Déjà Vu: The Public Propagation of Hatred

Déjà Vu: The Public Propagation of Hatred

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Like most of our American population, I thoroughly enjoy the internet and the educational and entertainment enrichment and communication possibilities the media in general adds to my life. But, as so many people are already aware, there is an essential caveat: the widespread dissemination of supposed truths that are actually untruths – in other words, lies. Currently, especially in our political life, we have also seen the damage that the reverse side of the coin – undermining proven facts and calling them “fake” to suit a particular, usually nefarious, agenda – can do.

This caveat also applies to the all too often malevolent representation of the Talmud on the web. As I have commented in previous posts, the Talmud represents an accumulation of wisdom. Each singular remark captures only one rabbinic opinion on the subject under discussion. The expression of many other opinions (over a number of centuries) follow on each talmudic page, and, in most cases, these differing opinions are reconciled to produce a majority view. Popular wisdom is also taken into account. Sometimes a conclusion cannot be reached, and the subject under discussion is tabled peaceably for another time.

So to cite a single negative position in a published post, article, or sound byte does not represent the whole conversation, is likely to distort it, and may indicate malicious intentions on the part of the person or organization that posted it. Unfortunately, anti-Semitic websites which quote a variety of out-of-context Talmudic statements proliferate on the internet. Their usual intent is to incite hatred of the Jewish people (even if appreciation of Jewish lawyers or doctors or occasional friends is expressed).

Here we come to the heart of the matter: statements taken out of context that are deliberately used by individuals or groups to malign people and cause them pain, and, even worse, to incite hatred against religious and/or ethnic groups. The Talmud refers to this deceitful misuse of speech as a category of what in Hebrew is called ona’at devarim, the pain that words can inflict.

The Talmud makes clear that just as there is ona’ah in monetary matters (i.e., willful deceit, fraudulent business dealings), there is also ona’ah in words, when the intention or effect is to inflict pain. Even if we have spoken these words with good intentions, we should be mindful of hurting others by what we say.

For example, we should not add pain with our words to people whom tragedy has befallen, who are suffering illness, or by implying that God does not allow innocent people to come to harm, and in general, behaving like Job’s so-called friends (who pointed out his failings when he was down). As my revered mentor, Rabbi Elijah J. Schochet, cautioned (referencing the medieval scholar, Rashi), since no one except God can know your thoughts, “be mindful of the one who hears your thoughts.” Causing people anguish through disrespect is considered disrespect for God (who, after all, was our Creator).

In fact, shaming someone in public is considered so serious in the Talmud that the perpetrator or group of perpetrators — will have no share in the World-to-Come (the after-life). Shaming someone publicly – whitening that person’s face (that is, draining it of blood, deadening the spirit) — is compared with murder — you have murdered someone’s reputation, and it is often irreparable. Public humiliation of someone (even calling someone a bad name in public) is so sinful in the extreme, so offensive to God, that it is better, the Talmud declares, to cast yourself into a fiery furnace than to shame someone in public (Baba Metzi’a 59)! As the U.S. moves into the 2018 mid-term election, our politicians – and those who support them — should remember that.

Even the biblical Tamar, who was impregnated by Judah and brought forth on his orders to be burned, did not shame him in public. Instead she sent him the signs that identified him as the culprit, and, in remorse, he saved her from her fiery fate. Our electronic media and print press would do well to use restraint, as Tamar did, when they excoriate people in public office.

We certainly get the Talmudic point that ona’at devarim, causing people anguish with words, is a very important issue; that is, it is important not to do it. The Talmud does reflect, though, that sometimes external events provoke disharmony. Difficult economic times, for instance (can cause strife in a household, and husbands (in 2018, it would also be working wives) are enjoined to make sure there is food in the house. As the incomes of middle class and lower income families are presently poised to take a big hit through increased taxes and deliberately inflated medical costs, our governing bodies would do well to enact something positive – big league — to ameliorate this inequity.

©️Corinne Copnick, 2017, Los Angeles. All rights reserved.