Free Speech and Responsible Speech

The WORD – 4/7/11. Two recent cases have tested our American resolve when it comes to our Constitutionally protected freedom of speech.  First, there was the case of Westboro Baptist Church protesting against homosexuality at the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Then, there was the case of the Dove World Outreach Center and its pastor, Terry Jones, who burned a copy of the Koran after holding a trial in which they found the Koran guilty of some crime.

While most of us find these words and actions odious, we are grateful for the First Amendment to the Constitution which ensures our freedom of speech.

In Judaism, however, there is no such thing as freedom of speech.  There is a responsibility of speech.  We have always understood the power of speech.  Every morning we praise God by saying the words, “Baruch She’amar v’hayah ha-olam – Praised is the One Who spoke and the Earth came into being.”  God did not use brute strength or fancy machinery to create the world.  God used words.

Further, we know that Miriam was severely punished for speaking badly about her brother Moshe and his wife Tsipora.  She was stricken with leprosy.  Indeed, this penalty was partially responsible for the link between slander and leprosy in the Jewish tradition.  There is also a play on words between the word for leper (Metzora)  and the phrase for speaking ill of another person (Motzi Shem Ra).

So, when this week’s Torah portion – Metzora – speaks virtually endlessly about leprosy, the traditional understanding is that we are really reading about the power of our words, the pain inflicted by slander.

In one Midrash on this Torah portion, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, who lived in the Land of Israel in the 3rd Century, taught:  “The word ‘Torah’ is used five times in regard to the plague of leprosy.  The repetition of ‘Torah’ five times in connection to leprosy is meant to teach that one who spreads evil reports is just like someone who broke all the laws in all Five Books of the Torah (Leviticus Rabbah 16:6).”

This is amazing.  This one mitzvah is being held up as equal to all the other mitzvot in the entire Torah COMBINED.

The truth is that we often underestimate the power of our words, especially now with the help of modern technology.  After all, is it reasonable to think that the protected speech of the 20 members of a roadside church in Gainesville, Florida, would lead to the deaths of 20 Westerners in Afghanistan?  And yet, there is clearly a link between the two.  This is not to absolve the actual murderers of their guilt, but the members of the Dove World Outreach Center are responsible for their own hateful words and actions.

Our tradition makes it perfectly clear:  “One who shames another in public is as one who sheds blood (BT Bava Metzia 58a).”  We may not be stricken by leprosy as a result of our words, but maybe we should choose our words as if it were a possibility.





About Rabbi Avi Friedman

I am the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Shalom - SJCC, a progressive Conservative and traditional congregation. I am also husband to Jodi as well as father to Gabi, Jonah, Jessica and Ilana. I have been a part of the Summit community since 2005.
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