“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.
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.
A while back, I joined a few online groups committed to keeping things civil on social media and the internet. Great idea. Aligned with my Jewish values that are supposed to keep us (inclusive us: Jews, as well as the world) away from lashon hara and rechilut (some disagreement about how the terms differ, but generally, lashon hara is any chatter, while the rechilut brand of gossip is one that typically pits people against one another). To my disappointment, I heard little of nothing from any of these groups. I can’t tell whether the groups dissolved or merely died of frustration, much like the salmon trying to swim upstream.
In case there was any question about the ability of people to use the internet to spread malicious gossip and slander, this year’s election campaign removed all doubt. Oh, and lest we think that we might have a classy process, being classy went down with the now-famous discussion about the size of body parts in the Republican debates.
But back to the social networks. Real posts from Facebook friends and friends of friends, as well as from those I follow on Twitter have included the following goodies:
“Hillary Clinton is an anti-Semite”
“Hillary Clinton is anti-Israel”
“Obama hates Israel”
“Trump is like Hitler”
“Trump is a Nazi”
“Sanders is a self-hating Jew”
and so on.
It is as if the teaching of the Mishna, warning those who are wise to “be careful with your words” was missing from the texts of some of my Jewish friends. Or perhaps they simply decided that it was too much work to be “wise” and that this quote no longer applied to them.
Along the way from the civility of the early days of the campaign to this point, my friends have lost track of what the campaign was all about: an opportunity to talk about the real issues that we face as a nation and as a world; a comparison of approaches for the best ways to respond to those challenges; and a healthy debate about what each candidate offers.
Also lost in the shuffle: respect for elected officials. For people to pray for the welfare of the president on Saturday and Sunday, and then trash talk him the rest of the week, is religious hypocrisy.
Oh, as to the previously mentioned posts: None of the major presidential candidates has shown any evidence — in the past or present — of anti-Semitic feelings. You want to know what presidential anti-Semitism sounds like? Take a listen to some of the Nixon tapes. And by the way, his administration saved Israel’s hide during the Yom Kippur War. Do what you want with that.
No, nobody has shown evidence of being anti-Israel. There is a debate, in the United States as well as in Israel, what being pro-Israel will look like as we go into the future. It might not mean that Americans (or Jews) have to support every prime minister’s policies. It might mean that those who ask for a shortcut to the two state solution to which Israel has committed itself have to be respected as part of the dialogue alongside those who believe that the Palestinians cannot, in the current situation, be trusted partners in peace. This isn’t the first time that friends of Israel have had to open the doors to a new way of relating to Israel. It was just as earthshaking when Israel, founded and led by those with a utopian, Socialist bent, voted in the 1970’s to move to a more conservative set of governments. And it took quite some time for Israel’s friends to move towards support for a new set of government platforms.
Oh, and Trump isn’t Hitler. Scary? Sure. Inexperienced in public service? Totally. Verbally supporting violence? Yup. But as scary as he is, nothing he has said approaches Mein Kampf level. And by the time Hitler was entering political life in a serious way, that book had already laid out a future course.
Is the Bern a self-hating Jew? I have no idea. More likely than not, he is typical of a significant, if not majority of the American Jewish population: knows he has Jewish roots, believes in “Jewish values” (which are, pretty often, humanitarian values that have a reflect the “in the image of God” idea), is not involved in synagogue or Jewish philanthropic life, and feels some vague connection to Israel.
So, let’s move along. Each of the candidates (even Vermin Supreme) is created in God’s image and they, along with our president, deserve the respect due to another human. Each of the major (and many of the minor) candidates have a vision in mind. We can disagree with that vision and with the paths that would get us there. But insults and slander will not lead to results that will be helpful for our country or our world.
A simple proposal: In any other forum, some of the things being said about the candidates would result in a person being sued for slander. Let’s pretend that the rules are no different for presidential campaigns. Stand up for what you believe in. Oppose what you feel is detrimental. And let’s do so with respect and with class, not with slander. We’re created in God’s image. Let’s start acting like it.