Have you ever encountered Westboro Baptist Church? I once saw them on a street corner near the UN compound. I was headed to a pro-Israel rally, and they were perched on the sidewalk chanting offensive, anti-Semitic lyrics to the tune of Hava Nagila. I walked by and burst into laughter at their pathetic, harmless attempt to wound me with their hatred.
With the death of WBC’s founding pastor, Fred Phelps, last week, it’s fitting that we reflect on hate speech in connection with this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Tazria. This is the section of the Torah that introduces us to tzara’at, a skin ailment that is taken so seriously that it leads to quarantining the patient. But the Rabbis saw deeper meaning in the text than just dermatological instructions. They understood tzara’at to be coded language for motzi shem ra, harmful speech. Considering the contagious nature of the illness and the social consequences to the practitioner of gossip, the analogy is spot on.
While thinking of the way I laughed at WBC’s nonsense, it raised a fundamental question. What’s so bad about them? Why do we cry out against hate speech? Isn’t there an expression that draws a distinction between sticks and stones on the one hand, and words on the other? And in our democratic society, isn’t freedom of speech a central tenet?
Of course the answer to my question is that hateful speech can lead to harmful action. But why not attempt to intercept the latter; why are we so fixated on the former? And why does our tradition address even the most innocuous of comments and treat them as avak leshon hara, residue of evil speech?
We’ll talk about this more on Shabbat morning, though we’ll have to choose our words carefully!
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise