“There is a time to be silent and a time to speak.” So says the author of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) in a famous chapter that begins by telling us, “there is a time for every matter under heaven.” Yesterday was Tisha B’Av, a fast day which traditionally commemorates the destruction of the first and second temples in ancient Jerusalem and all subsequent tragedies to befall the Jewish people. Last night, as I studied together with congregants, we looked at a story found in the Talmud (Gittin 55b) that attributes the destruction of the second temple to sinat hinam—baseless hatred. The story demonstrates how powerful emotions such as humiliation, pride, shame, inaction, and revenge unleash a destructive series of events on the people. And it all begins with words—an act of speech that contains the power to hurt and to harm in real, material ways. At every turn in the story, the question must be asked, “what if he had said…? What if they had said…? Did they say something in private? Should they have spoken in public?” I am a struck by the complexity of applying the Jewish ethical teachings on shmirat lashon (guarding the tongue) —taking great care with our words and lashon hara (literally “evil tongue”)—negative speech/slander/gossip in real life situations. When must we speak out, and when ought we to consider silence in order to listen, observe, and witness?
Over the past few weeks I’ve read with sadness as some friends online have shared that they have been “unfriended” or have themselves “unfriended” someone with whom they have a profound difference of perspective over the war between Israel and Hamas. These are indeed challenging times as we consider the impact of our words and the challenge of responding to Kohelet’s observation with thought and care—when is it a time to be silent and when is it a time to speak?
There have been times when speech is absolutely necessary. Those representing Israel must speak in the public sphere; to the media, to the UN, to the people of Israel and the people of Gaza. Those who seek to defend Israel’s absolute right to defend itself from terrorist attack must gather and speak in public venues to demonstrate that Israel does not stand alone. Those who investigate and learn something that can further our understanding of the practices and tactics of Hamas, and of the Israel Defense Forces, must speak. And there are times, using the tools of social media, that we feel that we must share information that illustrates an important truth or an important need.
When, then, might it be a time for silence? I have read literally hundreds of postings and articles on the war this past month. Some I like, because they accord with my already pre-existing opinions and positions. Some I find challenging, because they share a perspective that, while it may contain important truths, are inconvenient because they do not accord with how I wish to frame things. There are things that I read, and I think most of us know them when we see them, that are so strident in how they express the certainty of one way of looking at things that it appears that the primary goal is to antagonize those who see differently, and not to educate on some important matter of fact. Those are the moments when it is easy to be drawn into a war of words—and when, in fact, we might do better to remain silent. I can like something without hitting “like” and I can disagree with something without needing to use the blunt tools of social media expression to bring the poster to task for what I perceive to be their misguided perspective.
Another time when silence may be better than the wrong words, or well-intentioned but clumsily expressed words? When I read the postings from my dear friend, a Muslim married to a Palestinian, who is in pain. I notice that she does not share political pieces, but simply her pain at bearing witness to the pain and suffering of her people. Could I counter with questions about who has caused those deaths and injuries, or talk about the use of human shields? What would be the purpose of my words? What is the emotion and the need expressed in her words? My silence could, of course, be interpreted as a lack of caring. But my silence is meant as an expression of respect—respect for the reality of the pain and suffering. I wish to say nothing that will diminish my friend’s pain. My friendship is more important.
As we discussed these, and other scenarios, in our gathering last night, what became clear to us all is that it is very difficult to discern with clarity when to speak and when to remain silent. Simply carrying that awareness might bring with it a humility that accompanies our word—an awe that contains within it the knowledge of how much, in any moment, we don’t know. There are times when we still must speak, and times when we still must respond. But, perhaps, if we take a little longer to reflect on our felt need to do so, and our perception of someone else’s need to express something different, our words can contribute more to all that we seek to create, and do less harm to our friendships and to our society as a whole.
Women and women’s rights have received a lot of attention in politics and media in recent weeks. March is Women’s History Month – a time to celebrate the contributions of women in the USA, particularly contributions to social and economic justice, and women’s rights. How ironic, therefore, that the beginning of March saw a debacle over women’s freedoms to make personal and moral choices about their own bodies. We saw women being silenced through their absence from important conversations taking place in congressional committees, and we heard Rush Limbaugh using crass language to dismiss the perspective of one young, brave woman who offered her opinion.
I know there are many perspectives on the issues themselves. But I am deeply concerned by the tone of the conversation, and what appears to be an increasing inability to engage in respectful discourse.
This past week, I was talking with a group of students at my congregation about two different ways of thinking about the power of speech. On the one hand is the US Constitution, guaranteeing the right to free speech. This is a core American value, and my students were all able to express the importance of this legal construct intelligently and articulately – our middle schools are teaching them well.
On the other hand, we explored some Jewish values and teachings on the subject of lashon hara. Literally meaning ‘evil tongue’, the term is often used to talk about the negative impacts of gossip, but the teachings apply to much more than that. Jewish wisdom sees speech as such a powerful tool that even saying something positive about someone should be done with great care (it may have a negative impact, such as stirring up feelings of jealousy in someone else). That might seem extreme, but it is indicative of how strongly the tradition feels we should guard our tongue and try to always speak from the highest place possible.
At our Rabbis Without Borders alumni retreat at the end of last month, we engaged in an exercise where we took issues in the public realm where we felt strongly one way, and were required to make a persuasive argument for the other side. It was a powerful exercise in which we were able to see the validity of another perspective. I highly recommend trying it – it becomes much more difficult to demonize ‘the other side’ when we recognize that they do not come from a place of malice, but have another way of seeing things that also contain some truths.
It is true and important that the first amendment protects the right to free speech. But just because we can say it, doesn’t mean that we should say it. Our moral values point to a higher standard, and it is also good and true to hold those who speak in the public arena to this higher standard. They set the tone for the rest of us.
A version of this article was first published in the Op-Ed pages of The Bridgeport News, Bridgeport CT on March 16, 2012