Between civility and censorship

Rabbi Stewart Weiss is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana and a member of the Ra’anana City Council. His commentary was originally published by the Jerusalem Post, online at


“Life and Death are in the power of the tongue.” (Proverbs 18:21)

The strength of the Jewish People has always primarily resided in our power of speech. Speech that comes from our propensity for prayer, in good times and bad; speech that emanates from our intense love of learning – done aloud, in pairs or groups, often in sing-song melody; speech that is manifested in our willingness to speak out for what is right and just and true. We have always been distinguished by outstanding spokesmen, from Moses (who, despite his self-proclaimed “speech impediment,” delivered magnificent sermons) through great prophets such as Isaiah or Jeremiah, to erudite rabbinic and political leaders who could engage and enlighten us with their brilliant command of language.

Jewish law and liturgy is filled with countless admonitions to carefully guard our tongues, to think before we speak, to weigh each and every word, because words are living things — they can help or hurt, build or destroy. In many ways, not only are our words our bond, but they are also our Godly “trademark” – thus the Hebrew word, “Mila” can mean both “word” and “ritual circumcision.”

Having said all this, it is painful to witness the way speech is being abused lately in the public forum. Much of this is being blamed on President-elect Trump, who, during his election campaign, made some very un-presidential, outlandish comments directed not only towards his opponent Hillary, but against a wide array of real and imagined adversaries. At the same time, language no less crude and caustic was and still is being thrown back at Trump and his fellow Republicans, by the Black Lives Matter movement, by members of the “Sore Losers” party, whose members even took to rioting in the streets, and by public figures like the actor Robert De Niro — whose pre-election commercial calling Trump a “pig” went viral — and the cast of “Saturday Night Live,” which so blatantly skewered him while giving a virtual pass to Hillary Clinton. (I have no doubt this outraged otherwise passive Trump supporters and motivated them to express their indignation at the polling place.)

Violent words, as we Jews have unfortunately learned through the ages, have a tendency to morph into violent action, and so one would hope that the toxic rhetoric on both sides will moderate, and national dialogue will adopt a more civil tone. 

“Life and Death are in the power of the tongue.” (Proverbs 18:21)

But there is another side of the speech coin that we need to examine as well. For too long now, the muzzle of political correctness has been clamped down on the public at large, effectively intimidating both the right and the ability of people to openly speak their mind on a wide range of subjects. Expressing the “wrong” opinion, especially in certain circles, is met by condemnation and even calls for ostracization. Indeed, rare was the Trump voter who dared to openly proclaim his support for the man, lest he be mocked and maligned by the PC’ers. As a friend told me, these were the “lean-in” votes; when asked who they were supporting, these individuals leaned in close, so no one else could hear, and whispered, “Trump!”

But this imposed wall of stifling silence needs to be breached, if not broken down entirely. I ought to be able to call out those religious zealots who act in a decidedly un-Godly manner – such as the hooligans who threw garbage at our modestly-dressed group recently, as we toured Mea Shearim — even as I reaffirm my unbreakable connection and commitment to Judaism. I should be able to openly reject homosexuality as a viable “alternative lifestyle,” even as I accept, and embrace, friends who are gay. I ought to have the right to unabashedly condemn Palestinians and other Muslims who seek my demise, rejecting outright their demand for yet another radical Arab state on our border, even as I hope that they shall one day abandon their death-wish for us and become a viable partner.

That has always been the intent of this column, and thus its name, “In Plain Language;” to say it as I see it, and not be cowed into literary submission. There is no excuse for a lack of civility when addressing others, yet at the same time there is no room for censorship of ideas and ideologies in a free society.

The Hebrew word Mem-Vav-Samech-Raysh can take on two very different meanings: It can spell ”Mosar,” which is the act of selling out a fellow Jew, considered to be one of the most despicable sins in Jewish life. But it can also spell ”Musar,” which is the time-honored responsibility to rebuke — diplomatically, and with love — those individuals and institutions that we honestly believe are causing harm to themselves and others. Too much of the former is dangerous to our national health; but too little of the latter suppresses dissent and can be just as harmful.

So fear not, dear reader: Say your piece; but please, say it with Peace.