“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.
The world is in chaos. An airplane with more than 300 people shot down over Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of people killed in Syria. A fundamentalist Islamist regime has swept through large swaths of Iraq and initiated mass torture, murder and exile of Christians and other non-Muslims. A war between Israel and the terrorist group, Hamas. The exodus of thousands of children from Central America to the United States and the humanitarian crisis along our southern border. The daily deaths of young people from gun violence in our urban centers.
All of these events and even more not mentioned have yielded endless discussions and debates. How to address each conflict? How to handle the humanitarian crisis of Central American children? Who is right? Who is wrong? One can see people vigorously discussing these matters during Shabbat lunches and online through social media. Oftentimes, these discussions become accusatory and disrespectful. We believe so strongly in our position that we become personally offended when one disagrees with us.
The time has come to recommit ourselves to respectful disagreement.
This coming week we will mark the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av. The day is the moment when the Jewish people mourn our losses as a people: The destruction of the Temple (both the first and the second); the exile from our land; the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, the Holocaust. We engage in a full day of intensive mourning rituals and powerful liturgy meant to evoke the indescribable horrors in our hearts and minds.
One of the most powerful pieces of liturgy is the Arzei HaLevanon, in which the deaths of some of the brightest, most profound Torah leaders of the Jewish people are recorded in agonizing detail. This is read twice in the Jewish calendar: Once on Yom Kippur and the second time on the 9th of Av. There are slight differences between the two readings. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik zt”l understands the disparities to indicate a difference between the purposes of the two readings. On Yom Kippur we recount their loss in order to inspire repentance while on the 9th of Av we recount their loss in order to simply mourn what we have lost.
What did we lose? Our tradition teaches us that “Torah scholars increase peace in the world.” Maimonides understands this to mean that learning Torah brings more peace into the world than any other pursuit. How is that possible? When one opens up any page of Talmud one will discover it is full of disagreements and arguments!
Perhaps it is because it is not that we argue that is the problem. There will be differences of opinion. People will see things from different vantage points. It is how we argue that is the issue. The very best of the Torah sages, including and most notably the ones we mourn for on the 9th of Av and on Yom Kippur, reflected the very highest ideal of how to hold opinions and disagree with others. They modeled respectful disagreement. On the 9th of Av we cry over their loss. We cry over their horrible deaths and we cry over our failure to live up to the model they set forth.
We are in dark and difficult days. We are inundated with different viewpoints and perspectives thanks to social media and we cannot shy away from these conversations during our social gatherings. This 9th of Av let us reflect on not how to disagree less but how to better and more respectfully disagree.
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Each week, I put out a call on Facebook for those in need of blessings. I time these calls to connect with ritual making bread for Shabbat. It is customary to set aside a portion of dough, as a token of recognition of God’s generosity, when making a large amount of bread. Fulfilling of the obligation provides a unique opportunity for prayers of healing and divine intersession. Most weeks I make a large quantity of bread and have always offered personal prayers for those who I knew were in need. But within the last year or so, I have been placing calls on social media to add names to my list.
At the beginning, I was unsure what this odd call into the wilderness would yield. Was Facebook, the forum for cute babies and cats, breaking news and political commentary a place for prayer?
The results have been instructive.
Unlike the cute baby photo of my kid that I recently posted, I don’t get a deluge of responses. Each week not many more than handful of people take me up on the offer and simply like my post and I add them to my list.
But it is not quantity that matters. Many just leave a name or a ‘like.’ Sometimes I know from their feed what the issue is, sometimes not. But opening up this venue has lead to some of the most meaningful sharing and connecting that I have experienced on social media. I have learned some amazing and difficult truths about what is going on in people’s lives.
Here is some of what I know, that you might have missed completely.
- Your friend with the perfect kids in the amazingly cute dance outfits is not sleeping at night because it has been more than a year since her husband had full time employment
- All the photos of food in fancy restaurants are the way B. recovers from another bout of bad news at the fertility clinic.
- The increased posts about the family dog are in inverse proportion to the level of affection M. is feeling for her husband. Any day now she is likely to replace her spouse of 11 years with another pet.
These are not of course the precise details of what people share with me weekly, but they are typical of the kind of sharing that does happen.
The real secret is that if we push beyond the surface sharing that typifies social media, we have the power to connect and create something truly sacred. As one father in crisis, wrote me that he was grateful for my weekly offer because he is working hard not to make his child’s suffering and trauma the focus of any more attention than it need necessarily be. But as a result, he is without support that he desperately needs. Even though he rarely remarks on my post, my weekly offers reach him like a beacon of connection in sea challenging isolation.
Prayer has that power to move us beyond the facile connections of Facebook in no small part because it offers the recognition that that there something more, possibly painfully so, than high scores on Candy Crush, sunsets on beaches, or reports of snow days. In Jewish tradition prayer is best said in a community. In no small part gathering together, physically challenges the isolation that so many of us feel.
But we need not turn to prayer to create holy or deeply meaningful connections. Consider taking a Facebook post ‘offline’, with a phone call or an email or even in person. Remind the person what they mean to you and the value they bring to your life. Take time to share some of what is going on in your life, the real stuff not just the fluff. Listen for the challenges and difficulties that they face.
That is the secret of meaningful transcendent connection.