“Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”
So it is written in Proverbs, 18:21. And it’s true. Speech has the power to create and to destroy, to heal and to hurt, to incite, to convince, to deceive, to ruin a reputation, to inspire and to shape the future. With words we bless and with words we curse, with words we condemn and defend. Words can outlive generations of human lifetimes. Language is a power both human and Divine. What we say matters.
This past Sunday evening as we gathered to find comfort and strength in the wake of the Pittsburgh tragedy, words helped us to heal. We turned to words from our most ancient sources. Ner Adonai Nishmat Adam, God’s lamp is the human soul, Proverbs 20:27 greeted us in the lobby as those entering lit candles. We passed around a stone carved with the word, “ometz,” courage in Hebrew, that I brought home from Jerusalem a couple of years ago. People spoke and heard spontaneous words from the heart. The words of Kol Ha’Olam Kulo, Eli Eli and Esa Einai have never resonated more deeply.
Words can heal, but words can also hurt.
For this reason, both American and Jewish traditions have extensive laws and norms about language – a topic I have been thinking about with a sense of urgency in the past two years.
The First Amendment States:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Jews have a unique relationship to the first amendment in this moment. On the one hand, the first amendment protects our freedom of religion. It is the foundation upon which American Jewry has built a relatively safe and prosperous life for centuries in this place. Laws stemming from the first amendment are among those violated by the Pittsburgh shooter.
On the other hand, all too often in recent years, the first amendment has been used as a shield for hate speech and incitement. Activists who claim to be defending the first amendment, have used its protection to create enclaves for false conspiracy theories, and platforms to spread fear and xenophobia. The President has made incitement to violence a cornerstone of his rallies and his rhetoric – calling for the crowd to beat up outliers and naming his political critics “enemies of the people.”
The freedom of speech is a right designed to protect journalists who expose unflattering truths about those in power. It is designed to nurture an educated citizenry who can think critically with access to multiple sources of information. The first amendment was never meant to enable leaders to lie with impunity. It was never meant to foster social and digital spaces where bigots and fanatics can validate one another and spread false conspiracy theories that lead to murder. The first amendment was never intended to provide a path for our leaders to call others to violence and then deny responsibility.
As a Jew, I would never want to weaken the first amendment. Its protection is essential to my religious freedom. But nor do I accept that the first amendment is itself a guide to ethical speech. Those who use the first amendment as a shield for hate claim a false moral high ground. In America’s rights-based system, the first amendment protects sacred freedoms, but it also protects morally repugnant and dangerous language. In the absence of some other moral or ethical code, we are left with a system that allows the abuse of language in the name of protecting language. That’s where I turn to the Jewish teachings on the ethics of speech.
Judaism has always recognized the profound power of language. For that reason, the first chapter of Genesis imagines God creating the entire cosmos with nothing but words. In practical terms, Jewish tradition has an enormous set of guidelines for the proper use of speech. Through careful analysis and case study over centuries, our ancestors have considered many values with which to guide our speech – for example, Truth and Kindness. They have thought about what to do when these values come in to tension. The best known work on Jewish speech ethics, the Chofetz Chayim, written by Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, synthesizes it all and concludes that the ultimate test for ethical speech is the potential for harm. For speech (or silence) to be ethical, it should ideally be truthful and kind, but most of all, it must not cause harm.
As we head into the final few days before a fateful election, I pray that our leaders and pundits can learn from the painful week that has passed and finally stop the inflammatory rhetoric and the spread of false conspiracy theories which have caused immeasurable harm. For those who are not capable or willing, I pray that their supporters will awaken and stop their support. But most of all, I pray that the good people who have been opting out of our Democracy will see that we need them to stand up and speak in a very important way right now — through the ballot box. Just as words can do harm, so can silence. Right now, voting is the most important way we can use language to transform our world for the better. May our words be words of peace bringing hope and healing to a world in need. Ken Yehi Ratzon – May it be so.