Hateful Speech (Tazria: Lev. 12.1-13.59)

Drash by Stan Satz

The Torah portion for this Shabbat deals with ritual purification,  including leprosy, perhaps misnamed for a similar ravaging Biblical infection. Leprosy, according to myriads of rabbinical sources, is the result of hateful speech.

The high priests are the ones who determine if someone has developed leprosy. “ When a man has on the skin of his body a swelling or a scab or a bright spot, and it becomes an infection of leprosy on the skin of his body, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priest. The priest shall look at the mark on the skin of the body, and if the hair in the infection has turned white and the infection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is an infection of leprosy; when the priest has looked at him, he shall pronounce him unclean (Leviticus 13: 2-3).

In an article at Torah.org, “Lessons on Leprosy,” April 23, 2020, Rabbi Yisroel Ciner depicts the three kinds of insidious leprous eruptions under the rubric tsaraat: The Hebrew words at Se’eth, Sa-pah-chat, and Ba-he-ret.

“SE’ETH means to rise, to be exalted, to be elevated. It’s a form of skin disease reserved for a person who would speak against others to raise his or her own stature.

SAPPAHCHAT refers to scabs adhering to persons who would not normally gossip, but if they were to join a group of evil doers, they would fit right in.

BAHERET is a bright spot afflicting anyone who has spoken against another person and then tries to justify his or her behavior and exonerate themselves with rationalizations like I misremembered, I miscalculated, I inadvertently misrepresented, I misspoke, I was misquoted, I misheard, I was misled. But the truth is simple: that person missed the mark and simply lied for his or her own aggrandizement: whether it be to accumulate material gain or to offset insecurities based on the fear of ever-increasing minorities.”

This is the punishment for someone developing leprous afflictions:

“His clothes shall be rent, his head should be left bare, and he shall cover his upper lip; and he shall call out ‘Impure, impure.’ He should be impure as long as the disease is on him. Being impure, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Chapter 13, verses 45-47).

According to medieval rabbinic scholars, God (Chapter 12 in the Book of Numbers) afflicted Miriam with leprous sores because she disapproved of Moses’ marrying a Cushite woman (most likely a black Ethiopian). In fact, Miriam’s motive is to downgrade Moses so that she and Aaron can share power with him. Or as Conservative Rabbi Bradley Artson puts it, Miriam is guilty of “corrosive bigotry.”

The Torah explicitly condemns hateful speech: As so many Talmudic sages have opined, “A loose tongue is like an arrow. Once it is shot, there is no holding back; “one who utters evil reports is considered in violation of the entire five books of the Torah.” In fact, leprosy is linked to the six traits that God abhors, enumerated in Proverbs chapter 6 verse 16: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, a heart hat devises wicked thoughts, feet that run eagerly toward evil, a false witness, and one who sows discord among people.”

Libeling another person betrays our Judaic ethical tradition that enshrines fair play and integrity. Such negative speech is called lashon hara (literally, “an evil tongue). Lashon hara is the practice of lying about other people, rather than sincerely confronting them. It involves transforming a living, complex human being into a caricature of evil.

Judged by the spiteful, hateful, falsified speech that we are bombarded with from the media, leprosy would be an appropriate punishment today. Witness our politically poisoned culture that thrives on defamation, libel, demonization, slander, denigration, gutter sniping, dehumanization, alternative facts and alternative truth, or a non-exclusive relationship to the truth.

The following examples contain typically pernicious lies facilitated by the social media: Foreign-born Obama is the anti-Christ; Michelle Obama is a transsexual; Lock-her-up Hillary Clinton operated a sex slave outlet from a pizza parlor; Pres. Trump is a Russian agent and a stooge for Israel; Latin American immigrants are bloodthirsty mongrels; Medicare-for-all is a communist plot; Climate change advocates are part of an extremist left-wing cabal manipulated by George Soros, the bloodcurdling and bloodsucking  Jewish guru who that wants to eradicate fossil fuels.  Jews (those perennial treacherous elders of Zion) are financial bloodsuckers, fabricators of the holocaust (it’s a hoax for sure), and are the chief choreographers of the deep state as they conspire to rule the world.

In all of this vicious propaganda, scurrility has replaced civility, and common decency is the casualty in the delusional, conspiratorial hate fests that proliferate on social, or should I say anti-social, even sociopathic media platforms.

At the end of my teaching and administrative tenure at a community college in backwater, Bible-belt Eastern North Carolina, my immediate supervisor, a supposedly enlightened, open-minded woman whom I had always respected, uncharacteristically slandered a minority.

My boss was horrified when I hired a female part-time English instructor who allegedly was gay. Didn’t I know that when the prospective instructor said she was to meet her partner after the interview, she was obviously referring to her lesbian lover? I assumed that she meant a business partner; but even if I had known that the woman was gay, I still would have hired her: she was the most qualified candidate. My boss reared back her head and huffed: “We don’t want her kind teaching here—so take care of it!”  I refused to do anything at all about my treacherous faux pas. Well, it turned out that the woman a week later reneged on her contract. Had my biased boss intervened? I don’t know, and I never consulted with the viper again. I was scheduled to retire the next year. I did so with no regrets.

I wouldn’t be surprised if my boss developed severe leprous outbreaks. You never know what unseemly stuff you’ll find if you scratch a bigot.

But my most distressing confrontation with a slander monger occurred soon after my mother died years ago. A woman who had attended Hadassah with my mother slithered up to me at a Hanukkah party. With a conspiratorial smirk, she told me that we all knew that my mother was a difficult person whom nobody really liked. I was taken aback. Instead of verbally lashing out at this spiteful woman, or perhaps being tempted to slap her, I hurriedly left the room. But I did send her a heartfelt letter that she never responded to.  Nor did I ever see her again. This is what I wrote:

“Not wanting to disrupt the Chanukah party last night, I did not confront you about your disrespectful remarks regarding my recently deceased mother. Your comments were inappropriate and insensitive at best, and crude and vicious at worst. You demeaned my mother’s memory—even if what you said were true. Well, I do know that she had no use for you because you always snubbed her at Hadassah sisterhood meetings. And your vengeful comments about my mother show that she was a good judge of character. You are a disgrace to the Jewish community and to any community that values decency and respect for the dead.”

At other times, I have anonymously publicized my outrage against the hateful drivel found, for example, on the AARP on-line forum, especially the inflammatory rhetoric of right-wing and left-wing extremists, people whom I have vilified as venomous toads. After a while, I realized that in my fierce rebuttals, I too had succumbed to backbiting and backstabbing, a Torah taboo. I now refrain from posting incendiary comments on any websites.

The first verses of Chapter 12 in Tazria refer to male circumcision. To follow the teachings of the Torah, all of us are obligated to circumcise our hearts against smear tactics, no matter how righteously we attempt to justify our contempt. Otherwise, we might well become infected with the scales, scabs, and scum of the leprosy of the spirit.

Within our Temple community, I am inspired to see so many instances in which we support and nourish, not criticize and demean one another. May our fellowship continue to flourish throughout the years!  Amen.

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