I remember a rabbi once telling me Yom Kippur, which starts Sunday evening, should be considered the holiday of free speech and, more importantly, its critical limits. The Jewish community will spend Yom Kippur engaged in dialogue, whether with God, asking for forgiveness, or in other ways.
A central part of the Yom Kippur service is the Al Chet confessional prayer in which, of the 43 sins confessed, nearly a quarter are related to improper speech. Gossip, slander, taking God’s name in vain…we all have our own examples. Remarkably, of all the things from which we abstain (food, washing) on Yom Kippur, speech is not one of them.
Judaism has long recognized that speech is immensely valuable but has important limits. This is especially true when what people say can be harmful to others and ourselves.
Last week I wrote about our moral compass – doing what is right. As challenging issues face the Jewish people, the Jewish Federation and our Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) debate what is appropriate to speak up about, when, and how; we ask how to balance advocacy with service, when to educate and when to take a stand.
For individuals, it is easy to speak out based on one's personal values. As a community organization, however, we must seek a consensus on any given issue. Some want us to speak out about every incident. Others say, "Wait," since the issue may become larger. Then we must decide whether to issue a statement or reach out to the person or organization who made the comments and determine whether our message is best heard coming from our local community or from a broader national organization (if a national/global issue)? The hardest part is that the issues never seem to end.
Just this past week:
Former US President Donald Trump lambasted “liberal Jews” in his Rosh Hashanah message for not supporting him and voting to “destroy America and Israel…Let’s hope you learned from your mistake & make better choices moving forward! Happy New Year!”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, prior to his departure for his visit to the United States, said protesters here against the current judicial reform proposals are “joining forces with the PLO, with Iran, and with others.” Benny Gantz, leader of the opposition, wrote that likening the protesters to Israel’s enemies is “grave and must be thoroughly condemned.” Netanyahu’s office then clarified his comment that when he “used the word ‘joining,'” he was referring to Israelis who will “be demonstrating at the same time as supporters of the PLO and BDS, which has never happened before.”
The University of Pennsylvania is hosting the "Palestine Writes" festival this weekend (happening around Yom Kippur). The program, which is sponsored by four university departments, features speakers who have expressed highly inflammatory, antisemitic views, and who have called for the destruction of Israel. The University released a statement acknowledging that some of the speakers at the event have a “troubling history of engaging in antisemitism by speaking and acting in ways that denigrate Jewish people.” Trustees and alumni wrote to the university's president, "The University of Pennsylvania should be doing all within its power to distance itself from the event’s antisemitic speakers, make clear that such antisemitism is wholly at odds with the university’s values, and take proactive steps to ensure that Jewish students, faculty and staff are safe and welcome at Penn." You can read more here.
Elon Musk has amplified an antisemitic social media campaign targeting the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Anti-extremism and hate speech monitoring organizations have been warning that since Musk took over Twitter/X, the company has been platforming hate speech under the guise of free speech. Musk defended himself while meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu stating, “I’m against antisemitism, I’m against anti-anything that promotes hate and conflict. And I’m in favor of that which helps both society and take us to a better future for humanity collectively.”
And on Wednesday, the new CEO of Adidas, Bjorn Gulden, spoke about the company’s relationship with Kanye West, which ended following antisemitic comments by the artist. Gulden called the collapse of West’s Yeezy brand “very unfortunate, because I don’t think he meant what he said, and I don’t think he’s a bad person. He just came across that way. And that meant we lost that business, one of the most successful collabs in history. Very sad.” The next day, the company apologized for appearing to defend West stating, "Our decision to end our partnership with Ye because of his unacceptable comments and behavior was absolutely the right one." (FYI - West announced that he no longer hates Jewish people after watching the Jewish actor Jonah Hill in the movie “21 Jump Street.”)
In every case above, people and organizations spoke out (publicly or privately). In some instances it made a difference and in others maybe not. We all recognize there are even larger issues impacting our city, state, country and world waiting for our voices to be heard.
With so much happening, I suggest we do what a rabbi suggested years ago, add one more to our Al Chet prayers:
We ask God for forgiveness for the sin of being silent
when our voices are needed.
We can all do more and do better in the year ahead. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, in a free society, some are guilty; all are responsible.
We are responsible for speaking up and speaking out on those issues of importance to us based on our individual and collective moral compass. Let us work together to repair the world and to advance humanity. Let us support each other and make our voices heard. Together, we will make this world a better place, one step, one action, one moment at a time.
A few important updates before Yom Kippur:
- I hope you will listen to the new Jewish Review Podcast (available to download on all major podcast services). Congratulations to Editor Rockne Roll for making this project come to life. Expect a new podcast every two weeks.
- In response to antisemitism in our schools, the Jewish Federation, in partnership with multiple organizations, is hosting a program on September 28 at 7:00 p.m. at Congregation Neveh Shalom. The program will help parents understand to whom to turn when their child experiences hate and bullying at school. Register here.
Shabbat shalom, have a meaningful fast, and g’mar chatima tova, a good final sealing in the Book of Life. (And here is a 45 second cute shofar blowing video to make you smile.)