One cannot stress enough just how much Judaism values words. The proverb says “the tongue has power over life and death” – words have the power to create and to destroy. So our texts emphasise the importance of avoiding destructive speech.
We know the power of words, yet Judaism rarely bans free speech, expecting us instead to monitor ourselves to behave as a holy people.
Talmud routinely records dissenting opinion; Midrash is allowed its florid flights of fancy.
Our prophets raged against the powers of their time, rabbis interpreted according to their worldviews.
The practise of the Sanhedrin was for junior rabbis to speak before their more senior colleagues so they could speak their minds freely.
Lashon hara (evil speech) is not explicitly prohibited in Torah, yet rabbinic tradition teaches it is worse than idolatry, murder and incest combined, having three victims: the speaker, the listener and the person spoken about. While freedom to speak one’s mind is respected, there is an expectation one does not speak to cause pain, nor inflicts harm.
The rabbis knew free speech is not without consequence. The community must engage, challenging and opposing destructive ideas and words openly and with reason.
That said, there are limits to the tolerance of free speech in the Jewish world – most notably exercised by the herem (ban) imposed on Spinoza in 1656 for his views about the existence of God, which undermined the very foundations of Judaism.
Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi (pictured)’s recent failed attempt to enter the UK focused attention on the limits of free speech in Judaism – especially his blaming sick children for sins in previous lives, spreading racism, homophobia and intra-religious hate and presenting a distorted Judaism.
There are Jews who would defend his right to hate-filled views, and Jews who would debate them with ethical and rational counter-arguments, but I’m glad Rabbis Mirvis and Dweck did neither, drawing the line at his destructive words, asking Mizrachi be given no platform in this country.
The Amidah ends with a prayer asking for the strength to keep our tongue from causing harm and our lips from speaking evil. We are supposed to try to control our words ourselves. But when God’s name is used to promote destruction, Judaism reaches its limits.
- Sylvia Rothschild has been a community rabbi in south London for 30 years