Hateful words lead to hateful acts

Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Korach, Numbers 16:1 — 18:32.

The rebellion of Korach is an explicit, notorious rebellion against Moses’ divinely mandated leadership — ultimately a rebellion against God.

Jewish tradition sees it as the paradigm of an illegitimate controversy. The Mishnah tells us: “A controversy for the sake of heaven will have lasting value, but a controversy not for the sake of heaven will not endure. What is an example of a controversy for the sake of heaven? The debates of Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of a controversy not for the sake of heaven? The rebellion of Korach and his associates.”

Hillel and Shammai, the two leading rabbis of the first century, disagreed about many things. Their disagreements were spirited and significant. Yet their disagreements are called “for the sake of heaven” because they were typified by mutual respect and because there was a unity of purpose in their debates.

Disagreements are inevitable; that’s central in human nature. But there are appropriate ways to disagree, and there are inappropriate ways to disagree. Disagreements can be found on almost every page of the Talmud, but the rabbis who disagreed — Hillel and Shammai, and their spiritual heirs — taught us the appropriate ways to disagree.

Contemporary American politics presents a tragic contrast. Last year’s campaigns saw a striking coarsening of political speech and behavior — the belittling of candidates and their motives, the rhetorical attacks on entire ethnic groups and religious communities, the advocacy defense of physical violence.

For 2,000 years, Jewish tradition has tried to teach us the difference between appropriate disagreements and inappropriate ones. The problem is not simply the coarsening of our political discourse. It’s not just a matter of “learning to disagree without being disagreeable.” Human debasement is the problem.

Language that debases other human beings reflects indefensible attitudes and reinforces those attitudes in others. Espousing hateful prejudices — and failing to disavow those prejudices when expressed by one’s supporters — only increase the destructive power of those prejudices.

And make no mistake: Hateful attitudes, engendered and reinforced by hateful words, lead to hateful acts.

As I write this, I am still reeling from a heinous attack on congressional leaders and staffers — yet another incident of political violence that should teach us a number of lessons. One lesson is that the problem is not simply a problem on the right or the left. But the primary lesson that this most recent tragedy should teach us is to remember the undeniable connection between hateful speech and violent acts.

Life is cheap in an uncivilized society. Life is infinitely valuable in a community worthy of the name.

We American Jews have a double obligation, as Americans and as Jews, to contribute to the revaluing of all life. We need to rise to the challenge of learning, again and again, the difference between a controversy for the sake of heaven and a controversy that is not.

Rabbi David L. Abramson is  an adjunct rabbi at Congregation Beth El and a chaplain at the Hebrew Home.

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