Over the past week, a few comedians either spoke offensively or did some crude things. Although some accuse them of hate crimes or incitement to violence, I cannot judge that. Some comedians said this is how they learn what they can or cannot do. I don’t buy that either.
This past week, Harvard University rescinded the acceptance of 10 applicants. Apparently these students formed a Facebook group where anti-Semitic, racist and violent misogynistic ramblings were written. Leadership at Harvard denied their applications. This was an act by a private university defining its limits of acceptable speech and behavior. It doesn’t fit into the culture they desire.
We see that the media, and especially the Internet, has created ways of communicating that allow for a freedom of expression never known before. Having that freedom to express whatever one thinks is dangerous to the well-being and safety of individuals and our culture. So what one is free to say should not be the standard as to what one does say.
We come from a tradition that has a lot to say about the values associated with speech and language. The sins we confess on Yom Kippur are primarily sins of “the tongue”. We know that speech can shame and embarrass; destroy reputations… and even kill. Speech can inform or mislead. The Rabbis have even suggested that embarrassing a person publicly is equivalent to murder.
In our culture, there is a real problem with bullying amongst young people. We see kids who are humiliated and threatened and isolated through the internet. Thankfully, there are responses coming from schools and religious institutions.
In synagogue we are reading from the book of Bamidbar. And although it is most typically translated as “in the wilderness”, the word is from the same root as “dabeir” which refers to speech or language. The formative event of our people’s history was experienced through the utterance of words.
I think we always need to be conscious of the difference between what we can say and what we should say. We learn that we must be aware of the difference between public and private language. As individuals, we need to be conscious about the impact of our words.
I agree with the sentiment that we are only as good as our word. I take it seriously that in our Torah, God is revealed not through a vision but through words.
I have learned that words of compliment and words of love are our most powerful tool. And I believe that teaching our children proper language and the benefits of learning may be the most important gift we can give them.
The way our culture, universities, the press, television, and the government handle the mistakes of the past will be informative.
I conclude with the affirmation from our Tefillah, central prayer which begins: “May God open my lips to speak words of praise” and that same tefillah ends with: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart find acceptance with God” and I will add, with our fellow human beings.
Rabbi David Steinhardt