Words and rhetoric as a murder weapon
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TorahParshat Yitro

Words and rhetoric as a murder weapon

Exodus 18:1-20:23

The Talmud teaches, “Anyone who humiliates another in public it is as though he were spilling blood … since we see that after he blushes, he turns pale (the blood runs from his face).” (Bava Metzia)

Shaming, slander, public lies on the campaign stump — simple humiliation or outright murder?

It’s so easy these days. Cellphones and social media. In the blink of an eye, lives ruined, reputations destroyed, the victim’s world ripped apart and left for dead.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the Ten Commandments— especially “Do not murder” (“Lo tirtzach”) in the current political climate of our country. Which brings us to this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, in which Moses is given the Ten Commandments high on a mountaintop amidst enough
drama to set a Hollywood blockbuster.

As the Israelites wait at the base, Moses ascends Mount Sinai and receives from God the Ten Commandments. They are sweeping in scope, governing both our relationship with God (bein adam la’makom) and our relationships with each other as humans (bein adam l’chaevero).

The Torah is not intended as an artifact of an ancient time, but is a living, breathing document to be turned and studied and interpreted and reinterpreted, to guide us in every age. So how might we understand the commandment “Do not murder” for today?

Innuendo, rumor, conspiracy theories layered on conspiracy theories can be effective murder weapons for individuals and entire peoples — way beyond humiliation.

“Hey, you know the guy who’s running against me for (insert elected office). I just heard that his father was the ringleader of a plot to kill the leader of (insert state, country or city). Any of you hear that?” Or the equally malign, “Hey, I’m only asking questions. I don’t know, but I heard … you know?” Negative campaigning has been with us since the founding of the U.S., but it’s different now, amplified, amped up and weaponized like never before.

For every hate-filled rumor or bit of innuendo that emerges on or off the campaign trail, a thousand (or a million) smartphones light up, and tweets, retweets, quoted retweets and embellishments of said original tweet infest social media, spread like feathers on the wind. Rumor and supposition become sudden facts, soon bleeding onto Instagram (complete with photoshopped images!) and TikTok (of course, with accompanying deepfake video). Except now, it’s morphed like some twisted game of Telephone. The alleged villain is no longer simply the candidate’s father, but the candidate themself.

Vilified and destroyed. Their political career is finished as threats sweep their cell phone, email, the voicemails of their family, colleagues, even private citizens with almost no connection at all to the original story.

As Jews we should be especially sensitive to this. After all, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” started as a propaganda hit piece. Imagine if social media had been around. It’s not hard to imagine the character assassination morph to the assassination of an entire ethnic or religious group. Of course, this is not news and has happened too often in our history and continues in the renewed surge of antisemitism.

But it’s not just us, of course. Immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQI+ individuals have all been victimized by character assassination.

“Do not murder,” says the Torah. But like so many of the Torah’s commandments, it is layered with meaning and subtext, and interpretation for the times in which we live.

This is a core reason why we begin and end the Torah, studying it anew every year, mining the text for guidance to lead us to what Rabbi
Hillel said while explaining the Torah while standing on one foot: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole
Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!” (Talmud Shabbat 31A) PJC

Hazzan Barbara Barnett is a Jewish educator and cantor living in Pittsburgh. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.

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