Free Speech: A Double-Edged Sword - Parashat Tazria
By Natalie Leichtman
Humans have the gift of speech, the “freedom of speech”, and we can use it for good or evil. We have the “right” to do so, but does that mean we should?
This week’s parsha, Parashat Tazria, is often paired with next week’s parsha, Parashat Metzora, because both deal with the identification and treatment of someone who contracts a condition called “tsara’at”. The translation of this is leprosy, although it is spiritual not biological in nature; however, the most common symptom of tsara’at is a form of white lesion on the skin. However, the nature of the condition is less significant than its cause.
Rabbi Sacks explains its significance as follows: “The commentators were puzzled as to what this condition is and why it should be given such prominence in the torah. They concluded that it was precisely because it was a punishment for lashon hara, derogatory speech. Despite the fact that it is not singled out in the Torah for a prohibition in its own right, the sages regarded it as one of the worst of all sins. They said, astonishingly, that it is as bad as the three cardinal sins – idolatry, murder and incest – combined. More significantly, they said it kills three people, the one who says it, the one he says it about, and the one who listens in.”
FOOD FOR THOUGHT:
- Why would lashon hara, (derogatory speech, or gossip/rumor-mongering), be considered such a major sin?
- Why is this sin considered three-way murder?
One of the hardest things about gossip is that no one is immune to it. At some point in their lives, either someone becomes the victim of being spoken about, or succumbs to the temptation of speaking about someone else. And as a person or group rises in significance and fame, the more likely they are to fall prey to this horrible sin. The bigger shadow you cast, the more likely people are to resent you for blocking their sun, and the more people will notice your impact.
As Rabbi Sacks says: “Anyone from CEO to parent to friend who seeks to be a leader has to confront the issue of lashon hara. Firstly he or she may have to put up with it as the price of any kind of achievement. Some people are envious. They gossip. They build themselves up by putting other people down. If you are in any kind of leadership position, you may have to live with the fact that behind your back – or even before your face – people will be critical, malicious, disdainful, vilifying and sometimes downright dishonest. This can be hard to bear. Having known many leaders in many fields I can testify to the fact that not all people in the public eye have a thick skin. Many of them are very sensitive and can find constant, unjust criticism deeply draining.”
FOOD FOR THOUGHT:
- In context of this statement, how do you think prominence and envy play a role in the battle of words Israel faces against her enemies?
- Why do you think people believe that the leaders won’t be hurt by their words? Or if brazenly malicious, what are some ways people make sure that the pain of their words reaches their target?
Of course, one of the main problems with, let’s say it like it is, hate speech, is that it’s “just words.” People think that being in a democratic area with freedom of speech entitles them to say whatever they want, whenever and wherever they want, and that this freedom protects them. And if you get offended or hurt by their words? Well, maybe you are just too sensitive, and “can’t take a joke”. As every child knows, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” right? Stop being so sensitive and brush it off.
But yet, who is one of the biggest victims, time and time again, throughout history, of blatant lies, gossip, rumor-mongering, hate speech? Israel and the Jews. And the argument of “freedom of speech”, and infringing on this freedom, is one of the hardest defenses we face. Because if someone says something Antisemitic, or against Israel, and you call them out on it, you are the one in the wrong - you are denying them their freedoms, you are homophobic, Islamophobic, etc. etc. etc.
As hard as it is to face hate speech directed at you personally, it can be equally hard to face it when it is directed at you as a member of a group. Especially when the hate speech comes from people who are both part of the group and insist on standing apart from it, but offer the “inside scoop” on the issue, that only supports and furthers the hate.
To combat things against you personally, the rabbis advise combating the hate with love. Showing to all, including those who have spoken against you, that you are not the evil person that you are rumored to be, will cause them to reconsider or be less likely to believe the lies about you. But it can be hard to apply a single case as proof of the qualities of the whole.
Rabbi Sacks recognizes that this tactic of responding to evil with love and kindness “is in relation to lashon hara directed against yourself. As for the group as a whole, however, you should practise zero tolerance toward lashon hara. Allowing people to speak badly about one another will eventually destroy the integrity of the group. Evil speech generates negative energies. Within the group it sows the seeds of distrust and envy. Directed outside the group it can lead to arrogance, self-righteousness, racism and prejudice, all of which are fatal to the moral credibility of any team. Whether or not you are the leader of such a group you must politely make it clear that you will have nothing to do with this kind of speech and that it has no place in your conversations.”
FOOD FOR THOUGHT:
- How can we combat hate when it comes from within?
- What are ways we can break the cycle of hate when it is directed at our collective identity, and not us personally?
Unfortunately, it’s not just merely responding to a statement or two, which is hard enough. In the modern age, we face the battle of words against us from more sides than ever. As Rabbi Sacks eloquently puts it, “Cyber-bullying is the latest manifestation of lashon hara. In general the Internet is the most effective distributor of hate-speech ever invented. Not only does it make targeted communication so easy, but it also bypasses the face-to-face encounter that can sometimes induce shame, sensitivity and self-control. Greek myth told the story of Gyges’ ring that had the magical property of making whoever wore it invisible, so that he or she could get away with anything. Social media that enable people to post anonymous comments or adopt false identities are as near as anyone has yet come to inventing a Gyges’ ring. That is what is so dangerous about it.”
FOOD FOR THOUGHT:
- How is cyberbullying used to attack individuals? How can cyberbullying affect groups?
- This quote speaks about the bully’s perspective; how about from the victim’s? Is it harder to stand up to face-to-face or cyber attacks? Why?
- How are the “advantages” of cyberbullying used as a weapon against the Jews and Israel?
It is also important to mention, as Parashat Tazria does, that part of the punishment for the person who contracted tsara’at is being expelled from the camp, isolated so that he or she can not continue to spread the hate and “infect” others. And by removing the problematic individual, it can often help those who were unfortunately affected before the problem was “caught” to reconcile.
However, we don’t have this disease and its treatment today. We don’t have this obvious indication of what is hate speech and what isn’t, especially when it comes from within. Which means we need to be that much more vigilant by ourselves towards combating the hate we face on all sides, and on uniting and fighting it together, and spreading love and kindness.
Maybe as an individual, using this tactic may be hard, but if all of us make a concerted effort, together, we can make the negative more and more the “exception to the rule”, or even the lie, and show that the positive is indeed the truth.
“To put it at its simplest: as we behave to others so God behaves to us. Do not expect God to be kind to those who are unkind to their fellow humans.” -Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks