Lashon hara and Rush Limbaugh: What’s Purim got to do with it?

The American right-wing talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh died this week, of cancer, at the age of 70. Along the way, he amassed some 15 million followers, four wives, a Presidential Medal of Freedom bestowed by Trump, and a fortune composed of an annual salary of $85 million, a 24,000 square foot mansion in Palm Beach, Florida, and a net worth of some $600 million.

A one-man attack machine, stirring up grievance and creating conspiracy theories that in turn were embraced by his large fan-base, he was a font of fact-free claims, rumor-mongering, conspiracy theorizing, racism, homophobia, climate-denial, misogyny, and one-size-fits all hatred.

Proving the age-old adage about hate, fate, and real-estate. Which is to say: hate sells, and if you can get in on the market trend early enough—one can argue that Limbaugh invented his own niche investment instrument–you’re bound to make a fortune.

A few highlights of his claims from his long career: Global warming is a hoax, feminists are deranged, advocates for the homeless are “compassion fascists,” conservationists are “tree hugging wackos,” national health care is tantamount to the creation of “death panels,” the law student who argued that health insurance should cover contraception is a “slut,” President Obama is a Kenyan Muslim, and President Trump had won the 2020 election by a landslide. When it came to Jews, Limbaugh was a hard-line backer of Israel but also indulged in borderline classic antisemitic statements regarding bankers, money, and Wall Street, as well as subscribing to the notion that American Jews voted as Jews rather than as citizens of the United States (the old dual-loyalty canard).

And all the while, he claimed he was speaking for the working class, the left behind. To prove it, he lived in seven bedroom, 12-bath, tricked-out mansion on one of the priciest beaches in the world.

Enough already. The real question is: is it kosher for Jews to — just say it — celebrate the death of someone who has stirred up so much evil and hatred? Would it be okay to celebrate if such a person singled out Jews as one of the targets of his contempt? Do we, as Jews, embrace any semblance of the Latin principle that one should not speak ill of the dead: De mortuis nihil nisi bonum?

I’m the farthest thing from a student of Talmud. However, it seems that of all the injunctions, pro-and-con, that is our Jewish tradition, there is no such exact prohibition against speaking ill of the dead unless such speech should pour additional garbage into the world. Instead, we have the laws of lashon hara: speaking ill—but truthfully—of others in a way that lowers that person’s standing in the community. Tale-baring and gossip, strictly treyf, is different from defamation, which is when you spread lies. About which the Torah gives us, for example “Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale bearer” (Lev. 19:16), and “Thou shalt not utter a false report” (Ex. 23:1). Regarding slander, Avot gives us: “the sages have said that he who makes another’s face turn pale in public, has no share in the world to come.” But as I said, a scholar of the holy books I am not.

And Rush Limbaugh, being dead, can’t be shamed. Sadly, he’s also beyond the reach of teshuva, reclamation, redemption.

As far as I’m concerned, because he himself was a spreader of slander and lies, a master par excellence of lashon hara, and even though such venom didn’t (usually) fall on Jews, his vitriol was the enemy, if not of Jews per se, than of Judaic ethical civilization writ large. With his death comes a cessation of his garbage. Does that mean it’s kosher to be glad Limbaugh’s voice has been silenced?

I don’t know. But I do know that in general we Jews don’t celebrate when those who wish to do us ill are dead. We don’t mark the death of Hitler, let alone celebrate it, but rather turn to grieving and honoring our own dead. In the wake of the Holocaust, rather than rejoice, Jews obeyed the commandment to pursue justice. Thus Hitler’s henchmen were brought to trial, but only one, Adolf Eichmann, was put to death for his crimes.  Even then, there was nothing that so much as hinted at communal celebration. Because, it seems, that’s not what we do.

With one exception: Purim. Though couched almost entirely in silliness, playfulness, and goofiness, Purim most certainly does celebrate the death of Haman, arch-enemy and would-be architect of a Persian final solution and the villain of the Book of Esther. That Haman—and the entire Purim story—could well be a work of fiction is besides the point. His being put to death is our liberation. And okay, the holiday is understood to be about Jews being spared from death, rather than Haman’s being put to death. Even so: what’s with all the joyous hilarity?

So get out your groggers and, as they say at this time of year in New Orleans:  laissez les bon temps rouler.

About the Author
Jennifer Anne Moses is the author of seven books of fiction and non fiction, including The Man Who Loved His Wife, short stories in the Yiddish tradition, to be published on March 1. Her journalistic and opinion pieces have been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, The Newark Star Ledger, USA Today, Salon, The Jerusalem Report, Commentary, Moment, and many other publications. She is also a painter.
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