When Words Can Be Contagious

When Words Can Be Contagious

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is a professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:05 p.m.
Torah: Leviticus 14:1-15:33
Haftarah: II Kings 7:3-20
Havdalah: 8:06 p.m.

Isolation is a terrible thing. Our Rabbis differentiated people from other forms of life by calling human beings m’daber — the species that speaks. We require conversation no less than we do food and water. Talk is food for the soul.

Recognizing the human need for conversation, our Rabbis took careful stock of the instructions in this week’s sedra to isolate victims of the disease known as tzara’at. The exact nature of tzara’at remains uncertain to this day, but whatever it is, its victims were to be quarantined. The Rabbis ask whether that quarantine is punitive or preventative? Was the isolation of these biblical sufferers meant to penalize them for some character flaw that had brought on their illness as a form of Divine discipline? Or was it to prevent the passing of their disease to others?

The answer given Jacob ben-Asher, the author of the influential law code called the Tur, is especially noteworthy. The isolation, he says, is preventative, not punitive. We would imagine that he has in mind something like what we would call the flu or a bronchial infection — a condition where contagion follows from some form of physical contact (directly through touch, or indirectly through sneezing, coughing, and the like). No surprise there. What surprises, however, is his claim that the disease is transmitted also from the simple act of conversing.

Living in the 13th-14th centuries, Jacob Ben Asher knew nothing of bacteria and viruses. On his mind, instead, was the medieval sense that illness is a form of Divine retribution; tzara’at, in particular, was held talmudically to be punishment for the specially heinous sin of slander.

But why then would Jacob ben-Asher have called the quarantine “preventative,” not “punitive”? He must have thought that some forms of speech — slander, among them — are contagious, the way physical ailments are. And indeed, here is a lesson we should take to heart. Societies that treat slander lightly risk its spread to the point where the body politic loses all sense of civility. It becomes commonplace for people to speak ill of each other to the point where the entire culture deteriorates into nastiness.

We are not far from that disastrous outcome, today. To begin with, nothing good can come of a culture where entertainers pepper their routines with expletives that shock more than they enlighten. Then, too, whatever happened to the grand tradition of civil debate about politics? Our public discourse is, instead, becoming ever more mean, unpleasant, and, often, downright malicious. We have become immune to the corrosive negativity issuing from the lips of public figures who pander to those who thrive on disparaging noise rather than informative opinion; on everything from innuendoes to outright lies made scandalously and irresponsibly.

If negativity is contagious, however, so too is its opposite: the ennobling rhetoric that elevates a conversation and reminds us of how decent we can be. The issues that face us as a people require forthright debate; if we are to make wise decisions about them, we need to know what is at stake; but the tenor of the debate is as important as the wisdom of the decision. Regardless of what choices we make in the end, we will either be ennobled or degraded by the atmosphere in which the conversation leading up to it occurs.

Societies rise or fall with the level of discourse they encourage. Rhetoric that appeals to our lowest instincts debases what it means to be human. By insisting instead on a rhetoric of respect, we affirm our right to be known as “little lower than the angels,” and “made in the image of God.”

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is the Barbara and Stephen Friedman Professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at the Hebrew Union College in New York. He is the author of ‘100 Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation’  (Bluebridge Press) and ‘We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism’ (Jewish Lights Publishing).

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