Speaking Freely

Generally speaking, Jewish sources are a decidedly mixed bag when it comes to the question of free speech. You don’t need to look further than the recommended punishment for the sin of false prophecy in this morning’s Torah reading — death by strangulation — to realize that the First Amendment would sit uneasily in the context of Deuteronomic law. Just last month we read of the fate of Korah and his companions, who were swallowed up by the earth for the sin of speaking out against Moses; so much, I guess, for the right to assemble. Be it the punishment of the stubborn and rebellious child, the biblical prohibitions against idolatry, or the afflictions awaiting the would-be talebearer, we should think twice about using the Torah as our go-to text in defense of freedom of speech.

Which is why, when I speak to you this morning about the importance of free speech, I do so not because it is a value that I can derive directly from Jewish texts (though we will return to that question), but rather because it is a value that I believe is vital to the health not only of the American Jewish community but also of the much wider community that we, our children, and grandchildren inhabit.

These past few weeks, I have been following with great interest the reverberations of a letter written by the dean of my alma mater, the University of Chicago. The dean of students, John (Jay) Ellison, wrote a letter to the incoming class of 2020, setting expectations with regard to campus discourse. Let me read you excerpts that give you the flavor of his welcome message:

“. . . One of the University of Chicago’s defining characteristics is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression. . . . Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn without fear of censorship. Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others. You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort….Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

When I was at the University of Chicago, my greatest struggle involved memorizing Akkadian verb tables. I have no recollection of raucous campus debates and I can’t recall ever receiving a letter like this one. Times, it would seem, have changed. Indelicate as the wording of the letter may be, it has been understood to be a courageous preemptive move by the University of Chicago in the context of a culture war taking place on college campuses across the nation.

Last year, a Yale administrator was rebuked for suggesting that students “just relax” when it comes to how others dress up for Halloween, no matter how offensive the costumes may be.

At Wesleyan, there was a concerted effort to defund the student paper for the sin of running an anti-Black Lives Matter article.

On campus after campus there are student populations so hypersensitive to being slighted, so coddled against any actual or perceived offense, that discourse has been stifled in the very place whose mission is the free exchange of ideas. Rather than being a brave space for rigorous argument, these universities — often chastened by the political left — seek to create safe space, where nobody’s feathers are ruffled and where teachers must forewarn students whenever a subject is raised that may rattle someone.

The letter is far from perfect, and not everyone, to be sure, has responded positively. But since it was sent, a growing list of schools, including Columbia, Brown, and Claremont McKenna, have issued similarly minded statements. (J. Singal, New York Magazine, Aug 26, 2016) The University of Chicago may be the place where fun goes to die, but it is apparently a place where free speech is very, very much alive.

You may be able to tell — either by my tone or my school loyalties — that I am largely in agreement with the letter. But before we affix copies of the First Amendment to our prayer books, we would do well to pause two beats to think about the implications of such a letter for our Jewish students on campus. After all, it is the pro-Israel and Jewish community, perhaps more than any other, who is presently most sensitive and perceived to be most vulnerable to the excesses of free speech. In a world of anti-Zionists and Holocaust deniers, in the present climate of BDS and delegitimization of Israel, is the Jewish community really prepared to stand at the front line in defense of free speech on campus?

When I was in my hometown of Los Angeles last weekend, news broke that the president of the UCLA graduate student association — a Hindu — had decided to transfer schools, allegedly owing to his being harassed by people upset by his actions opposing funding for groups that support BDS. At the same time, in the alternate reality of UC Berkeley, students can receive academic credit this fall for a class titled “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis,” which essentially explores avenues to destroy the State of Israel.

West Coast and East Coast, private and public colleges — the concern is one and the same. Our children and grandchildren are living in environments hostile to the very values we hold dear. It is the Jewish community, goes the counterargument, that should be most concerned by the pernicious effects of free speech run amok.

It is a complicated debate, and I want to speak with some humility; as I have shared before, my legal education never went beyond once taking the LSAT. Nevertheless, as a rabbi, as a Jewish educator, and most of all, as a parent of soon-to-be college kids, I believe that the Jewish community does itself a great disservice by coming down against free speech. Yes, campus administrators have an obligation to their students to provide a safe environment and to take proactive steps if students are being harassed to a point that substantially interferes with their education. Yes, it is the responsibility of universities to create an environment where words can be both spoken and heard without fear of harm. That is also the promise of free speech. That said, I cannot help but think we are committing a misdeed against our children by not letting them be exposed to all sorts of ideas — even ideas we find totally objectionable.

Last year, a well-to-do congregant whose child attends a certain college called me, complaining about the BDS activities taking place on his child’s campus. “Rabbi,” he asked, “what would it cost for me to send Alan Dershowitz there? You know the campus; you’ve met Dershowitz — let me know and I’ll make it happen.”

My response to him was that well-meaning and generous as he was, I was pretty sure that having Dershowitz shout — or be shouted down — on that campus was probably not the best tactic to help his daughter. Why not, I suggested, call the Hillel director, and direct your resources there to educate your daughter with a love of Israel, the facts of the Middle East, and the confidence and tools to articulate those views on her own.

And although I didn’t say it to him, I did think to myself that his offer to helicopter in was a dime coming a little too little, a little too late. It represented a compensatory act for his recognition that his child was ill-prepared to weather the harsher elements of campus discourse. The front line of BDS is not in the campus classroom. It is in your home, at your Shabbat table; it is in this synagogue; it is in the decisions you make to raise children who are loving, knowledgeable, and passionate Zionists.

Long before our children arrive on campus, they need to love Israel and know Israel in her strengths and weaknesses to the point that they are poised and prepared for whatever comes their way. They also need to understand the line between anti-Israel speech and activity and anti-Semitism and be prepared to respond appropriately. When it comes to Jewish students on campus, we will win the war not because we sought to shut down the debate or because we brought in a bigger gun. We will win because our ideas are better than theirs and our children and grandchildren are armed with the tools to advocate on behalf of the ideals that they and we believe in.

Even with the best of intentions, we dare not be contributors to what our upcoming scholar-in-residence Dr. Julian Zelizer calls the “closing of the American Jewish mind.” If we want our children to be resilient, self-confident and adroit defenders of the Jewish state, then we must realize that those are qualities that can only be obtained by way of a wholehearted embrace of the principles of free speech.

No matter what our Torah reading may say on the subject of free speech, while God may have had the first word, it is we human beings who have the last. From Abraham’s first argument with God at Sodom and Gomorrah, through a multi-millennial tradition of talmudic debate, ours is a tradition that prizes what Justice William Brennan had in mind when he wrote that the First Amendment protects “robust, uninhibited and wide-open” speech. Our heroes have always been those prophetic figures willing to engage in the ideas of the hour, speak out against an oppressor, against each other and sometimes even against God. As Heinrich Heine once wrote: “Since the Exodus, freedom has always spoken with a Hebrew accent.” Our day should be no different.

Shoftim v’shotrim titen l’kha b’khol sh’arekha, “Judges and officials you shall appoint for yourselves in all your gates.” (Deuteronomy 16:18) The eighteenth-century mystic Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz interpreted this verse to refer not to actual city gates, but to the gates to our souls – our ears, our mouths, and otherwise. The gatekeepers of our words must not be imposed from the outside; they must be self-regulated: “you shall appoint for yourselves.” It is the divine gift of free speech that marks our humanity. It is a gift we must ever develop, sharpen, and use wisely and often. Most of all, we must pass that gift of freedom on to the coming generation, so they too can find their own voice in the cacophonous symphony of a diverse humanity.

About the Author
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove, PhD is Senior Rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City. He serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly, is an officer of the New York Board of Rabbis, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of seven volumes of sermons and the editor of Jewish Theology in Our Time.
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