Freedom of Speech
Translated and Adapted by Braha Bender
One of the most cherished values of the modern world is “freedom of speech”. Anyone who dares to question the legitimacy of this principle is immediately shunned as an enemy of progress barring the way to human enlightenment. Today many of us find it very difficult to perceive any benefit in limiting peoples ability to freely express their opinions.
Of course, speech in and of itself is not the problem. Speech is just another one of the magnificent gifts the Almighty gave us in order to fulfill the Torah. The problem is when the definition of “freedom” is manipulated to include destructive speech and verbal abuse.
The laws of the Torah weren’t given with thunder and lightening in order to die out in the Sinai desert or even in Eastern Europe with the rise of the Enlightenment. The laws of the Torah reflect realities that stay true as gravity whether we want to ignore them or not. One set of those laws are the laws pertaining to Jewish speech.
What are you doing when you put somebody else down? What are you doing when you gossip about another person behind his or her back? What are you doing when you use your “freedom of speech” to destroy another person’s reputation, job security, friendships, or even marriage? Is that what you call “freedom”?
What the Torah calls it could be summarized by a term popularly exercised in the psychological world today: projection. Our sages put it succinctly: “Anyone who criticizes, criticizes others with their own faults” (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin, 60). Rather than taking responsibility for our own flawed characters and silly mistakes, we find it a whole lot easier to fob our shortcomings off on other people.
It’s childish really: “I didn’t do it, he did!” But the person we are fooling most of all is ourselves. A person involved with improving his own character and behavior does not blame, accuse, or otherwise focus on how other people have dropped the ball. Instead, he takes responsibility for what he can do to improve the situation.
Criticism of others indicates an insecurity and frustration with ourselves. These feelings can lead us to believe that we will find an easy solution in putting others down in order to put ourselves up. Is that true?
If you realized that every time you criticize another person all you are doing is advertising your own insecurity, would you be so quick to express judgment? If you realized that every negative label you use to brand another leaves it’s mark on your own skin, would you label so quickly? If you really came to grips with the fact that the words coming out of your mouth are a window into the private dialogues you are having with yourself, would you throw your words around so casually?
A sense of arrogance and entitlement can also manifest in destructive speech. Those burdened with a disproportionate sense of their own importance may believe it to be their “responsibility” to uncover and report upon the flaws and weaknesses in other people. An ivory tower can provide an excellent vantage point from which to pick out and sniper other people’s self-esteem, relationships, religiosity, and other aspects of their lives.
Yet the social realities of a critic or a gossipmonger are not a pleasant ones. No intelligent person has any interest in developing meaningful, close relationships with the critic or the gossipmonger because it is obvious that they can not be trusted. Today they may be telling you their candid opinions about Julia, but tomorrow they could be telling Julia their candid opinions about you! Who would want to make close friends with such a person?
Absolute “freedom of speech” doesn’t create a healthy society and certainly doesn‘t lead to any sort of enlightenment. As Rabbi Boruch Smith once said, “The brilliance of the Torah is in where it places boundaries.” Healthy boundaries in our speech as well as all other aspects of our lives are the tools we need to help us create a humane, happy society, and, together, to eventually scale the heights of spiritual and human achievement.