Lashon Naki: Bringing JewishValues of Speech to our Civil Discourse

“Although the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel disagreed, the House of Shammai did not, nevertheless, abstain from marrying women of the House of Hillel, nor did the House of Hillel refrain from marrying those of the House of Shammai. This is to show you that they showed love and friendship towards one another, thus putting into practice the scriptural text, “Love ye truth and peace”(Zechariah 8:16).”

– Talmud Eruvin 13b

In the same year that Prince, George Michael, and David Bowie died, civility in political discourse died in America. It happened slowly, almost imperceptibly. References like “cheating Hillary” and “lying Hillary” entered the public forum, showing complete disrespect for a long-time public servant. People expressed disdain for “libtards”.  Others began to charge that a candidate was a “Nazi”, showing both disrespect for the individual and for those who were persecuted by actual Nazis. Then there were unproven allegations that people were “racists” or “anti-Semites”, when no overt proof for the charges existed. And so, libel and slander became everyday occurrences on television, radio and social media. It got so bad that one writer declared that it was causing the “death of Facebook”.

Unlike American law, in which freedom of speech allows for some level of defamation, if a report appears to be truthful, Jewish values do not. Judaism considers lashon hara, evil speech, to be evil, even when true.

The Talmudic quotation above addresses the disagreements between the Talmudic scholars Hillel and Shammai, and for a number of generations, their followers. It tells us that disagreements regarding theology or religious practice did not drive a wedge between fellow Jews. While there were certainly occasions in Jewish history (including the Talmud) in which there was hostility between those with differing opinions, the optimal situation was always considered to be that demonstrated during the disagreements between the followers of Shammai and those of Hillel.

It is time for us all to chastise those who denigrate others, whether they be public officials, your best friend or the president. The Torah’s teaching of “do not hate your brother [or sister], but surely rebuke your neighbor, so that you do not incur sin” is as much about public discourse as it is about stopping any crime. We have an obligation to warn people away from defamatory speech, even if that doesn’t make us popular.

There are deep issues that divide us. Deeply. Individuals are passionate, and sometimes even extreme, in their opinions. The American constitution, with its guarantees of a free press, separation of powers, and checks and balances is being attacked. And the above mentioned obligation to “rebuke your neighbor” applies to critiquing a government that behaves in ways that betray the public trust. And yet, even in fulfilling that obligation, Judaism cautions us to still do so from a position of love, or at least, respect.

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Jewish tradition is so careful to seek purity in communication (lashon naki) that the rabbis suggested that, whenever the Torah referred to animals that “are not pure”, it used that expression rather than “impure” intentionally. The goal was not speak in a more positive way, rather than even directly impugning the reputation of a poor animal. Don’t our fellow humans deserve at least that level of consideration?

We are living in challenging times. Let’s elevate the conversation.

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