In rabbinical school – five long years of additional training after college – we take a deep dive into the vast treasury of sacred Jewish literature: Talmud, Torah and their attendant commentaries. There are courses in homiletics (the art of preaching), as well as classes in counseling techniques, a field that I continued to pursue after rabbinical school.
We are not taught economics, international relations or affairs of state. For this reason, I believe rabbis must be careful when they choose to hold forth on present-day politics with an authority they have not earned. Aside from not being experts in this field, we risk alienating a segment of the congregation that may not agree with us.
Still, there are times when silence betrays the responsibility we accept when we are ordained: to proclaim the wisdom of our 2,000-year-old sacred tradition. There are occasions when our public officials engage in behavior that is so egregious, so contrary to the basic tenets of our faith, that an unwillingness to speak becomes a mockery of the Jewish prophetic mandate to pursue justice.
There is also the need to respond when our community is the target of hateful speech. We are living through a period in American politics when the dialogue has become harsh and vindictive, often tainted by racist overtones and at times blatantly anti-Semitic invective. These statements cannot go unchallenged.
There is no doubt about the power of words. When we gather for the High Holy Days later this month, we will recite the ashamnu, a litany of our communal sins. Many of the transgressions relate to speech: lying, deliberate deception, cursing others, making fun of or ridiculing our opponents. The sages understood that harsh language can do more damage than spears and guns. A rabbinic adage teaches that “demeaning speech hurts three people: the one who says it, the object of their scorn and the one who listens.”
But for all the harm caused by hurtful words, the words not spoken can be even more dangerous. The Jewish sages taught if we placed all the transgressions of speech on one side of a scale, only one – the sin of silence – would equal the weight of all other offenses of speech. As the late Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel wrote, “To remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all.”
As the New Year approaches, it would be wise for us not to remain silent. We should never hesitate to stand up for what we believe is right. But when we speak, we should be thoughtful and kind in our conversations with those closest to us, clear but respectful when we express our opinions in the public square, and, as this political season heats up, demand truthfulness and civility on the part of those who want to represent us.
The T’filah, the central prayer of our liturgy, ends with words from the Book of Psalms (34:14): “Guard my speech from evil and my lips from deception.”
May this New Year be one of compassionate conversation, and a renewed sense of tolerance and respect for those in our community and beyond.
Rabbi Robert S. Goldstein leads Temple Emanuel of Andover.