by Rabbi Avi Shafran
"Death and life are in the power of the tongue," writes King Solomon in Proverbs. The Talmud echoes the sentiment, contending that words can kill.
Jews who look to the traditional Jewish sources for life-guidance tend to take that idea in a figurative way. Study about the evils of "lashon harah" - "evil speech" (or, perhaps better, "badmouthing") - abounds in the observant Jewish world. Slander and innuendo, say the teachers and texts, can destroy relationships, wreck reputations, endanger livelihoods, ruin lives.
History, though, is an unflinching witness to an all-too-literal manifestation of words as lethal weapons. Ironically, the blood of Jews in particular has run in rivers as the result of libels against them and their faith. And, tragically, with such evils, it seems, history is not yet done.
Consider the words of Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman currently serving life in prison for planning to bomb a number of New York landmarks. Over the 1980s and 1990s, he exhorted his followers to, as he put it in one of many similar sermons, "not take the Christians and the Jews as friends [because] their hearts are boiling with hatred, malice and envy of the believers" but rather aspire to "the delightful, pure, immaculate jihad fields." Is it difficult to imagine that those words, and countless others from him and others like him, played peripheral, if not central, roles in the murders of thousands on September 11, 2001? The sheik's lawyer, as it happens, is currently on trial for helping her imprisoned client share subsequent words of incitement with his supporters.
And it's not only radical Islamist sheiks who are wielding words as swords. After the beheading of American contractor Paul Johnson, no less a personage than Saudi Crown Prince Abdulla announced on Saudi television that "Zionism is behind [the murder]," although he did qualify his accusation by adding "it is not 100 percent but [merely] 95 percent that the Zionist hands are behind what happened."
And evil words are more evil still when they are hypocritically offered up alongside "moderate" sentiments - saccharine laced with cyanide.
Sheik Abdur-Rahman al-Sudais, whom the BBC calls "the world's most celebrated imam" and a proponent of "community cohesion" between Muslims and their neighbors, is an illustrative case in point.
The sheik recently told a gathering at the opening of a new Islamic center in London that "Muslims should exemplify the true image of Islam in their interaction with other communities and dispel any misconceptions in some parts of the media."
Unfortunately, he has himself contributed mightily to such "misconceptions," as recently as late 2002, when he publicly beseeched Allah to annihilate the Jews and to scorn peace initiatives with them "because they are the scum of the human race, the rats of the world... the murderers of the prophets and the offspring of apes and pigs." [translation courtesy of MEMRI].
And then there are words used to excuse other, murderous, ones.
Scott Alexander, a Chicago researcher in Mideast studies, wanted to testify in the defense of Fawaz Damra, the leader of the Islamic Center of Greater Cleveland. Mr. Damra was convicted last month for lying on his immigration statement about having screamed at fundraising gatherings in the early 1990s that Jews were "sons of pigs and monkeys" and should be destroyed.
Although Mr. Alexander was, in the end, not called as a witness, he contends that Mr. Damra's words were not really an incitement to violence. Although they were "morally reprehensible," he explains, "When Palestinians refer to Jews as 'descended from apes and swine' or encourage support for those who 'kill Jews,' they do so with the reasonably justifiable self-image of victim and persecuted, not of victimizer and persecutor."
What is apparently not "reasonably justifiable," despite all we have seen in recent years, is to consider that those who hear messages like Mr. Damra's understand them all too well.
It is summer, when the religiously active Jewish world seems particularly rich with Torah lectures. Publications read by observant Jews are filled with advertisements for classes and learning opportunities, and many of them, as always, will concern the need for great caution when harnessing the power of words. Jewish men, women, boys and girls will ponder the fine points of forbidden speech and resolve to do their best to avoid it.
And those who wish to harm them will just as determinedly be seeking to turn words into weapons of mass destruction.
[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]
Reprinted with permission from AM ECHD RESOURCES.