July 19, 2024
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A Rabbinic View on Free Speech and the National Prevailing Cultural Sentiment

Typically, we find ourselves in our own modified 24-hour news cycle. Events in the world transpire, which in turn elate, horrify or concern us, and after a few days of hand wringing or celebrating we quickly move on to whatever next thing awaits us.

While the events in Charlottesville are by now some three weeks old, I still find myself either unable or undesirous of “moving on.” Part of that is for obvious reasons, in that hearing the words “Jews will not replace us” shouted lustfully by men adorned with swastikas leaves a strong impression, especially on someone of Eastern European descent. Beyond that, part of the continued ruminating might be related to my general feeling that we, as the broader Orthodox community, don’t care enough about national issues of racism and prejudice. We are happy within our own bubble and with our own concerns, and the sounds from the street don’t always, nor should they always, reach our own consciousness. Worse yet is my growing feeling that racism is not far from our own shores as a community and that the racial tensions in this country and the emergence of overtly anti-Semitic organizations like Black Lives Matter and Antifa has only increased some of those sentiments.

Why, in fact, should we care about any of this? The events all concern fringe elements in American society and exist in a world a thousand miles away from here. While all of that is true, allow me to share a few reflections about why these events, and why combating racism, do in fact matter. There is much to be said on the matter, but let me limit myself to three specific areas that seem related to this discussion.

1) Lashon Hara: While the specifics of lashon hara about non-Jews is beyond the scope of this column, I find it interesting that the Chafetz Chaim records that lashon hara against a group is far worse than if it was against a specific person. While the Chafetz Chaim doesn’t explain his rationale, it would seem logical that lashon hara against a group reflects something coarse about the person speaking. Relating information about a specific person that might be true is clearly wrong and is a severe issue, but it’s not as repulsive as the general attack on an entire people. Blacks are X, Hispanics are Y, the goyim think that, Chasidim do this, the Chareidim do that, Modern Orthodox are this, etc., etc. are all ways of speaking that are not only often untrue and hurtful to building a respectful climate, but simply reflect a coarseness and lack of refinement that should indeed be the hallmark of klal Yisrael.

2) While it may be trite, how often are we cognizant of the basic Godliness of all of mankind? When the Gemara records the opinion that the most important principle of the Torah is זה תולדות אדם ביום ברא אלוקים אדם בדמות אלוקים עשה אתו—that God created all of man in His image—that wasn’t only referring to Jews. That sensitivity and respect for all of mankind is further highlighted in the mishna in Avot that records that Chaviv adam shenivra b’tzelem (Beloved is man, for he was created in the image of God). The Sforno and others point out that this is a universal statement. When people in Houston have lost everything this week, is there enough of a response from the frum community that reflects this universal spirit? Either denigrating other people and cultures or a basic lack of sensitivity toward the struggles of other cultures and races would seem to have no place in a worldview that champions the basic sanctity of all men. While in no way should we ever be ashamed to think of ourselves as the am kadosh (holy nation) and am segulah (treasured nation), recognition of who we are as that am should only increase our sense of respect for and responsibility toward the rest of the world.

3) While Nazism, anti-Semitism and racism can never be tolerated, some of what the “alternative right” is fighting for are causes that many of us would agree with. The radical liberalization of this country is absolutely horrifying for anyone whose sensibilities are grounded in the Torah. The lack of free speech, unless your speech conforms to the national prevailing cultural sentiment, is an equally horrifying reality. With that said, there can be no message that’s heard if the messenger is coarse and ugly. The message then becomes a reflection of the ugliness and distorted by the ugliness of the one who is delivering it, instead of something that can be heard on its own merits. The two times that Moshe Rabbeinu got angry at klal Yisrael (Bamidbar 20:10 and 31:14), his leadership was either removed or diminished because through that anger he lost the ability to effectively lead. The Torah in Parshat Re’eh connects us being “banim la’Makom”—children of G-d—to how we respond to tragedy in that we don’t cut ourselves when we are in mourning. The point seems clear: our greatness as a nation is related to how we conduct ourselves specifically during those moments where anger and a lack of self-control could reasonably be the order of the day. How we speak to our spouses, how we discipline our children, deal with coworkers and employees and generally conduct ourselves in tense moments is the true measure of the man. The “alt-right,” with all of their talk of Jew Communists and worse, lose all ability to be meaningfully heard in the public arena because the messenger and the message is so fundamentally ugly.

Let us continue to be people who, through removing ourselves from even a whiff of lashon hara, through acknowledging the greatness of all people and working toward their welfare, and through our calm and respectful demeanor, can continue to spread the light of Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s Torah throughout the many dark corners of the world.

By Rabbi Joshua Blass

 Rabbi Joshua Blass is rabbi of Kehillas Bais Yehudah in Monsey, while also serving as a Mashgiach Ruchani in Yeshiva University. During his twelve years in Rockland County, Rabbi Blass has been involved in an advisory or leadership capacity with a number of organizations including Tomche Shabbos, Project Tikvah, the Chevra Kadisha, RCA Beis Din and others. R’ Blass is married to Ilana, a distinguished lawyer, and is blessed with four wonderful children.

 

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