Toxic talk and respectful dialogue
Friday, 16 June 2017 | 22 Sivan, 5777
I’ve had a turbulent week; living the shiva of Caron and her family in South Africa; returning to the storm over our guest speaker at our inkr572 dinner tonight. The shiva for my widely respected and admired father-in-law, Zelik Bedell, was a lesson in the strength and solidarity of community, the power of words to heal and connect. The storm over Rabbi Greenberg’s visit is a lesson in the ability of a community to tolerate openness, debate and difference and a warning about the capacity of words to both connect and fragment, heal and harm.
Our parasha (Shelach) opens with a reminder of the poisonous power of words. Rashi comments on the juxtaposition of the chapter of spies and the chapter of Miriam: “Because she was punished over the matter of her slanderous conversation about her brother and these wicked men [the ten spies] saw, but did not accept the moral lesson”.
Miriam’s bad-mouthing of Moses failed to impact on the ten illustrious messengers and they, in turn, spoke badly about the land of Israel; “They spread slander about the land that they had scouted” (Numbers 13:32). And this subsequently led to the people of Israel maligning Moses and Aharon: “They complained loudly about Moshe and Aharon” (Ibid 14:2)
Toxic talk devastates a community and undermines its leaders. There’s been far too much toxic talk in our community. The issue at hand is worthy of serious debate; it obviously touches a raw nerve for many. It’s a conversation about inclusion and acceptability, it’s about the place and security of gay individuals and the GLBTI community within our Othodox community. It’s about who is a rabbi, whether a gay Orthodox rabbi is a contradiction in terms and does a tolerance for diversity denote a legitimising of all aspects of that diversity. These are valid and worthy questions but if you can’t frame them in a respectful way and engage in a dignified conversation, then frankly – butt out.
To quote Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, defending Rabi Dweck of London who is himself under attack for his courageous lecture on homosexuality: “The vindictiveness of… speech [ie of the critics of Rabbi Dweck]… was a far greater betrayal of Torah values than anything Rabbi Dweck may have said. It is typical of such men that they think by throwing mud you can stop people thinking for themselves and by shutting mouths you turn off ideas.”
The vile and venomous speech of the majority of our detractors (and there were some notable exceptions) is a sad reflection on their betrayal of the very Torah values they proclaim to represent. Their abuse of language and hyperbolic, sometimes primitive words, is the stuff of demagogues and small minds. Their ad hominem attacks reflect a lack of intellectual and ethical honesty and some of our chareidi critics need to be reminded that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Toxic words can lead to toxic actions. So teaches Rashi, so the incident of the meraglim (spies) manifests.
I am heartened by the overwhelming support that so many of you in our congregation and the wider community have shown. The majority of emails and messages we have received have been positive, thoughtful and respectful. That’s what I’m going to focus on this Shabbat as we welcome Rabbi Steven Greenberg to present his viewpoint to the young adults of our community.