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Counting the Omer: On free speech and moral speech

Permitting a wide range of expression is crucial to freedom, but we can’t forget that Judaism gives us careful instructions for how to speak justly
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Wikimedia Commons

Jewish communities around the world are currently engaged in the counting of the Omer, marking our spiritual consciousness today from our hasty liberation from Egypt to our personal receiving of the Torah at Sinai. This was the turning point in the history of Judaism, as we were then given a guide of righteousness. As we reenact going from slavery to responsibility, we must learn not only how to act but how to speak with grace and consideration. The rabbis have emphasized that one of the biggest factors that makes humans unique is our ability to speak. During this time of the counting of the Omer, and at all times possible, we should be thinking about how the words we choose affect our relationship with the world, ourselves, and with God.

People on the left and the right of America’s political spectrum agree that free speech is under threat.

According to a study by The New York Times and Siena College, “84 percent of adults said it is a ‘very serious’ or ‘somewhat serious’ problem that some Americans do not speak freely in everyday situations because of fear of retaliation or harsh criticism,” and that 58% of Republicans and 52% of Democrats had “held their tongues” for fear of backlash. This is a bipartisan concern.

Free speech should be especially valued in the Jewish community, as the right to express minority opinions has been central to our thriving in America over these past many decades.

To be sure, there are some cases where it makes sense for institutions — sometimes the governments and sometimes private companies — to protect the public from dangerous speech, such as Donald Trump using his Twitter platform to sow unrest through disinformation about the democratic process, or where false statements about Covid and vaccines pose a risk to public health, or when individuals go online to spread antisemitic propaganda.

Additionally, cyberbullying done over social media can lead to mental health problems as well as suicide. We need to have regulations around speech that harms or incites others to harm. Prominent figures who promulgate harmful speech embolden others to take their dangerous ideas further. This validation of otherwise-fringe thoughts can have disastrous consequences.

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At the same time, there are people on the political extremes who in their purity want to cut down and limit all views they disagree with. From this we’re seeing the rise in banned books, attempts to sanitize the teaching of racial injustice in American history and unbudging hardline positions on speech related to political differences. Democracy breaks down when we can no longer speak to each other across party lines and across different ideologies.

There is, however, a distinction we should be careful to make in our own lives, about the difference between speech that should be allowed and speech that we should be saying. Of course, as a matter of policy, free speech must be protected. We can’t forget, though, that Jewish values give us careful instructions for how to speak justly.

As it says in the Psalms, “Guard your tongue from evil, your lips from deceitful speech. Shun evil and do good, seek integrity and pursue it.” And in the Book of Leviticus, we receive the commandment, “Do not go about as a talebearer among your countrymen,” from which we get the prohibition against gossiping.

During this time between Pesach and Shavuot, we should be thinking about how our speech can lead toward our becoming an ethical people worthy of our experience of revelation at Sinai—and how we can choose to be people who accept the guidelines and guardrails that have made us holy.

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We can look to Pirkei Avot, the traditional text to study during this Omer period. It tells us: “Shimon … used to say: all my days I grew up among the sages, and I have found nothing better for a person than silence. Study is not the most important thing, but actions; whoever indulges in too many words brings about sin.”

Since the dawn of social media, there has been an excess of words circulating out in the world. In this new world, we may experience the temptation to think that because we put our opinion on “the right side” on social media or receive many “likes” or go viral, we don’t need to act further in the real world.

In a culture that can make us feel constantly called to weigh in on the latest contentious (and often unnecessarily personal) debate, we should remember that what is needed of us is often not yet another opinion, but the work of justice that is demanded of us out in the world.

Yes, we have a responsibility to ensure freedom of expression. We also have a duty to ensure that communications platforms are defending society against lies masquerading as truth that pose a danger to the public. Our tradition has always favored the question, “So what is your source for that opinion?” or “How did you arrive at that conclusion?” There may perhaps be no better way to extinguish the fire of a lie than to put it out with some good common sense and steady debate tactics. Yet there are some cases where we need to protect people from the harm and abuse that invariably comes with unmoderated expression. Part of being a responsible citizen means holding these imperatives in tension. We must learn how to disagree without condemning and dehumanizing people on opposing sides.

To be sure, while we value free speech, we should not require every person to talk with everyone or every organization to invite in all opposition. People and organizations should keep to their integrity on what they believe to be good and true and set certain boundaries on who is invited into their discourse. There is a value to bridge-building but also a value to setting limits on what is not acceptable speech under certain circumstances.

On the scale of mass media, it is impossible to arrive at and implement the perfect policy prescription: free-speech policies or regulations are more art than science. However, in our daily lives, we can place a premium on our own openness and our personal responsibility to live up to our Jewish values of speaking our minds without causing harm.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.
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