Free Speech Versus Good Speech
On this Rosh Hashanah, as we celebrate the creation of the world, let us remember that G-d brought the world into being by speaking. Speech has been described as the “holiest of the holy.” The Book of Proverbs teaches that “life and death lie in the power of the tongue.” These seemingly hyperbolic statements turn out not to be an exaggeration – words have stunning power. This is captured in the magical expression, “abracadabra.” This ancient Aramaic word literally means, “I will create (abra) as I speak (kadabra).” Words indeed have magical powers. They can create worlds. Words can heal or hurt, sooth or irritate, seduce or alienate, make peace or proclaim war.
Freedom of speech is an important value for any form of democracy. Long before any Western constitution was written, the Prophets of Israel were demonstrating the importance of speaking truth to power and communicating unpopular ideas. This could very well have been one of the precedents that the American founders had in mind when they sought to limit the power of government by guaranteeing broad rights to political and religious speech, even when it’s unpopular.
The First Amendment was what made America unique among other nations at the time of its founding. It reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Today, Americans live in a world that places an enormous emphasis on individual autonomy. In terms of speech, that means we have the capacity to say or write whatever we wish, whenever we wish, and to whomever we wish. In the US a wide range of obnoxious expression is permitted in the name of free speech. This is partly about a commitment to personal freedom, but it is no less about the belief that creating an open society is the likeliest way to support democracy, which depends on a free exchange of ideas and information. Most of us highly value that openness, even though we might question the good sense or good taste of some of the people who use it without restraint.
Every system of government confronts the need for some limits to freedom of speech. One criteria is Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s Supreme Court opinion in 1919, “freedom of speech would not protect a man falsely shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater…as to create a clear and present danger.” Even outside the broad boundaries of legally protected speech, Americans continue to debate vociferously how much freedom of speech is good for society and how much they will tolerate in different settings. For example, the government cannot penalize hate speech, but we increasingly expect private institutions to do so, even to the point of depriving people of their livelihoods for speech considered hateful (think of Don Imus or Helen Thomas or Kramer from Seinfeld). So it would not be right to say that “American values” simply promote freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is an important value, but not the only one and not always even the dominant one in American public life.
Those who rallied for free speech in Charlottesville this past summer, carrying full body armor and guns, and shouting about white supremacy, were acting completely within their rights. Similarly the counter-protesters were acting within their rights by shouting back at them. Before violence erupted, everything about this demonstration was legal. Another limitation of the First Amendment is that while you can say or write whatever you want, physical violence goes beyond “speech” and it cannot be protected. In the case of Charlottesville, this exercise in free speech led to 3 deaths (one counter-protestor and two police officers in a helicopter accident) and at least 30 more injured.
Protests can be intense. Sometimes people are passionately screaming, defending the core values they believe in. This is why police are often present at protests, preventing people from letting their words turn to violence. But if only everyone followed Jewish speech ethics, there would be no need for police at protests. Let me explain.
Jewish approaches to speech and its power relate not just to the government, but also to the religious and ethical development of individuals. While America’s Freedom of Speech is mostly about individual liberty and limits to the power of the state, the rules of speech in Judaism are mostly about human virtue and ethical attainment.
This makes Judaism stricter than American public culture, because the issue is what speech you should avoid for your own sake. Some forms of speech are unambiguously prohibited under Jewish law, and they fall in the category of leshon hara, evil speech. Cursing your parents falls under this category. So does cursing G-d or a judge, or spreading gossip or slander about another person. The Torah teaches “Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer,” so even if what you’re saying is true, it’s never right to speak negatively about another person. The only exception to this is if you are trying to help someone avoid some kind of danger; but most of the time, we gossip about the way someone looks, dresses, eats, or anything else, without any intention of actually helping anyone.
There’s a Chasidic tale that illustrates why leshon hara is to be avoided. A man went about the community telling malicious lies about the rabbi. Later, he realized the wrong he had done and began to feel remorse. He went to the rabbi and begged his forgiveness, saying he would do anything he could do to make amends. The rabbi told the man, “Take a feather pillow, cut it open, and scatter the feathers to the winds.” The man thought this was a strange request, but it was a simple enough task, and he did it gladly. When he returned to tell the rabbi that he had done it, the rabbi said, “Now go and gather all the feathers. Because you can no more make amends for the damage your words have done than you can re-collect all of the feathers.”
Once speech exits our mouths, we can’t control where it goes. Jewish tradition teaches that the harm that can be caused by speech is worse than the harm done by stealing or by cheating someone financially, because amends can be made for monetary harms, but the harms done by speech can never be fully repaired.
There are many other forms of speech that are considered bad or degrading and are to be avoided. Some examples are: speaking lewdly and immodestly, causing someone public shame or embarrassment, false advertising, betraying confidentiality, boasting, and many more. Of the 43 sins enumerated in the Al Cheyt confession recited on Yom Kippur, 11 are sins committed through speech. Because Jewish morality is concerned with making you the best person you can be and not just controlling the power of the state, it makes sense to tell people to avoid speech that is bad for them or bad for society. At the end of the Amidah, which is traditionally recited thrice daily, we read, Elokai netzur l’shonei may’ra – My G-d, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceit.
One reason there are so many restrictions on free speech is because our words are very connected to our thoughts. By forcing ourselves to be honest, humble, and helpful with our speech, this slowly changes our mindset; so that rather than looking for things to gossip about or deprecate, we may find ourselves looking for things to appreciate, if we really hold ourselves to only speaking positively about other people.
So does Judaism value free speech? Absolutely. We depend upon it for the democracy on which we all rely. We’ve seen throughout history what the absence of democracy means to everyone, especially Jews. But in order to become the best individuals we can be, and to create the kind of community and society that we want to live in, we need to hold ourselves to higher standards of speech.
A week after the Charlottesville rally, there was another one up here on the Boston Common. I wasn’t present, but if I had been in town that weekend I would have gone to the rally, following the precept in Leviticus, Hocheach tochiach, “you shall surely reprove.” You shall surely tell someone when they’re doing something wrong. The basis of human society is trust that people will conduct themselves in a manner that allows us to be safe in their company. When people do bad things without receiving a critique, they assume that their conduct is being accepted. So when a couple hundred “Free Speech Activists” showed up to make speeches on the Common, they were greeted by tens of thousands from America’s mixed multitude. Rich people, poor people, white people, black people, Asian people, Muslims, Jews, Christians, atheists…tens of thousands gathered in support of unity, acceptance, and love. The Neo-Nazis felt so dwarfed that they abandoned their podium and left. Words really do create new worlds, new realities, even in 2017 or 5778.
The most prominent 19th century Jewish legal genius, Chofetz Chaim, wrote that your most valuable possession is your gift of speech. You use it to make blessings, you use it to learn Torah, you use it to encourage and uplift people. We use the power of speech when people get married — Their status changes from “individual” to “spouse” by merely uttering a few words. So our words are very precious. The Chofetz Chaim goes on to say that you must treat your words as though they were your valuables – More valuable than diamonds or jewels or any amount of money, which you keep in your safe deposit box. Nobody but a fool would leave their safe deposit box open, right? Of course not. You make sure you have the combination, the key, and when you need to pull out those precious items you go in, unlock the box, and take it out. And so too, even though we live in a society that grants us freedom to say anything anytime, our words should be unlocked only when we’re prepared to say something that’s going to have meaning, purpose, value, and something that will help someone, encourage someone, uplift someone…something that will elevate ourselves and our communities.