Yitzhak Santis

Hate Speech: Nothing New under the Sun

Judaism has much to say on the power words have over life and death. The Tree of Life massacre underscores this.

When demagogues rile up crowds with angry words, some people feel validated and empowered to act out those words. Our tradition long ago noticed this human proclivity and is far from silent as it makes it forcefully clear that “evil tongue” (Lashon HaRa) is a moral failing equivalent to stealing and even murder. Perhaps it was Proverbs 18:21 that got the ball rolling:

מָוֶת וְחַיִּים, בְּיַד-לָשׁוֹן; וְאֹהֲבֶיהָ, יֹאכַל פִּרְיָהּ

“Death and Life are in the hand of the tongue; and those that indulge in it will eat its fruit.”

The Rabbis of Talmudic times took note of the tongue’s power with their observation that the universe itself was created through speech. If speech can be so powerful as to create, it certainly contains the power to destroy.

The Talmud in Arachin (15b) explains that negative speech is even worse than a sword – as it can kill many people even from a great distance.

And this Hasidic parable is a treasure:

A man spread a rumor about another. He later felt remorse, and went to his rabbi to ask how to make amends. “Go to the store and buy a bag of seeds,” said the rabbi, “then go to a big open field and scatter the seeds into the wind. Do so and report back to me in a week.”

The man did exactly as he was told, and came back the next week to find out what to do next. “Now,” said the rabbi, “go back to the field and pick up all the seeds.”

“But,” the man protested, “those seeds have scattered far and wide! I’ll never find them all. Many have even already taken root!”

“Exactly,” explained the rabbi. “Now you understand. When we speak badly about another person, the effect is far and wide. And it is damage that can never be fully undone.”

From all this, we learn that when words of hate are spread they can take root in the minds of many, encouraging some to act violently, while others who heard the same words come to support the action with their silence. Meanwhile, the damage is done, people die, families are torn asunder and communities wrecked.

There really is nothing new under the sun, is there?

About the Author
Yitzhak Santis resides in Ramat Yishai in northern Israel. He is studying for his MA in Holocaust Studies at the Weiss-Livnat International Program in Holocaust Studies at University of Haifa.