Thursday, 05 Dec 2019

Written by David Yehuda-Stern

On the 10th of December 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations. This document articulates the fundamental rights and freedoms that most agree are essential for a dignified and meaningful human life.  Tragically, though, human-inflicted suffering persists. Since the document’s signing 71 years ago, we have witnessed genocides as well as acts of bias-motivated violence, prejudice and discrimination. Despite the failure of the Declaration to eradicate human suffering and oppression, people from around the world come together each year to mark the anniversary of the Declaration’s ratification. They do so in the spirit of optimism, imagining a time when the words of the Declaration are no longer aspirational but instead made real. Inspired by the Declaration and the hope it engenders, Jewish communities around the world will come together this Shabbat to focus their t’filot and divrei Torah on the following question: What does a Jewish response to Hate Crime look like? A serious part of Hate Crime is Hate Speech which, according to Oxford Constitutional Law (OXCON), concerns the use of, “verbal or non-verbal communication that involves hostility directed towards particular social groups”. Accordingly, while there are and should be many different responses to hate, I would like to focus on Jewish tradition’s emphasis on the power of speech to bring about hate or to quell it.

In the traditional Jewish liturgy we are encouraged to recite the Amidah (Shemoneh Esreh) 3 times each day. This cornerstone of Jewish prayer begins with a declaration taken from Psalms that states “Adonai s’fatai tiftach ufi yaggid t’hillatecha” – “My God, open my lips and my mouth shall declare Your praise.” In this way we begin the Amidah by reminding ourselves of the power of language and the conscious effort required to turn our words towards praise. Of course, praise is not always the appropriate response and many of the intermediate blessings of the Amidah have us crying out in pain at the injustices of our lot. As we make our way through the Amidah how understandable it would be if our painful pleas turned to anger towards those who have, and continue to afflict us. How easy it would be to solely prioritise our own suffering (and deserved restitution) over all the other souls that suffer around us. Given this, it is no coincidence that the Amidah’s concluding paragraph – which begins with the word Elohai – asks each of us to undertake the following meditation:

“My God, keep my tongue from causing harm,
and my lips from telling lies.
Let me be silent if people curse me,
my soul still humble and at peace with all.”

When we say, “Let me be silent if people curse me” we must understand this as referring only to responses that are unjust (i.e. built on lies) or which cause unnecessary harm. Indeed, we must respond to the ills of the world in order that we can help reduce suffering. The powerful bookends of the Amidah are there to ensure that we do not forget our own humanity with respect to others, even those who have showed little consideration for ours.

This Shabbat we will read from Parashat Vayeitzei. Towards the end of our Torah portion Jacob decides it is time to leave his father-in-law Laban’s house and to return to his homeland. Given the challenging and complicated relationship he has had with Laban, Jacob decides it best if he and his household leave secretly, without alerting their host. As Jacob and the rest of his family secretly pack up their belongings, readying themselves to set out on a long journey, Rachel sneaks into her father’s home and steals his teraphim (house-hold idols). Here, the Torah does not give a motive for Rachel’s actions and her husband Jacob is unaware of what she has done as they set off for Canaan.

Meanwhile Laban, realising his idols, daughters and grandchildren are gone, pursues Jacob and after a few days catches up to him. The night before Laban is to confront his son-in-law, God appears to Laban in a dream warning him, “Beware, in case you speak with Jacob either good or evil.” God’s timely reminder ensures that Laban, though angry and aggrieved, is measured and fair in his response to Jacob’s actions. Thus, when Laban does confront Jacob his initial declaration of pain are followed by a series of questions allowing Jacob to explain his actions: “What have you done? You fooled me, and led my daughters away like prisoners of war. Why did you flee so stealthily?” A constructive conversation and negotiation follow leading Jacob and Laban to form a new pact and part each other’s company in peace.

A surprising contrast to Laban’s measured words is found in Jacob’s immediate response when confronted about the theft of his father-in-law’s household idols. Jacob, unaware that Rachel had taken the teraphim, tells Laban, “With whomever you find your gods, they shall not live!” Rashi, the renowned Medieval French commentator, says that these hasty words on the part of Jacob – i.e. this curse –  brought about his wife’s premature death on the journey towards Canaan. We may have expected that Jacob, one of the founding fathers of the Jewish people, would be above needing reminders on the importance of the spoken word. However, as we can see, even our greatest figures were not beyond speaking without due care and attention. Our Torah portion powerfully reminds us that hastily spoken and hateful words can have dreadful consequences; even the death of those we love.

As we go about our lives we need to be wise to the power of our own words as well as the words of others. We need to be confident in speaking out against harmful speech and lies that are directed, not just towards our own community, but also at other social groups. We must be prepared to challenge the criticisms and defences of our leaders and never dismiss their words as mere “locker-room banter”. Finally, we must be careful that our own quest for justice does not come at the expense of others who are so desperately seeking the same thing.

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.