter how controversial, inflammatory, provocative, or even hateful, everyone must be heard.
The Jewish response was rooted in history as well. We agreed that the freedom of speech is a precious American democratic value that needs to be protected. We acknowledged that we, Jews, have certainly benefited from it. We also acknowledged the bitter truth that the African-American perspective, a unique expression because of their legacy of being the only people in our complex and variegated American mix who did not come here of their own free will, had been silenced and/or unheard far too long. Yet, we told them, we, as a Jewish people have personal experience with, to quote Dr. Martin Luther King, “lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification” and the consequences of those words being heard by thousands of people. We rabbis were appropriately wary of Rev. Farrakhan and his message. He was on record accusing the Jewish people on a regular basis of “rewriting the Bible to depict themselves as God’s chosen people” (New York Times, 6/29/1984) and an infamous sermon in which he said, “that nation called Israel never has had any peace …and she will never have any peace because there can be no peace structured on injustice, thievery, lying and deceit and using the name of God to shield your gutter religion under His holy and righteous name”. More than messages like that themselves, history has demonstrated to the Jewish people that it is the recipients of that message and the technology enabling its promulgation that are the real concern. Jews know that the medium is at least as much the message as the message is itself.
Perhaps that is why, from ancient times, Judaism not only identified Lashon haRah, the evil tongue, as a major transgression but has also compiled a compendium of laws and philosophical reflections on evil speech.
In his book on Lashon haRah, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, known popularly as the Chofetz Chaim, an influential rabbi of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, notes that, in rabbinic tradition, there are 248 organs and 356 tendons in the human body, each one being a physical “cloak” for the spiritual organ or tendon that lies within and that each of these corresponds to one of the 248 positive mitzvot and the 365 negative mitzvot, that comprise the 613 commandments. The Chofetz Chayim adds to this rabbinic-given that when a commandment is trespassed, it disables the corresponding organ or tendon from functioning in the world-to-come. In relationship to Lashon haRah, evil, slanderous speech, it means that a person is condemned to being a deaf-mute for eternity, since s/he both heard and relayed Lashon haRah.
Of, course, we are all susceptible to engaging in Lashon haRah. That susceptibility in Jewish tradition even has a name! It’s called the Yetzer haRah, the inclination to do evil. The Yetzer haRah, is counterbalanced by the Yetzer haTov, the inclination to do good. The evil inclination is not a force that acts independently from the Energy-of-All-Things. It is part of that energy, a constant presence in our lives. As the Chofetz Chayim says, “The general rule is that a man or woman will spend his/her entire life struggling against [the] Evil Inclination…That rule is the intent of Our Sages’ teaching that ‘a person should constantly urge [the] Yetzer haTov to contest [the] Yetzer haRah.’” Even more, the Chofetz Chayim hears a verse in Ecclesiastes (10:4) alluding to the struggle between the Good and Evil inclinations when it says, “If a ruler becomes incensed against you, do not leave your place (stand your ground) because patience appeases great offenses.”
Sometimes it is so hard to “not leave our place” to “stand our ground” when the provocations are constant and searing. Perhaps the most difficult situation in which to hold our ground against the Yetzer haRah and Lashon haRah is when group-speak takes over and those around us are disparaging others. It is not always the case that we are caught up in the energy of the group but rather that we feel we would risk too much by speaking up and countering negativity, insults, generalizations, stereotyping and bigotry. So we stay silent. And when we do, we don’t need to wait for any World-Yet-to-Come to be deaf and mute. We, in this world, are the cause of our own disabilities.
I worry about this country and this world in which people feel such abandon and recklessness with what they say, in public, in private, in emails, on reality TV and more. I once heard that language is the true human art-form. Every time the tone of our national discourse allows a hostile `and violent manner of speech, including simplistic categorization by gender, ethnic group, age, country of origin, sexual reality and brutalization by insults, threats and generalizations, it is as though great paintings, sculpture and music have been destroyed.
Rev. Louis Farrakhan may not have the soapbox he once did, but others do. As part of their manifesto, Black Lives Matter has the following statement, “The U.S. justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.” Words matter. Jews don’t use the word “genocide” lightly and whereas I’m one of the first to say that Israel’s policies toward Palestinians, be they Israeli citizens or living in under Israeli Occupation, is often cruel, passively and actively violent and dismissive of Palestinian’s undeniable grievances, national aspirations and their basic human rights, nothing in those policies is tantamount to “genocide”. Words matter. Especially in light of recent events, and certainly related to the long history of ignoring the limitations on African-American social, economic and educational mobility, opportunity and access – Black Lives really matter. Palestinian lives really matter but not at the expense of Jewish lives, Israeli lives. This is the Farrakhan approach all over again. Palestinian and Black Lives Matter only if All Lives Matter. Otherwise, this tired old world stays the same. Why is reverse racism or deflective racism any different than any racism? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:
“Racism is worse than idolatry…Few of us realize that racism is humanity’s gravest threat to humanity, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.”
George Orwell prophesied: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Corruption of thought may well be the most disastrous consequence of the degradation of the way in which we allow people to speak, from the top down and from the bottom up. At what point are we going to “stand our ground” against the Evil Inclination and the Evil Tongue? At what point will we realize that we are all responsible when any one of us, whether we agree or disagree with what that person says or not, speaks in a manner that belittles or demeans others? If we say and/or do nothing to countermand either what that person said or the way in which she or he said it, it is as if we ourselves let loose the damaging words and the consequences thereof. As Maya Angelou warns:
“Words are things. You must be careful, careful about calling people out of their names, using racial pejoratives and sexual pejoratives and all that ignorance. Don’t do that. Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally into you.”
The Chofetz Chayim, who made the battle against the Evil Tongue so much of his work, received his nom de plume aptly. Psalm 134 asks: Mi ha-ish hechafetz chayyim, ohev yomim lirot tov? “Who is the Chofetz Chayim, the one that has a passion for Life, loving every day, seeing the Good?” The Psalmist answers: “The one who guards his/her tongue from speaking evil and her/his lips from speaking deceit. Who turns away from malicious action and does good. Who (not merely) seeks peace but pursues it.” That shouldn’t only be a wise rabbi from over a century ago, it should be us, as individuals and a nation and as a world culture, from Presidential candidates to those who vote for them – from now through November 8th and beyond.