President Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric demonstrated that for an increasing number of people, political rhetoric considered disparaging towards groups is treated as just as important, maybe even more so, than actual actions that impact on these groups. How to weigh rhetoric against actions beyond speech has a long history which can be traced back to early Christian and rabbinic thought. This essay will explore the role that this distinction may play in understanding current political discourse.
In Matthew (5: 27-28), Jesus is quoted as saying, “You have heard that it was said ‘Thou shall not commit adultery’ but I say to you that anyone who looks at a woman to lust after her, has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” This is generally interpreted as an attempt to show an important distinction between the nascent Christian movement and Judaism: the latter is only concerned with sinful actions while the former treats thoughts, whether or not acted upon, as equally sinful.
The belief that immoral thoughts in and of themselves are sinful was central to the Christian monastic movement that grew out of the actions of the Desert Fathers and produced Father Evagrius’ list of deadly sinful thoughts: of gluttony, of fornication, of avarice, of distress, of anger, of listless depression, of vanity, and of pride. By contrast, the Palestinian Sages had a more nuanced view of thoughts. While they certainly believed that one should purge oneself from unhealthy thoughts through Torah study, they did not consistently believe that these thoughts were evil absent actions.
This distinction is illustrated by the Talmudic discourse on sexual emissions. The Tosefta states that sexual thoughts that do not lead to sexual emissions are not unclean. Some of the later Babylonian Sages moved towards the Christian position. However, within Judaism, the struggle against bad thoughts was primarily because of the belief that if not purged, they would often lead to bad actions not that they were inherently evil.
Jewish and Christian differences are reflected in contrasting views on charitable giving. The word charity comes from the Latin word for heart because Christians believe that it must be motivated by the proper personal thoughts. By contrast, the Jewish term, tzedakah, comes from the Hebrew root for justice and is an obligation. This is further elaborated in Maimonides’ discussion of giving.
Maimonides accepted that the fulfillment of the Jewish tithing was based solely on the total amount given. However, Maimonides encouraged giving one’s tithing in small amounts over time rather than in one sum. He reasoned that giving in a more continuous fashion instilled the proper thoughts that were important to sustain desirable charitable actions.
This religious distinction between thoughts and actions may have relevance to the current issue of rhetoric versus non-verbal actions. During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump used grossly sexist rhetoric against individual women he disliked. His remarks had nothing to do with female capabilities so did not reinforce negative female stereotypes. By contrast, he was a corporate pioneer in appointing women to leadership positions, countering negative stereotypes. However, his sexist rhetoric trumped his anti-sexist actions.
Trump was condemned when he claimed that the judge in his civil suit would be inherently biased because of Mexican heritage. Given Trump’s racist statements about illegal Mexican immigrants being rapist and building of a wall, it was not unreasonable to question the impartiality of a judge who is a member of a Mexican-American legal association. This is standard fare in legal cases.
In 1994, William Kunstler was legal counsel to one of the perpetrators of the first World Trade Center bombing. Kunstler aggressively argued that the judge in his defendant’s trial should recuse himself because, as an orthodox Jew, he could rule impartially in a trial of a Muslim defendant. Kunstler pointed to the judge’s wife’s membership in a Zionist organization.
Clearly Trump’s rhetoric was more egregious as he was a presidential candidate speaking on a national stage. However, one should not minimize Kunstler’s efforts give the anti-Semitism then present in New York City. At the time, City University Professor Leonard Jeffries was publicizing his claim that Jews dominated the African slave trade; and the Crown Heights riot against Jews living there had just occurred. At my Brooklyn College, the annual college-sponsored Black Solidarity Day featured the sale of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion by the Nation of Islam. Despite all this, not one liberal media organization voiced criticism of Kunstler’s tactic.
Most readers would argue that my analogy to the religious debate between thought and action is tenuous since rhetoric is action that can have harmful consequences. Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric could lead to anti-immigrant actions by his supporters. We have just witnessed, however, how ill-advised were liberal attempts to place the blame for recent anti-Semitic actions on Trump’s rhetoric. We have since learned that the perpetrator of most of the threatening calls to Jewish Centers was an Israeli Jews motivated by personal grievances.
Today, the Black Lives Matters movement demonizes the police but was not held accountable when disgruntled blacks killed police officers. The movement’s intellectual leader, author Ta-Nehisi Coates, claims that the US is a white supremacist country that seeks through violence to control black bodies. The response of the liberal community to this incendiary rhetoric has been to award his book the non-fiction National Book Award, leading dozens of colleges to select it as the common freshmen reading. Clearly, liberals do not believe that anti-white, anti-cop rhetoric is dangerous.
Trump’s bigoted rhetoric led many including Carl Bernstein to label him a neo-fascist. The hallmark of fascism was organized groups – brown shirts — violently intimidating those who had dissenting opinions. On US campuses today, liberal groups have no problem justifying disrupting events when they disagree with the speakers. This is particularly the case when invited speakers are perceived to be pro-Zionist or anti-Muslim. In response to these “brown shirt” actions, the liberal community has been largely silent as they were to Kunstler’s tactic or when anti-white, anti-cop rhetoric is espoused.
The reason for broad liberal silence is because, like Father Evagrius, many believe that thoughts are as important as rhetoric and actions. That is, Kunstler, Coates, and the Black Lives Matters movement were all perceived to be motivated by morally-desirable thoughts: to help downtrodden and victimized groups. Since they have pure motives, we must bend over backwards not to criticize their rhetoric, not to link their rhetoric with untoward actions. Because the anti-Israeli forces have pure thoughts – to help the powerless Palestinian people – we should look the other way when they engage in uncivil actions. By contrast, since Trump’s and Netanyahu’s thoughts are perceived as evil, they must be held accountable for their rhetoric and any harmful actions that could possibly be linked to.