Adopted October 8, 2020
The Jewish tradition teaches that one of the ways humans imitate God is through our capacity for speech. The power of speech is a central concept in Judaism; it has both the power to create and the power to wreak vast destruction.
In the Torah story of Balaam, a powerful prophet hired by King Balak to curse the Hebrew people is foiled at every turn by God (Numbers 22). The medieval Spanish Jewish commentator Isaac Abarbanel considers why God is concerned about Balaam’s words. Abarbanel contends that, while it is indeed true that Balaam’s curse would have had no power over God, Balaam’s words could, nonetheless, profoundly influence the Israelites and the other nations, all of whom believed strongly in the efficacy and power of the spoken word. Therefore, while empty of the power to evoke Divine action, Balaam’s words do have significant power—the power to change public opinion and perception. Thus, God impedes Balaam’s journey and ultimately transforms his words. God understands, as do we, that, even when words are not true, they still have the capacity to influence people’s actions and their perception of reality.
We learn from Proverbs (18:21): “Mavet v’chayim b’yad lashon—Death and life are in the power [lit: hand] of the tongue.” Later Jewish tradition clarifies the verse’s meaning: “Does the tongue have a hand? No,” the ancient rabbis explain, “the verse intends to teach us that, just as a hand can kill, so too a tongue can kill, and not just those who are close by. It can also kill like an arrow that is fired from a bow at a great distance.”
Furthermore, the rabbinic sages taught, “‘Third speech’ [i.e., malicious speech about a third party] actually kills three people. It kills the one who speaks it. It kills the one who accepts the malicious speech when one hears it. And it kills the one about whom the malicious speech is said” (Arachin 15b).
These myriad cautions about the power of speech come within the context of a tradition that celebrates the multiplicity of voices and opinions. Freedom of speech is the bedrock of any democracy, yet misused speech carries deleterious and dangerous consequences. Abusive or threatening speech or writing that expresses prejudice against a particular group, especially on the basis of race, religion, national origin, actual or perceived gender identity, gender or sexual orientation, cuts at the very soul of society.
Hate speech can be communicated blatantly, in veiled and coded language, knowingly or unknowingly. Both veiled terms (e.g., “globalists,” “crime-ridden,” “deviant”) and microaggressions are particularly pernicious; they are painful and cumulative. Often, only members of the targeted group recognize immediately the harm and hatred inherent in such expressions; by definition small (hence “micro”), such language is dismissed as a misunderstanding, a mistake. The offended party is accused of being “too sensitive.”
Every person has bias. Microaggressions often result not from a place of blatant hate, but from ignorance and unconscious bias. It is important to uncover our unconscious biases so that we are then able to compensate for them. The same can be said for microaggressions. It is up to us to learn what language is hurtful (often by being open to those who are trying to correct us and being grateful to them instead of trying to defend ourselves) and then consciously working to improve.
Jews have a moral responsibility to speak out when hate speech is used, especially by those in positions of power to engender enmity, foster division, or incite acts of violence. No one in the Jewish community should let hate speech go unchecked, in any form, whether explicitly or in coded language.
Beyond resisting hate speech, it is also our responsibility to listen to those who have been targeted. We must learn from the targeted groups themselves how to identify which language is hurtful, which language creates, and which language destroys. We must continue to adjust how we use the power of the tongue to uplift and honor one another.
Therefore, the Central Conference of American Rabbis resolves to:
- Reject the use of hate speech, racism, and xenophobic tropes as acceptable expressions of thought, as a basis for policies or procedures, whether in our Jewish communities, amongst friends, or within the halls of government;
- Provide training for members of the CCAR and the communities we serve on how to address hate speech, microaggressions, and unconscious bias;
- Call upon CCAR members to work with the communities we serve to create guidelines and policies regarding hate speech, microaggressions, and unconscious bias in collaboration with our partner organizations, social justice allies, and members to better prepare our tents to welcome Jews of Color, and all marginalized communities, into safe spaces;
- Invite our partner organizations in the Reform Movement, beginning with the Union for Reform Judaism and Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, to join the CCAR in this work, identifying ways to heighten awareness of hate speech within and beyond all the communities we collectively serve.
CCAR Resolutions Committee
Rabbi Rachel Greengrass, Chair
Rabbi Mona Alfi
Rabbi Kenneth Carr
Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi
Rabbi Debra Landsberg
Rabbi Bradley Levenberg
Rabbi Joseph Rosen
Rabbi David Widzer
Rabbi Asher Knight, Adjunct