Over the course of the election campaign to this point, the Jewish community has seen repeated and sometimes flagrant violations of halachic and ethical prohibitions against lashon hara – wicked speech – and some of the 31 transgressions related to it, such as unnecessarily engendering controversy and division.
But although negative politicking has become more common in Canada – though perhaps not to the same debased degree as in the United States – it’s worth asking whether it’s even possible for political speech to conform to Jewish law regarding lashon hara?
Moreover, is it possible to engage in any journalism or political discourse at all in a way that doesn’t contravene this restrictive halachic precept?
In a nutshell, the laws of lashon hara, as laid out by Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, a.k.a. the Chofetz Chaim (1839-1933), the recognized authority on the subject, refer to speaking disparagingly of another person, even if the information is true.
There are exceptions to this near-total ban on negative personal speech, but they generally only apply if the intention is to warn others about the behaviour of a person being spoken about, or if the person speaking lashon hara explains why he or she is doing so and tries to rebuke someone privately before doing so publicly.
Speaking lashon hara about a fellow Jew to gentiles is even more serious, because it can create a chilul HaShem, a desecration of God’s name, if non-Jews hear of Jews doing something unseemly.
So let’s look at what’s transpired Jewishly so far: an embarrassing debate over the propriety of invoking the Shoah in politics spilled beyond the Jewish community and into national consciousness, while a militant Jewish group protested outside the Toronto home of a Jewish philanthropist who had the temerity to host a fundraiser for a politician who differed with the group’s Manichean worldview. The rally followed a semi-public email exchange in which one invited guest declined to attend by saying he’d be desecrating the memory of the Six Million if he did so.
In the first instance, strictly speaking, Walrus editor Jonathan Kay was engaging in lashon hara when he tweeted about York Centre Tory MP Mark Adler trumpeting his status as the child of a Holocaust survivor on a massive poster outside his campaign office. Both Kay and York Centre NDP candidate Hal Berman – who rebuked Adler on Twitter, despite himself noting in his campaign literature that he, too, is the child of a Holocaust survivor – would seem to be guilty of airing dirty laundry before a gentile audience.
Similar criticisms apply to the Jewish Defence League protest fiasco.
Rabbi Jonathan Ziring of Yeshiva University Torah MiTzion Beit Midrash Zichron Dov of Toronto, studies the laws of lashon hara and how they relate to journalistic ethics and public debate.
In an interview, he noted that the Chofetz Chaim, who had little time for newspapers and the sensationalized press of his day, takes a formal, legalistic view of negative speech in a mostly personal context that doesn’t mesh easily with free-speech and journalistic values in a modern democracy.
But Rabbi Ziring suggested there may be room to carve out space for politics and journalism if lashon hara is understood as an ethical value to be weighed against other ones – such as “love your fellow as yourself,” “do not engender controversy,” or “judge your fellow favourably” – when evaluating the merit of speech, political or otherwise.
Rabbi Ziring, a relative newcomer to Canada, wisely steered clear of commenting on local political controversies.
But even if one adopts a less restrictive position, he said, it’s worth noting that “once things devolve into bickering, blowing things out of proportion, not treating the other side with respect and not allowing for discussion, all benefit has been lost.”
He added: “It’s always a good thing to lower the volume and raise the level of discussion.”
So, the bad news: the community has given itself a black eye thus far. But the good news, in the spirit of taking stock on the High Holidays, is that we still have 5-1/2 weeks to redeem ourselves.
We can start with changing the tone of debates around our Rosh Hashanah dinner tables.