Bad speech and the political arena
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Bad speech and the political arena

Most Americans see no connection between the highly inflammatory rhetoric that now passes for political discourse in this country and the shootings earlier this month in Tucson. They should; words can kill. Words, it should be recalled, killed Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995.

Keeping the faith: One religious perpsective on issues of the day A climate of hate followed in the wake of Rabin’s efforts to achieve peace with the Palestinians and their leader at the time, Yasser Arafat. The invective thrown at Rabin was light years beyond the pale of acceptable political rhetoric. Posters on walls throughout Israel accusing the then prime minister of being an enemy agent and even pictured him in Arab dress. Politicians on the right accused him of being a traitor who was determined to destroy the state.

On the highest end of the “bad speech” scale, a group of rabbis labeled Rabin a rodeif, a “pursuer” intent on committing murder. Under Jewish law, a rodeif must be stopped by any means possible, including by murdering him before he could commit his own crime. By his own admission, all of this “bad speech” contributed to Yigal Amir’s decision to assassinate the prime minister.

Words can kill in other ways, as well. Says the Talmud, “Lashon hara [bad speech] kills three people: the one who spoke, the one who listened, and the one who was the object of it.” (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Arachin 15b.)

The halachic definition of “bad speech” is a lot easier to violate than avoid, which is likely why it is a virtual synonym for politics. There is an entire category of misdeeds under Jewish law that involves our lips and our ears. Overall, these misdeeds are classified as ona’at devarim, verbal wrongs. Under this rubric are found subcategories. These include two specifically relevant to the political arena:

• lashon hara: Technically speaking, this involves the spreading of information about someone for derogatory purposes even though that information is true; and,

• motzi shem ra, or defamation of character. Usually confused with lashon hara (and originally subsumed within it), this is the spreading of false information about someone in order to belittle him or her.

Here is how the BT Bava Metzia 58b-59a describes what is meant by “verbal wrongs”:

“If a person is a repentant sinner, do not say to him, ‘Remember your past deeds.’ If he is the son of proselytes, do not say to him, ‘Remember the deeds of your ancestors.’ If he is a proselyte and comes to study the Torah, do not say to him, ‘Shall the mouth that ate unclean and forbidden food, abominable and creeping things, come to study the Torah which was uttered by the mouth of the All-Powerful One….?’ If donkey drivers sought grain from someone, he should not say to them, ‘Go to so and so, for he sells grain,’ knowing that he never sold any….Rabbi Yehudah said: he also may not claim interest in a purchase at a time when he has not the means [or the desire to purchase it; in other words, do not raise the hopes of a sales person unless you are prepared to buy, especially if the sales person works on commission]….

“[King] David said before the Holy One, blessed be He, Sovereign of the Universe! It is clearly known to You that [my enemies lose no opportunity to embarrass me. For example]…, at a time when they are engaged in studying [the laws regarding matters having nothing remotely to do with adultery], they will say to me [in the form of a seemingly innocent question], David! For he who seduces another man’s wife, what manner of death applies? Say I to them, His death is by strangulation, but he retains a portion in the World to Come. But a person who publicly shames his fellow has no portion in the World to Come.”

Let us start with the last section first, because the wrong it condemns is obliquely stated. In essence, it is a verbal wrong to ask someone a question in order to belittle that person. The specific instance is a question designed to point up David’s behavior with Bathsheba while she was still married to Uriah (whom David conspired to have killed after Bathsheba became pregnant), although this type of verbal wrong can include asking someone a question you know that he or she cannot answer.

It is equally sinful to listen to the question being asked. According to BT Pesachim 118a, those who engage in verbal wrongs, either by speaking them or listening to them, “deserve to be cast to the dogs.”

The opening portion of the Bava Metzia text, regarding the repentant sinner, would make it nearly impossible to question a politician about what he or she may have done when that person was younger (such as asking whether he or she ever smoked marijuana as a youth).

The section on “the son of proselytes” has a broader halachic interpretation, forbidding embarrassing someone regarding his family background.

To ask someone what are his or her religious beliefs would seem to be innocent enough, but not if the intent is to use the information in a derogatory manner (which usually is the point of such a question). Questions of this sort are often put to politicians in Bible Belt communities.

Not all “bad speech” needs to be overt. The same result can be achieved covertly – along the lines of “when did you stop beating your spouse?” No evidence of such behavior exists and no one ever made such an accusation, but asking the question is enough to implant the possibility in people’s minds. This is motzi shem ra.

To be sure, there is an element of “the need to know” when it comes to the people who are our leaders or would-be leaders. We are called upon to cast our ballots for our representatives in government. We have a need to know what these people will do with the power we give them; we need a way to determine whether we can trust them. We also need to be able to speak out against policies we find repugnant and against politicians we find unacceptable.

That is why it is almost impossible to stay within halachic boundaries in political discourse. It must never be impossible, however, to allow that discourse to get so out of hand that it leads to violence and murder.

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