Category Archives: Jewish Ethics

Are People Who Do Terrible Things Necessarily Terrible People?

Dear Josep,

This is a topic I’ve been thinking about for a very, very long time, and several half-baked posts on it have been sitting in my drafts folder for months, if not years. Don’t ask me why it finally gelled now, on the sixth day of Chanukah when my kids are on vacation, Eitan is off touring, I’ve been up since 4am for no good reason, I’m still in my PJ’s, I have writing/editing work to do that people actually pay me for due forthwith, and a doctor’s appointment I need to drag the kids to in a couple hours. But then, my muse has a habit of turning up at the strangest times. So here we are.

There were two epic stories that I found irresistibly captivating as a kid. One was the Star Wars trilogy (the original one. I prefer to pretend the so-called “prequels” don’t exist) and one was the Harry Potter series. I get the sense that sci-fi and fantasy are not your thing, but there’s a reason stories like these are so appealing to so many people. Both Star Wars and Harry Potter feature a hero who starts out an orphan living a hard life with his aunt and uncle, and is suddenly swept away to a magical world to discover that he is destined for a mystical and pivotal role in the ultimate redemption of his world. Who doesn’t fantasize at some point or other about discovering that they’re special and destined for greatness, and most importantly,  essential to the world they live in?

There is another thing about stories like these, however, that I think is universally appealing. In both of these stories, and in most other stories, there is a clear division between light and darkness. There are good guys and bad guys. In both Star Wars and Harry Potter, the hero discovers that there is a certain level of darkness within him; but ultimately it is still very clear to us what it takes to cross the line between the two.

Real life is much more complicated.

There’s been a recent wave of allegations against public figures, many of them media personalities, of sexual harassment and assault. Many of these people immediately lost their careers; their life’s work being banned or boycotted in response to the allegations. Which is only what they deserve, right? If you assault a woman, you are a Bad Guy, period, and everything you’ve ever done in your life is now tainted with evil. Right?

…So… that’s the thing.

People Are Complicated

Consider the following TED Talk by Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger. They dated as teenagers, until Tom raped Thordis one night. The talk is about their raw and incredible story of shame, responsibility, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

There is one line Thordis says in the talk that really struck me: “How will we understand what it is in human societies that produces violence if we refuse to recognize the humanity of those who commit it?”

Before we unpack this, let’s hop over to another case I’ve been thinking about a lot for a long time.

Rabbi Barry Freundel was a community rabbi who helped many people convert to Judaism in Washington D.C. He is currently serving jail time after being found guilty of voyeurism. He had set up a hidden camera in the community mikveh, and videotaped dozens of women as they prepared to immerse (which is done without clothes on). The entire Jewish world was rocked by this scandal. He was a well-loved rabbi who took advantage of the extremely vulnerable position of the women who trusted him. We were shocked and disgusted.

About two years ago, I was having a conversation with a friend when she mentioned something about trying to give him a call to see if he was all right. It turned out that she had known him fairly well–and that her experiences of him were all positive. She told me a story about him going well out of his way, well above the call of duty, to do an important kindness for her when she was in a vulnerable place. So I asked her how she can reconcile the kind, funny, friendly man she knew with the one who violated women’s privacy in such a despicable way.

I don’t remember her exact wording and who said what in this conversation, but the upshot was that people are complicated. Good people can do really awful things. Rabbi Freundel did some terrible things and he should pay the consequences for those actions. Aside from the damage he did to the sense of security and dignity of these women, he brought shame and dishonor on himself and on Jews as a whole.

But does that mean that the wonderful things he did–such as helping my friend in her hour of need–meant nothing?

Good Guys and Bad Guys

Is Rabbi Freundel a good person because of the good things he did? Or is he a terrible person because of the terrible things he did?

I’ll bring you a more extreme example.

This woman tells the story of how she slowly discovered that her beloved father had committed multiple murders over the course of his life. “Why am I so mad?” she retorts. “Because my mother stayed married to a murderer. Because she let a monster raise her child. But that’s the thing; my father wasn’t a monster. He was the guy who snuck me candy when my mother forbade it. And he was the guy who made up silly songs to sing on the way to school. And he was the guy who was home in time for dinner every single f***ing night. He was a good father to me.

Was he a monster?

Was he a good father?

Yes.

And yes.

In my review of Rabbi Sacks’s Not in God’s Name, I mention a concept he introduces: “moralistic dualism”. People who hold this worldview believe that the world is divided into good guys and bad guys, the children of the light and the children of darkness. To a moralistic dualist, what this woman says about her father is an irreconcilable paradox. You can’t be both a monster and a good father. But he was. And he’s not the only one.

Which brings us to the place every single discussion about morality and evil brings everyone these days–the archetype of evil in our age. There’s an incredible German movie about the last hours of Adolf Hitler called Der Untergang, or “Downfall” in English. Some people took issue with the movie because it “humanized” Hitler.

And I must ask:

What was Hitler if not human?

Not only was he human–he was acting out of a belief that he was saving the world.

Does that mean he shouldn’t be held responsible for the choices he made? Of course not. Recognizing someone’s humanity does not and should not mean absolving them of responsibility.

This Is Where It Gets Really Uncomfortable

(Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

You know why I think we do this? Why we believe that people who do terrible things are irredeemable monsters?

Because we want to believe that we could never do it.

Oh yes. I see all you readers there squirming in your seats. “Me? I could never do such a thing. I’m a Good Guy. A child of light. I’m Harry Potter, I’m Luke Skywalker, I would never ever ever do something terrible.”

How true is that really? How different are you from Johnny Mascia and Barry Freundel and Louis C.K.?

This is the thing the world needs to hear and I’m going to do the blogging equivalent of shouting it from the rooftops:

IT IS NOT YOUR INHERENT NATURE THAT MAKES YOU DIFFERENT FROM HITLER.

IT IS YOUR CHOICES.

It is the choices you make every single day about how to wield your power.

We may not be wizards or Jedi knights, but we all have power, whether it’s physical, political, financial, social, spiritual, intellectual, emotional, artistic–what have you. It is how we choose to use our power that determines what we are. That is the ultimate message of both Star Wars and Harry Potter. Good Guy or Bad Guy is not a thing you are. It’s a thing you have to choose–every moment of your life.

On Forgiveness

Shortly before Yom Kippur last year, Rabbi Freundel issued a heartfelt public apology for his actions. “No matter how many times I attempt to apologize, it will never be enough,” he wrote. “I am sorry, beyond measure, for my heinous behavior and the perverse mindset that provoked my actions… as I sat in the courtroom listening the victim impact statements, each felt like a blade entering my gut. The speakers expressed their feelings of rage, hurt, humiliation, vulnerability, and violation. How could I have been so incredibly blind, so unaware of my impact on others? I ask myself that question every day.”

I’m probably going to get all kinds of comments on this post about how Rabbi Freundel doesn’t deserve to be called a rabbi and how could I even suggest that he is anything other than a voyeur, a peeping Tom, an abuser?

Yes, I am suggesting that. I am suggesting that people are bigger than their actions. That people can make bad choices and then genuinely regret them, and go on to become better people who don’t repeat those bad choices. We have a name for this process in Judaism. It’s called teshuva. And we believe it works because we believe that all people are, at their very core, pure goodnessTeshuva means “returning”: returning to your essence, to who you really are. And who you really are is a spark of the Divine–a spark that is always calling you to choose good.

We don’t have to forgive unforgivable acts. But we can forgive the people who commit them.

Obviously, it is not my place to forgive any of these people for what they have done, and I would never say that victims must do so. People need to do what’s right for them and take care of themselves and find their own journey to healing. Thordis found that forgiveness was the right path for her. It helped that her rapist was actually repentant and genuinely regretted what he did; that’s not always true. But it is true sometimes, and in the #MeToo world, I get the sense that people don’t actually believe that.

My editor at the Forward recently wrote a very nuanced piece about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and whether we should still be singing his music in the #MeToo era, given the allegations against him. I sent her an email thanking her for writing it, and I wrote that I wish we lived in a world where people actually believed in repentance and forgiveness. I think we need to start by being more humble; understanding that goodness is not what we are, it’s what we choose; understanding that humans don’t fit neatly into the categories of “good” or “evil”; and having the strength and compassion to believe in forgiveness.

Gotta run and tend to Real Life now. Happy Chanukah and Bon Nadal!

With love,

Daniella

Friendship in Judaism (In Tribute to a Decade of a Strange and Wonderful Friendship)

Dear Josep,

Mo’adim l’simcha! (Roughly, happy holidays. Just smile and nod.)

Aside from being the second day of Succot, it has come to my attention that today is also the tenth anniversary of the day we met.

…No. I do not expect you to have noticed this. 😉 No matter what Facebook may claim, “friendversaries” are not really a thing. Usually we have no way to know the exact date of the beginning of a friendship. But ours began in a very specific context, and I happen to have concrete evidence of that event: the newspapers we wrote during the conference. They are dated the 19th, 20th, and 21st of October, 2006, which means we met on the 18th.

You see, just for kicks, I dug up the PDFs of those newspapers from the depths of my Gmail history… and I noticed something amusing. The first issue was compiled during the months leading up to the conference–as in, before you and I had met. The editor assigned me some short articles on various topics, and asked me to write a longer feature article on the topic of my choosing. I chose to write, of course, about Spain’s Jewish past and crypto-Judaism in modern times. (What else?!)

So, if you open the paper to page 3, you find the first section of that article, alongside a column by a certain Josep… about religious life in Barcelona.

This is the very first instance either of our names appear in the byline.

True story.

excerpt from newspaper

And here we are, ten years later, still discussing religion, with me still taking up the vast majority of the space on the page. 😛

I wanted to mark this occasion, as is my wont, with a discussion of the concept of friendship in Judaism!

Well, the first thing, the most famous thing, is the line that is usually translated thus: “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18). But the word in Hebrew often translated as “neighbor” is actually ַרֵע, which translates far more accurately as “friend.”

There are a few questions one might ask about this verse. Firstly, how can God command you to “love” someone? Isn’t “love” a feeling? You can’t command someone to be happy or sad or angry, can you?

So… no, actually. Love isn’t just a feeling. It was Mr. Rogers (who was a Presbyterian minister in addition to child psychologist and TV personality) who said: “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”

…There you have it. When the Torah commands us to love our friend or to love God, it doesn’t mean we should feel love, it means we must practice love. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler argues that the root of love is giving: that we create love by giving to another. We give to our fellow man in many ways, many of which are listed explicitly in the Torah; and we give to God by following His commandments and giving to His other creations.

So why does the Bible say, “as thyself”? Obviously, the plain meaning is that you should care for your friend as much as you care for yourself. But there is another idea there: you have to love and accept yourself before you can truly love and accept someone else.

Let’s take a look at stories of friendship in the Bible. The most famous and obvious example is the “bromance” between David and Jonathan.

A little context: before King David came to power, King Saul ruled the Kingdom of Israel. Jonathan was his eldest son, the crown prince. But while King Saul hated David and tried to kill him, knowing he was destined to supersede him, Jonathan and David became soulmates. The Bible puts it in the strongest and most poetic of terms: “Jonathan’s soul was entwined with David’s soul, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” The only other time this kind of language–the “intertwining of souls”–is used in the Bible, is when Judah tells Joseph about the love their father has for Benjamin: “And his [Jacob’s] soul is entwined with his [Benjamin’s] soul.”

Usually when the term “soulmates” is used people interpret that romantically. I used to think of it that way, too. But I don’t anymore. I believe that people have more than one “soulmate”–people with whom you develop a deep and inexplicably powerful bond, that can defy space, time, and circumstances. The friendship between David and Jonathan was such a bond. Jonathan was the heir to the throne; it would have made perfect sense for him to join his father in ridding themselves of “the competition.” But instead, he risked his very life to save David’s. There’s an incredibly powerful moment in Samuel I chapter 20, after Jonathan had worked out a way to find out, once and for all, his father’s intentions with David, and after he delivered the message that David must flee:

And David arose from the south; and he fell upon his face to the ground three times, and prostrated himself three times. And they kissed one another, and wept one with the other, until David wept greatly. And Jonathan said to David, ‘Go in peace! For we have sworn both of us in the name of the Lord, saying, ‘May the Lord be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants forever.””  (Samuel I 20:41-42)

Tragically, this was very likely the last time David and Jonathan ever spoke. David spent the next few years on the run, and Jonathan died on the battlefield with Saul.

So we see in this story that Jonathan practiced love for his friend by giving to him–everything from his right to the throne to his own life.

The Talmud also has a great deal to say about friendships. In Ethics of the Fathers, one rabbi recommends “a good friend” as the key to living an honest and good life. There are many stories about friendships in there, too. Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gebirol, a famous Sephardic poet, said: “If you ask about a person, ask who his friends are. For every person does what his friends do.” (I wonder if this is the source for the common saying, “Show me your friends and I’ll show you who you are.”)

There seems to be common agreement among the Sages that friendships with good people can make us better people.

Well, I can definitely confirm that our friendship has made me a better person in a variety of ways.

So… happy friendversary, Josep. 😉 It’s a pleasure and a privilege to know you. As you wrote in your dedication on my copy of the book: “I hope to be arguing with you for many decades to come!” 😛

Love,

Daniella

Why the Abortion Debate Hardly Exists in Israel

Dear Josep,

Abortion is one of the most hotly debated and divisive topics in American politics. It’s one of the most important issues on the agenda for aspiring politicians, and the discussion around it comes up over and over again during pre-election campaigns.

In Israel, on the other hand, no one so much as mentions it when elections roll around. Abortion is practically absent from political debates in this country–as much as anything is “absent from debate” in Israel, that is. 😉 But really, for a country full of Jews–who are constantly arguing about everything–this has got to make you ask: what’s going on here?!

Well, first, let’s look at what’s going on in the USA. On one end of the spectrum we have the ultra-conservatives, influenced mostly by Christian thought, who believe that a baby’s status as a person begins at conception, and therefore abortion at any stage of pregnancy is nothing short of murder and should be illegal just like murder is.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the ultra-liberals, who assert that no one has any right to tell a woman what to do with her body, regardless of the status of the baby at any stage during pregnancy, and therefore any woman should be free to abort her pregnancy at any time.

These are the voices that shout the loudest, but the truth is that the opinions of the majority of Americans fall somewhere in between those two positions.

While many liberals find the ultra-conservative position horrible and wrong and possibly misogynist, I think it’s important to understand that if you truly believe that the status of “personhood” applies from the moment of conception, there is really no way around this as a serious moral problem. It angers me when I see people brush that opinion off as ignorance or bigotry. The question of exactly at which point a person becomes a person is not a matter of science; it is a matter of philosophy. If you spend more than half a millisecond thinking about it, it is not a simple question at all. According to Christian thought, a person becomes a person at the moment of conception, and at that point, the fertilized egg takes on exactly the same status as the mother. It is not ignorance or bigotry to think that no one should be allowed to kill what you believe is a person, even if that pregnancy and birth may cause suffering.

Fortunately for the world’s one and only Jewish country… the Jewish position on this matter is a lot more, shall we say, nuanced.

In the Talmud, there are several sources that state that in the first 40 days after conception, the embryo (or zygote, or blastocyst, if you want to get technical) is not considered a human by halakha. Maimonides says “All these forty dates, it is not a fetus, it is considered like water.” (This comes out to sometime during the 8th week of pregnancy.) So while Judaism would not advocate aborting a pregnancy in general, there is a lot more room to permit it in the first 40 days.

After this, the fetus has a sort of in-between status in Jewish law, one which I would call “potential personhood.” This applies practically in a number of ways.

Firstly: Judaism, in contrast to Christianity, does not consider abortion to be equal to murder. It is a sin, but not as grave as murder.

On the other hand, most authorities agree that it is permissible to desecrate the Sabbath to save the life of a fetus (a threatened miscarriage, for example), even though the fetus is not considered a person. One of the ideas behind the principle that allows us to break most commandments in order to save a life, is that we are desecrating one Sabbath so that the person we saved will be able to observe many Sabbaths in the future. This principle still applies in the case of a fetus, who will (hopefully) eventually grow into a person, who will (hopefully) keep the Sabbath. 🙂

From these two rulings we understand that the status of a fetus as a person is somewhat fuzzy.

Accordingly, the question of whether abortion is permitted has a rather fuzzy answer, too. As a general rule, of course, as we saw in the post about pregnancy and contraception, Judaism encourages us to bring life into the world, and therefore, by default, abortion is forbidden. However, under certain circumstances, exceptions can be made.

There is a well-known organization in Israel that deals with fertility and halakha, called Puah Institute. I have never needed to consult them for any reason–thank God–but the general sense I get from them is that their rabbis tend to be very lenient when it comes to aborting a pregnancy for “medical reasons” (a.k.a., the fetus suffering from some medical condition or other that would affect its quality of life and that of its parents and family). There is a general perception that religious Jews will not abort in the case of Down Syndrome, for example, and I personally would not (and not only for halakhic reasons). But I have heard of cases of the rabbis at Puah permitting a woman to abort in such a case where it was determined that having a child with this disorder would be catastrophic for the family.

Unfortunately, Israel is not particularly advanced when it comes to accessibility and equality for people with disabilities. Combine this with the fact that the Israeli medical system recommends more prenatal testing than any other country in the world, and you will understand why we also have the highest “medical abortion” rates in the world. I take moral issue with this, personally, but the point is that there is room in halakha to make allowances, even beyond what I personally am morally comfortable with.

So whether an abortion is permitted by halakha depends what the reason is, and it also depends on the stage of pregnancy. The later in the pregnancy, the harder it is to permit. Starting at around 24 weeks, a fetus could theoretically survive outside the womb. So if you think killing a 24-week preemie outside the womb is murder, it’s pretty hard to argue that killing a 24-week fetus inside the womb isn’t murder. Still, Judaism does not consider it the same as murder until the baby has been born. The guiding principle in halakha is “the life of the mother comes before that of the fetus,” meaning that if, even during childbirth, the mother’s life is threatened and could be saved by killing the fetus, halakha says that the fetus must be killed to save the mother’s life.

The fact that Judaism is more nuanced than Christianity on the topic of abortion is the reason the political conversation around it in Israel is so different from that in the USA. Abortions are legal until the third trimester and are funded by our national healthcare. There are theoretical criteria for an abortion to be approved for funding, such as the age of the mother, medical issues, or financial issues, and a woman must appear before a committee for approval. But in practice the request is almost never denied.

I consider myself to be “pro-choice,” in that I believe women should be allowed to have abortions even in some cases where I think it is morally wrong. But while I think women absolutely have the right to do what they want with their bodies, it’s more complicated than that when there is another life, or potential life, involved.

So I find the Israeli arrangement to be a good middle ground: abortions are legal and accessible, but not so accessible that women can take the decision lightly. It seems that the majority of Israelis are comfortable with this arrangement as well.

Another illustration of how different the discourse in Israel is from that in the USA is the difference between our anti-abortion movements. The most well-known anti-abortion organization in Israel is called Efrat. They claim that they are not anti-abortion, but merely offer counselling for mothers who were considering abortion for financial reasons, and if said mothers decide to have the baby, Efrat offers them financial assistance. I have read articles that call their integrity into question and claim that they are more sinister than they seem, but still… compare and contrast to those lunatics shooting up abortion clinics in the USA. O.O

(Seriously Americans. WT*.)

Shelo neda, as we say in Hebrew… roughly, “may we never know from this.”

Love,

Daniella

Tweet No Evil: The Power of Speech in the Age of Social Media

Dear Josep,

I recently saw a TED talk by Monica Lewinsky–yes, that Monica Lewinsky1–that I found really important and inspiring. She talks about cyberbullying and the “culture of humiliation”, and how the global response to the scandal in which she was involved made her the sort of “patient zero” of this phenomenon. What I find inspiring is her courage in forgiving herself for a mistake that was rubbed in the entire world’s face, reclaiming her narrative, and then going on to speak up for the victims of similar shaming campaigns and try to turn the world into a more compassionate and forgiving place. It’s a worthwhile 20 minutes:

Why am I talking about Monica Lewinsky and cyberbullying on a blog about Judaism?

There is a mitzvah in our tradition called “shmirat halashon“, “guarding the tongue”. It is a prohibition against speaking negatively about and/or to other people. There are several categories of negative speech, including hona’at devarim, speech that is directly harmful or abusive to the person to whom you are speaking; hotza’at shem ra, libeling; and the most well-known, lashon hara, gossiping or speaking negatively about people behind their backs.

Much as these things seem self-evident as part of being a decent person, it is actually very hard. We have a drive to speak negatively about others, for a whole variety of reasons, and especially that last one–speaking about people behind their backs. It can be hard to draw the line between negative speech that is necessary and negative speech that just feels good. For example, if someone has wronged you and you feel hurt, it’s okay to talk about it with someone you trust if you need to get it off your chest and get some support, but it’s not okay to go on and tell everyone you know just for the sake of feeling self-righteous. Because these boundaries are a little blurry, it is an often misunderstood and even maligned mitzvah, especially compared to “big” mitzvot like keeping kosher and Shabbat.  As a kid, I remember it being used against me by other kids as an attempt to shut me down, and not always in a justified context. Unfortunately, even in ultra-Orthodox communities, this mitzvah can be under-practiced and under-appreciated… and also sometimes misused to excuse covering up cases where speaking up is the proper thing to do, such as cases of abuse. Especially in communities that are so careful about things like women’s modesty and holding to the highest standard of kashrut, it is tragic when shmirat halashon is not properly observed. The effects of misusing speech are devastating.

Speak no evil, hear no evil. Image is cropped from this image by japanexperterna.se.
Speak no evil, hear no evil.
Image is cropped from this image by japanexperterna.se.

King Solomon writes in Proverbs: “Life and death are in the power of the tongue”. In the Talmud, the Sages say, “One who embarrasses his fellow in public–it is as though he has spilled blood.” Speech is what elevates humans above animals. It is what allows us to share our ideas, building off of each other to create, develop and advance in science, technology and philosophy. It is what allows us to share our emotions and thoughts, making it possible to build relationships, improve ourselves and others, support others, and heal each other. Words change the way people think, the way they feel, the way they see the world. Speech is a gift that has immense power. And like everything that has immense power, that power can be very constructive… and also very destructive. And in this day and age, when we are so connected and our words and images can be spread globally in the blink of an eye, we have to be especially careful about what we say. We often have no idea what effect our words could have.

The mitzvah of shmirat halashon is not only to avoid speaking negatively, but also to avoid listening to negative speech. Listening to and internalizing speech is what gives it its power, even if we don’t actively spread the negativity. Simply allowing it into our minds and souls contributes to its damage. Simply hearing something negative about another person will change the way you think about him or her, even if you’re not sure you believe what you heard.

I think that at a deeper level, the problem of negative speech stems from difficulty with another concept that is not a mitzvah but a middah (positive character trait/ethic) that we are encouraged to develop: judging others favorably (dan l’kaf zchut). Judging people favorably does not mean excusing their behavior or turning a blind eye to their negative traits. It means giving the benefit of the doubt and assuming the best–because there is always so much we don’t know about the situation or the person–and focusing on the good aspects of that person or group.

When we truly judge everyone favorably, there is simply nothing negative to say.

I’ll give you an example that I found especially distressing. A couple years ago, there were a number of cases of parents accidentally leaving their babies or young children in a hot car, that ended in tragedy. Facebook was full of awful comments, blaming the parents, calling for severe punishment of these “criminals”. This really upset me, because in most cases like these, the parents are actually completely responsible and loving parents who had one fateful moment of absentmindedness with terrible consequences. Here is an excellent article on the topic, which I think anyone who has an opinion on this should read; but I warn you, it is an emotionally difficult read, especially as a parent.

We all make mistakes. I cannot imagine the agony those parents must have been experiencing. As a parent, my heart clenches and I get sick to my stomach just thinking about it. They need support in their grief and guilt, not people making nasty comments, rubbing their mistake in their faces, and calling for punishment. When I tried pointing out to people that these parents deserved our support and empathy and not our criticism, the responses were… not encouraging. I wrote the following in my journal:

It scares and saddens me that I live in a world where people’s automatic defense mechanism in these cases is to be cruel, angry, and to punish, rather than to be kind, compassionate, and try to help. It makes me wonder about our justice system, where our response to wrongdoing is so focused on punishment instead of reeducation and rehabilitation.

And it angers me that when I show compassion for parents like these, I get responses like “Stop your crocodile tears, you probably agree with those teenagers who think the Boston Marathon bomber was ‘too pretty to have committed a crime’. Your false compassion cheapens the life of a child who died a horrific death.”

Because making a tragic mistake as a parent is apparently morally equivalent to committing premeditated murder out of senseless hatred. And apparently, it is impossible to have compassion both for the parent and for the child.

I just haven’t been able to stop thinking–and occasionally crying–about this.

Social media intensifies the phenomenon of negative speech and magnifies its ugliness. And I don’t just mean the kind of high-profile “shaming campaigns” and cyberbullying Ms. Lewinsky is talking about. Every time we share an article, a status, or a spoken remark that ridicules someone, every time we make a disparaging comment or use disrespectful or extreme language to describe an individual or a group (excluding, of course, individuals or groups that have proven themselves unequivocally to deserve those descriptions), we are using the gift of speech for harm.

The Torah calls on us to use our speech to build, rather than destroy. To use it, as Ms. Lewinsky urges, to cultivate a culture of empathy and compassion instead of a culture of humiliation, criticism and punishment. Not only to speak constructively, but also to close our ears to negative speech, and drown it out with kind and encouraging voices.

I try to be careful about how I speak and write, and I try to think ten times before saying or writing anything that is harsh or critical. But every once in a while I will hurt someone with my words. I think the blessing-and-curse of being highly sensitive and empathetic makes it easier for me to be aware of the effect words have on others, and that also makes this issue particularly important to me. But I am no saint and I struggle with avoiding negative speech just like the next person. It’s not an easy trait to cultivate, but I think it is of far greater importance than most people realize.

Love,

Daniella


1. If you were not old enough to be politically aware, or were otherwise living under a rock, during 1998, here you go.


Blog readers: Do you remember when someone’s speech, positive or negative, had a deep and lasting impact on you? Please tell us about it in the comments. (And as per the halakhot of shmirat halashon, if your story casts someone in a negative light, please avoid details that reveal that person’s identity to someone who might know him or her.)

Also: if you are interested in learning more about this topic, cultivating constructive speech and avoiding destructive speech, I have a friend who runs this daily e-mail service, “Protect Our Speech”, that sends one short e-mail lesson per day about shmirat halashon. You can subscribe by sending an e-mail to protectourspeech-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. You can also find the lessons on Facebook under the “Protect Our Speech” community.