Tag Archives: Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan

A Plague of Misinformation – Tazria-Metzora 5780

One of the key principles in Jewish life is that words have power. That is why we recite certain sets of liturgy three times every day. That is why the Torah itself urges us to recite the Shema before going to sleep and when we wake up in the morning. That is why the pre-eminent mitzvah in Jewish life is Talmud Torah, the study of the words of Torah. And that mitzvah does not just mean “study,” as in, read them and/or commit them to memory. Talmud Torah is about elevating the words of the Jewish bookshelf by interpreting, re-interpreting, disagreeing and yes, even arguing about the meaning of our ancient texts, and of course applying them to our lives.  Everything is under scrutiny; slight nuances of individual words, or even single letters or vowels, can lead us to different interpretations. And that is really the essential holy act of Judaism.

That is why, as you have definitely heard me say before, we are still here: because we have been using our words – living them and revisiting them again and again – for literally thousands of years.

And it is this essential devotion to words – written, printed, spoken, and so forth – that makes us understand all the more so the essential value of using words with care.

Just a few examples of ways through which we demonstrate on a regular basis the high stakes with respect to the use of words: 

  1. Whoever leads services in a Jewish context, a sheliah tzibbur (literally, “emissary of the community”) must be skilled at pronouncing the words of tefillah / prayer correctly. The one who mispronounces words, whether accidentally or deliberately, should be replaced.
  2. Whenever we read from the Torah, there are two people standing on either side of the reader to correct her or him in the event of a mispronunciation that changes the meaning of the word.
  3. We have in our tradition strict halakhah / law about what is acceptable vs. unacceptable speech. Just a few examples:
    1. Lashon hara. “The evil tongue.” We are forbidden, according to Vayikra / Leviticus 19:16, which read in Parashat Qedoshim next week, from being rekhilim, people who tell tales about one another, whether true or false.
    2. Nibbul peh. “Lewdness of the mouth.” The Talmud (Yerushalmi Terumot 1:6) tells us that the use of foul language is prohibited. The words that come out of our mouth should be as pure as the food that we put in.
    3. Motzi shem ra. Slander. Our bar mitzvah mentioned this earlier in his devar Torah. A subset of gossip, this is the spreading of malicious falsehoods.
  4. We have an obligation to speak the truth, for example from Shemot / Exodus 23:7: מדבר שקר תרחק / Midevar sheqer tirhaq. Distance yourself from falsehood. 

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, a rabbi from Belarus who lived in the 19th and early 20th century, is best known for the name of the book he wrote about lashon hara, called “Hafetz Hayyim.” The title is a reference to a line that we sang earlier this morning in Pesuqei DeZimra, from Psalm 34:13-14:

מִֽי־הָ֭אִישׁ הֶחָפֵ֣ץ חַיִּ֑ים אֹהֵ֥ב יָ֝מִ֗ים לִרְא֥וֹת טֽוֹב׃ נְצֹ֣ר לְשׁוֹנְךָ֣ מֵרָ֑ע וּ֝שְׂפָתֶ֗יךָ מִדַּבֵּ֥ר מִרְמָֽה׃

Who is the person who desires life, who desires years of good fortune? Guard your tongue from evil, your lips from deceitful speech.

If we truly desire life, says Rabbi Kagan, we will guard our tongues, and not spread falsehoods.

According to our tradition, we have a tremendous responsibility to make sure that our words reflect the qedushah, the holiness to which we aspire in all of our relationships. To do so reflects an honest desire to pursue life. Those that lie cause pain, suffering, and death.

And all of this is why the current moment is just so disturbing to me.

Let’s face it. We are all really, really anxious right now. Some of us are going a bit stir crazy, stuck in our homes, with few options for getting out of the house, other than to take a walk or go food shopping, the latter of which, in my experience, only causes more anxiety. (Nothing wrong with taking walks, of course; those of us who have dogs know that the dogs are clearly grateful for our presence around the house to take them for lots of walks.)

And aside from being cooped up in the house, everybody is anxious about the state of the world. As we watch the numbers of people with confirmed infections rise, and with them the number of people hospitalized, and those who die from the disease, we are all wondering: When will we see the peak? Will there be a second wave? What about all the people who have lost their jobs, their source of income? And perhaps most heartbreakingly, When can we resume our lives or reclaim some semblance of normalcy?

I, of course, have no answers to these questions, or even educated guesses. I certainly wish I did, but epidemiology was not included in my rabbinical school curriculum. Perhaps the closest approach I have to any knowledge of the spread of infectious diseases comes from the parashah that we read today, Tazria-Metzora, which of course describes the spread of an infectious disease, and frankly, it’s not so helpful (even though it does speak of regular testing and quarantine).

That disease, called in Hebrew tzara’at, has often historically been translated as “leprosy,” although I am told that anybody who knows anything about leprosy knows that the disease described in this part of Vayiqra / Leviticus cannot be leprosy, based on its description.

Nonetheless, there is an essential message here, related not to epidemiology but about a public health issue of another sort: that of misinformation.

You probably know what I’m talking about. There are many people spreading misinformation. Whether through malicious intent, or because they might be able to profit off people’s gullibility, or because they just do not know any better, repeating outright lies on social media is a transgression of the highest order. A few of the kinds of things that you might find out there are (a more extensive list of these things, courtesy of Ryerson University Ted Rogers School of Management Social Media Lab, is found here):

  • Promoting fake tests or cures. As of right now, there is no cure. Do not believe anything that presents as such.
  • Speculation on the origin. The virus was not created in a lab by some country to use as a weapon.
  • Dismissing the severity of the virus. Clearly a political move that comes from the honest desire that many of us have to see our businesses reopened and our jobs returned as soon as possible.
  • Racial, religious, or ethnicity-baiting. Perhaps the most tragic, because it demonstrates how easily many of us fall into blaming others for our situation. This type of malicious falsehood appeals to our basest fears.

And there are more. Ladies and gentlemen, this stuff is dangerous. Lies kill, just like some viruses do.

Unfortunately, one piece of news out there related to COVID-19 is that at a few of the anti-government protests intended to end state shutdowns, there were people displaying openly anti-Semtic signs. One, at a protest in Ohio, featured a cartoon of a blue rat with a Jewish star and a kippah on its head, flanked above and below by blue stripes similar to those on the Israeli flag, with the caption, “The Real Plague.”

Straight-up anti-Semitism aside, the danger here is simple: any kind of information that misleads people, whether intentional or unintentional, has the potential to cause more people to die. There has been dangerous misinformation about the malaria treatment, hydroxychloroquine, which in preliminary studies has not shown any effectiveness in curing people of the virus. The FDA on Friday (April 24th) issued a warning that this drug may cause heart arrhythmia in people with COVID-19.

And this should go without saying, but of course taking disinfectants internally is dangerous and ineffective. (And it’s just a little ridiculous that the company who manufactures Lysol had to issue a public statement to that effect.)

Part of the challenge here is the ease with which we can spread falsehoods today. While it used to be that you needed a printing press to promote misinformation, today anybody with a smartphone can put out lies to the entire world with a few finger taps. 

And that, in my mind, simply elevates the reasons that Jews have always been so invested in our words. Words can give life, as we have seen here today. But they can also, in fact, kill. 

And social media, when misused by anybody to promote misinformation, can kill as well. 

Hevreh, we have a responsibility right now, more than ever, to the truth – to scientific inquiry, to actual medical knowledge, to responsible, sober advice from people that actually know something. Drawing on Jewish tradition, please be discerning regarding what you post/repost. If you read something on Facebook or wherever that sounds like a cure, perhaps you should check it out before spreading it. Because, like the guy with the feather pillows, once it is out there, it cannot be taken back.

We who desire life must commit over and over to highlighting the importance of truth. And right now, anything less than truth can kill. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 4/25/2020.)

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