Avi S. Olitzky

Human Dignity Over Everything Else

Nearly 150 years ago, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan changed the landscape of the Jewish world professing that gossip and slander are the most deprave of transgressions. Myriads live their life attempting to avoid lashon hara as taught by the great rabbi. Rabbi Kagan taught that speaking negatively about others is not only a biblical prohibition, but it is nearly tantamount to murder.

Rabbi Kagan does not distinguish between simply discussing someone else – even neutrally – and gossiping with malicious intent. All speech about someone else is implicitly negative.

This creates for us quite a conundrum during this election season—especially these closing days.

How can we educate ourselves about the pros and cons of each candidate without engaging in discussion about the candidates? How can we vote – something the rabbis teach us is implicitly a matter of life and death – without engaging in implicit (or worse, explicit) lashon hara?

Surprisingly, it would seem that at this moment, lashon hara is required. We learn in the Talmud (BT Berakhot 19b) that “Great is human dignity (kvod habriot) for it overrides a prohibition in the Torah.” That is to say: when it comes to honoring our fellow human beings, any prohibition in the Torah is overruled.

As a mundane example, (dare I suggest someone eat something non-kosher) if a person were served something not kosher by a relative, better to consume it than embarrass them, taking away their dignity.

A more profound example would be that, when racist policies abound, when immigrant children are orphaned by their parents, when diversity, equity, and inclusion, are impeded, when science is ignored and belittled, when freedom of speech and freedom of the press is halted—not only is lashon hara permitted, but it is required. Better to defend the dignity en masse.

During the tumultuous 1960s, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel challenged us to take stock in society. “An honest examination of the moral state of our society will disclose: some are guilty but all are responsible.” Nearly 60 years later, the tumult ensues.

If you do not speak out, if you do not vote, if you do not stand up for human dignity, then you effectively perpetrate the debasement of others. And in doing so, initiate your own degrading of self.

Days away from Election Day, now is the time to come together; now is the time to raise our voices; and now is the time to vote accordingly. This is not about gossip and slander. This is about speaking truth to power, even if that means painting a true, negative picture of a person – for what they’ve done and for whom they are—for it might just mean preserving the dignity of multitudes over the dignity of an individual.

About the Author
Rabbi Avi Olitzky is a senior rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. He graduated from the Joint Program at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2003 where he was awarded a BA in Sociology and a BA in Talmud and Rabbinics. Rabbi Olitzky went on to receive an MA in Midrash in October 2007 and his ordination as a rabbi from JTS in May 2008.
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