In Plain Language: Between civility and censorship

‘Life and death are in the power of the tongue’ (Proverbs 18:21).

November 24, 2016 16:30
4 minute read.
Anti-Trump protest

A woman protesting against US President-elect Donald Trump yells chants into a megaphone near Trump Tower in Manhattan on Sunday. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The strength of the Jewish people has always primarily resided in our power of speech.

Speech that comes from our propensity for prayer, in good times and bad; speech that emanates from our intense love of learning – done aloud, in pairs or groups, often in singsong melody; speech that is manifested in our willingness to speak out for what is right and just and true.

We have always been distinguished by outstanding spokesmen, from Moses (who, despite his self-proclaimed “speech impediment,” delivered magnificent sermons) through great prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, to erudite rabbinic and political leaders who could engage and enlighten us with their brilliant command of language.

Jewish law and liturgy are filled with countless admonitions to carefully guard our tongues, to think before we speak, to weigh each and every word, because words are living things – they can help or hurt, build or destroy. In many ways, not only are our words our bond, but they are also our godly “trademark” – thus the Hebrew word mila can mean both “word” and “ritual circumcision.”

Having said all this, I find it painful to witness the way speech is being abused lately in the public forum. Much of this is being blamed on President-elect Donald Trump, who, during his election campaign, made some very un-presidential, outlandish comments directed not only toward his opponent, Hillary Clinton, but against a wide array of real and imagined adversaries.

At the same time, language no less crude and caustic was and still is being thrown back at Trump and his fellow Republicans by the racist Black Lives Matter, by members of the “Sore Losers” party still illegally rioting in the streets, and by public figures like the actor Robert De Niro – whose preelection commercial calling Trump a “pig” went viral – and the cast of Saturday Night Live, which so blatantly skewered him while giving a virtual pass to Clinton. (I have no doubt this outraged otherwise passive Trump supporters and motivated them to express their indignation at the polling place.) Violent words, as we Jews have unfortunately learned through the ages, have a tendency to morph into violent actions, and so one would hope that the toxic rhetoric on both sides will moderate, and national dialogue will adopt a more civil tone.

But there is another side of the speech coin that we need to examine. For too long now, the muzzle of political correctness has been clamped down on the public at large, effectively intimidating both the right and the ability of people to openly speak their minds on a wide range of subjects. Expressing the “wrong” opinion, especially in certain circles, is met by condemnation and even calls for ostracism. Indeed, rare was the Trump voter who dared to openly proclaim his support for the man, lest he be mocked and maligned by the PC’ers.

As a friend told me, these were the “leanin” votes; when asked whom they were supporting, these individuals leaned in close, so no one else could hear, and whispered, “Trump!” But this imposed wall of stifling silence needs to be breached, if not broken down entirely. I ought to be able to call out those religious zealots who act in a decidedly ungodly manner – such as the hooligans who threw garbage at our modestly dressed group last week, as we toured Mea She’arim – even as I reaffirm my unbreakable connection and commitment to Judaism. I should be able to openly reject homosexuality as a viable “alternative lifestyle,” even as I accept and embrace friends who are gay. I ought to have the right to unabashedly condemn Palestinians and other Muslims who seek my demise, rejecting outright their demand for yet another radical Arab state on our border, even as I hope that they will one day abandon their death wish for us and become a viable partner.

That has always been the intent of this column, and thus its name, “In Plain Language”; to say it as I see it, and not be cowed into literary submission. There is no excuse for a lack of civility when addressing others, yet at the same time there is no room for censorship of ideas and ideologies in a free society.

The Hebrew word formed by the letters mem-vav-samech-resh can take on two very different meanings: It can spell moser, which is the act of selling out a fellow Jew, considered to be one of the most despicable sins in Jewish life. But it can also spell musar, which is the time-honored responsibility to rebuke – diplomatically, and with love – those individuals and institutions that we honestly believe are causing harm to themselves and others.

Too much of the former is dangerous to our national health, but too little of the latter suppresses dissent and can be just as harmful.

So fear not, dear reader: Say your piece; but please, say it with peace.

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana and a member of the Ra’anana City Council;

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