During the holiday season, the Selichot / Penitential prayers include the following declarations:
דִּבַּֽרְנוּ דֹּֽפִי – We have slandered
זַֽדְנוּ – We have sinned with malicious intent
טָפַֽלְנוּ שֶֽׁקֶר – We have added falsehood upon falsehood
לַֽצְנוּ – we have mocked
צָרַֽרְנוּ – We have caused others to suffer
עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ בְּטֻמְאַת שְׂפָתָיִם
For the sin we committed before You through impure speech…
עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ בְּדִבּוּר פֶּה
For the sin we committed before You through the words of our mouths …
וְעַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ בְּשִׂנְאַת חִנָּם
For the sin we committed before You through free hatred…
In all, there are around a dozen or more references to how and what we communicate that are on the list of what we seek forgiveness for at this season.
Following that point, allow me to share some bipartisan dialogue that we’ve seen from those who either ran for office on either of the two major parties ballots or who actually currently hold elective office in our United States.
In no particular order:
“XXX was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, XXX. He made XXX look smart, which isn’t easy to do.”
“When you give a crazed, crying lowlife a break, and give her a job at XXX, I guess it just didn’t work out. Good work by XXX for quickly firing that dog!”
“Crazy XXX is trying to act like a tough guy. Actually, he is weak, both mentally and physically”
“It’s one man, one man, myself, that’s standing for the truth, and the news media can’t stand that — the Democrats and Republicans, the cursed two-party, Jew party, queer party system — can’t stand that!”
“The holocaust is a bunch of kosher baloney. It’s an extortion racket pure and simple to extort money out of perpetrators
“Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel”
And then there are the disgusting uses of the words “libtard” and “Nazi” to describe those with whom we disagree. And the mischaracterization of the detention camps for children who have entered the country as concentration camps of the Nazi model. They aren’t.
These words and behaviors are not on the extreme sidelines of American life. Their sources are the President of the United States and candidates from either of the two major parties for congress or other offices. They were from Illinois, from Minnesota, from Michigan and others.
Those are the tip of the iceberg. An average week on Twitter or on CNN or on Fox News will report dozens of these. This type of communication has replaced what used to be civil dialogue. Most of us can remember the Trumps and the Clintons pictured socializing together, we can see the Bushes and Obamas befriending each other, and during the Mc Cain funeral, we saw liberals and conservatives together mourning his passing. But today the voices of those who insult and those who hate is louder and more persistent. And every time we retweet, repeat or tolerate these types of expression, we become partners in sin and in moving the world a little bit farther from where it needs to be headed.
What has become missing in action in our country and in our world is a type of divergent thinking in which one side of an argument or the other doesn’t have to be stupid or just plain wrong. We have stopped recognizing gray areas and no longer recognize that both sides of an argument might be intelligent and that both are committed to the community’s good and welfare.
Two quick lessons, one from the Talmud, one from medieval debates: In the first, the schools of Shammai and Hillel argued over many points of Jewish law. Hillel is generally the lenient, while Shammai tends towards the strict application of law. Eventually God takes the wheel in a heavenly rant in which he states that elu v’elu divrei Elohim chayim, both opinions reflect God’s living words, but concludes that the law follows Hillel. In discussing why Hillel’s opinion won out, it is suggested that it was because the school of Hillel always taught the opposing opinion – that of Shammai – before it taught its own opinion (Talmud Eruvin). It was humility and openness to more than one possible truth gave Hillel and his followers the edge.
The second lesson is that of the mezuza. There was a dispute as to whether the mezuza was to be hung horizontally or vertically. The argument could have turned easily into the type of name calling and insulting that we see all over social media today. Instead it led to the compromise that is universally practiced in the Ashkenazi community. Yes the mezuza is hung in the unlikely slanted position, a compromise in which both sides were able to claim a limited victory and validation.
It would be easy to see what is happening in the United States, and even to a degree in Israel and to say “this is not Judaism’s business”. There are fringe groups in the Jewish people who do try to isolate themselves and do not bring their Jewish beliefs and core values to the greater society. But in doing so, we deprive Judaism of its greater value and deprive the world of important lessons that we have to share.
We are, according to the Torah, mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh, the kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Not the only nation or people in the world, but one which aims to be a model to other nations. We Jews cannot be passengers in the boat of the larger world that has holes letting leak in, lest we all drown together. We have to step up to be leaders who are fixing the moral leaks of our greater world.
Our politicians and world leaders aren’t going to be angels. Certainly, that standard was not expected or attained by even the greatest of Jewish leaders from Abraham to Sarah to Moses to King David to Golda Meir. But each of them stepped up to admit their wrongdoings, often helped by ancient or modern prophetic voices who demanded they aim higher.
We need to step up to be those prophetic voices today. As Jews, we need to demand greater wisdom and higher standards for the leaders of our people and for the leaders of our country and our world. It’s not just about “but s/he is good for Israel” or S/he is good for our Jewish neighborhood”. To accept limited self-interest as the main tipping point in who we promote as leaders, while leaving moral leadership off the table isn’t Judaism. When we look to leaders and find that they are totally immoral in their personal and business lives, and that we have to actually censor their words because they cannot be repeated in the company of children, then we’re lost our moral compass.
We need to use everything at our disposal: our votes, our letters to the editor, our letters to our leaders, social media, donations, whatever it takes, to bring back what the Talmud refers to as lashon naki, clean speech in public dialogue. We need to demand that personal and public integrity is more important than self-interest. As noted in the creation story (particularly that of the mystics) the world was created incomplete so that we can work to perfect it.
May we find the strength and courage to step forward to bringing civil discourse and respectful disagreement back, so that we can work together in service of the goal of improving ourselves, our communities, our country and our world in the coming year.
“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.