With a debate about Britain’s libel laws a member of the class requested that we discuss the issue of freedom of speech. This has been an especially relevant issue for the Jewish community since the case involving Deborah Lipstadt in 2001.
In the Amidah, there is a clear recognition of the power of our words as we ask for God’s help first to pray, and then to make sure that our tongues don’t cause harm and our lips don’t tell lies. The division between these two ideas demonstrates that Judaism does not just object to lying with our words, it also objects to causing harm with the words which we use. The prayer encourages an awareness of the power of our words to hurt, and the request for God’s help to prevent this, three times a day, shows how easy it is to cause harm with our words.
The story which I found the most powerful was from the Talmud Baba Metzia 84a about Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and Resh Lakish. This story about how the two great scholars met, and how they eventually fell out, provides a stark warning about the power of our words to cause harm. Rabbi Yochanan’s words appear to cause real pain to Resh Lakish, which eventually becomes fatal. And ultimately both of them suffer.
As children we are taught to recite: ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.’ The story in the Talmud, along with our own life experience, proves that this is a lie. Judaism’s focus on the danger of harmful words shows just how aware our religion is of the power of our speech both for good and evil.