Destructive speech: its causes and cures

By Rabbi Nancy Kasten
Parashat Metzora

As the spread of the lethal coronavirus seems to be losing speed, another more pervasive and destructive pandemic is gaining momentum. Speech that dehumanizes and incites violence against others has become endemic, used and spread locally, globally and everywhere in between. The Jewish community has been a victim of this plague, whose viral load has risen alongside the increase in disinformation and misinformation created and spread by technology. There is good reason to be concerned about the speech that others employ against us. And it is more important now than ever to be vigilant about our own use of language, both off- and online. 

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Metzora, outlines the process for rehabilitating the “metzora,” one who suffers from “tzara’at.” Tzara’at in the Bible is described as a skin disease, but in a word play the rabbis identify the ailment as divine punishment for “motzi shem ra,” a phrase meaning slander or defamation.

In D’varim Rabbah 6:8 we read, “‘All blemishes can a man see except for his own blemishes.” Rabbi Meir said, “Also not the blemishes of his relatives.” Our ancient sages understood that human beings will accept flaws and imperfections in ourselves and those we love that we would never tolerate in others. Language that is understood to be objectively descriptive by one group may actually constitute defamation of another.

Ecclesiastes 5 speaks to the human pitfall of speaking in a manner that intentionally or unintentionally wounds another person or group. Verse 5 warns us, “Don’t let your tongue lead your flesh into sin and then plead before the messenger of God that it was a mistake.” 

The question is, what constitutes repair with regard to the plague of hurtful words? You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, but Judaism does give us a process by which to heal the wounds we cause with our speech.

Quarantine is the first requirement, both for the sake of the community and for the sake of the metzora. Isolation prevents the spread of the disease, and it also gives the infected person time and space away from the environment that triggered it. In our world, quarantine might involve retreating from the sources of information where we found ammunition for our own toxic speech.

Once the symptoms have disappeared, acts of expiation must occur. In the parasha, two birds are brought by the metzora to the priest. One is sacrificed; the other is purified and released. The rabbis understood the sacrificed bird to represent the speech that will now be expunged from the metzora’s vocabulary, and the purified bird as the way the metzora will choose to speak in the future.

Our tradition teaches that we reinforce our own humanity when we honor the humanity of others. When we use dehumanizing language, we are diminished. To paraphrase biblical scholar Nechama Leibowitz, “The power of speech is that which distinguishes us from beasts … It acts as a link between humanity and society.” If that link is to be strengthened, each of us must do our part. 

Rabbi Nancy Kasten is chief relationship officer of Faith Commons and a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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