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Preparing for September 10-11, 2011

The following "sample sermon" by Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer appears on the website of Rabbis for Human Rights along with other resources for that weekend. The link is

“If you are Jewish and have ever been present when a Jew said something negative about Islam or Muslims, please take one step forward. Same for you Muslims. If you ever heard Judaism or Jews disparaged by fellow Muslims, take a step.”

The ten Jews and ten Muslims participating in this exercise were not surprised by what they saw. Almost everyone in the line stepped forward. As emerging religious leaders, these men and women were spending four days together sharing their stories—sacred, communal and personal –at a retreat organized by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. “Now,” the facilitator of the session continued, “If you spoke up every single time that happened, please take another step.”

Almost everyone stayed exactly where they were. They had chosen to attend this gathering because they knew their communities had trouble speaking about each other. They wanted to learn more so that they could become better leaders. And they all agreed that there was much work to be done, beginning with themselves.

That scene came back to me as I sat down to prepare for the fall high holidays, arriving this year on the heels of the anniversary of Sept 11, 2001. As in years past, I reviewed the catalogue of sins that the traditional prayerbook provides to help us recall specific instances of transgression. Once again, I was struck by how many of the sins involve speech. By one count, 17 of the 44 acts enumerated are explicitly performed by speaking. “For the wrong we have done before You…. with the speaking of our mouths… we have defamed… we have lied…we have shamed…we have gossiped and slandered…we have spoken ill. “ This last phrase in Hebrew is lashon hara.

The Jewish tradition has made much of those last two words. The teachings on lashon hara are astonishingly thorough in their concern for every nuance and detail of how a Jew might harm his neighbor through words. It is not hard to stretch those teachings to apply to individuals who are not Jewish. It is more of a stretch, but an important one, to think about lashon hara in terms of group defamation.

Contemplating the anniversary this weekend, I recalled some of the hateful speech that I heard in the last decade. Particularly this past year, Americans have witnessed a disturbing growth in uncharitable, negative speech about Islam and about Muslims as a group. I have heard Jews speak on these topics in ways that are ignorant stereotypes, at best. At worst, they are toxic rhetoric. When these Jews are not people who defame “liberals,” “illegals,” and the other groups often attacked along with “the Muslims,” it is particularly disturbing. From neo-con scholars to activist bloggers, certain Jews have been vocal participants in the anti-Muslim rhetoric. Their harsh words have found receptive ears in some places in the Jewish community. I am not alone in worrying that the anniversary of 9/11 will serve as an occasion to stir up more fear and hate.

The Jewish traditions around lashon hara developed in a time when monitoring speech about those of other faiths was not the norm. Different religious groups formed very different communities of moral concern, and ignorant or hostile opinions about the religious “other” were unremarkable. Of course, Jews know this well, having been the victims of malicious speech about our own group. Although we are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as the victims of hate, our relative power and security in America challenges us to push our tradition into somewhat new territory. If we take seriously what Judaism teaches about the power of words (“they create worlds”) we want to look carefully at how others, in this case Muslims, can be hurt by the words spoken about them, including words spoken by Jews.

That brings us to the second part of the exercise at our Muslim-Jewish retreat. Our Jewish participants confessed to having sat quietly by while family members, friends or congregants repeated opinions about Muslims that had the power to hurt. I have done so myself. Last month, I reconnected with a Jewish friend from my youth. When I told him that I was working on issues of Jewish-Muslim relations he said, “I am Islamophobic and will not apologize for it! Their religion tells them they will be rewarded in heaven if they kill me. Why wouldn’t I be afraid of them?”

I did not know where to begin, so I did not start at all. I remembered the important teaching about tochecha (rebuke), the famous line in Leviticus 19:17. “You will surely rebuke your fellow; you will not bear a sin on his account.” While the plain sense seems to be that you will be responsible for your fellow’s sin if you do not speak up, Rashi reminds us it may also be saying that in rebuking you may incur your own sin, that of shaming your fellow in public. Luzatto, with a different spin, points out that if you rebuke in the wrong way, you will only intensify the sinner’s attachment to his actions, and you will then be responsible for the sin increasing. With all the potential down sides, it seemed best to remain silent. I remember, however, how we Jews felt about those who were silent when we wish they had spoken on our behalf.

Perhaps focusing on the moral obligation of tochecha, rebuke, may be misdirecting our energies. Paired with a concern for lashon hara is another important Jewish value, hakarat hatov, acknowledging the good. The Jewish tradition offers us the concept of speech that is healing (“a healing tongue, marpeh lashon, is a tree of life.” Proverbs 15:4). What if we spent more time thinking about the potential of speech to reconcile, to elicit from people what is best inside them, to promote the good? I incline toward a vision of lashon marpeh, speech that heals.

In her commentary in Rabbi David Teutsch’s newly published A Guide to Jewish Practice: Everyday Living, Rabbi Vivie Mayer recalls the midrash in which Aaron, the first high priest, reconciled people to each other by telling each of two disputing parties that the other one was ready to make up. On first reading, this story sounds like Aaron told untruths. That would bring us right back to the litany of sins on Yom Kippur, “our lips speaking lies.” But Mayer sees it differently. She suggests that Aaron was telling the truth, the deeper truth that can be seen by the eyes of someone who is looking for the good. By speaking that truth, Aaron brought it to fruition.

In closing, I return to my friend who wears his Islamophobia with pride. What would lashon marpeh mean in that situation? First, it would mean acknowledging vulnerability, the assumption that we always have and will be victims, an assumption that is all too real for many Jews. Then, it would involve seizing opportunities to fill the information vacuums that leave us open to manipulation by those who would divide us. Finally, it would require speaking early and often about the positive interactions and promising practices in the world of emerging Jewish and Muslim leaders. My own resolution for this new year is to step forward every chance I get to repeat words of kindness, to offer people positive stories to replace negative ones, to use my words to create worlds of respect and hope.

This is the archival site for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. It is no longer updated.

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