Are There Limits to Freedom of Speech?

Not all Parashas, that is, the
weekly Torah portions, are equally welcomed by Rabbis – or by congregants!  One could say these are to Parashas that we
love to hate.  Bar mitzvah boys and bat
mitzvah girls cringe in horror when they find out they need to write a D’var
Toah on this week’s Torah portion, whose subject
matter is skin diseases and emissions of fluids, both natural and pathological,
from various orifices of the body.  I
suspect that their parents wish they had been savvy enough to check ahead of
time to find out the subject matter of this week’s Torah reading before scheduling
their child’s big day. For this is the week when this most obtuse of subjects
is read from our holy Torah in synagogues across the world. Believe me, even we
Rabbis struggle to find meaning, to find significance, to come up with interpretations
to teach our congregants.  Most of us fall
back on the ancient Midrash that connects the word “Metzora” – the title of
this week’s portion –with the similarly sounding words “Motzi Shem Rah”. The word
“Metzora” could be translated as leper.  The three words, “Motzi Shem Rah” mean
slander. The ancient Rabbis thus reason that Metzora is the punishment for
slander or gossip. In this there is much grist for a sermon.

Fortunately, both for rabbis, (and
congregants) around the world, there is something else we can give a sermon on this
week.   As you know, this past Wednesday marked Yom
HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day. This was followed on Thursday by Yom
Ha-Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day. On Wednesday Israel remembered the 23,320
soldiers, including over 1500 victims of terror who have died since its
founding in 1948.  Our JUF representative
in Jerusalem, Mr. Ofer Bavli, describes the solemn occasion with these words:
“[On Wednesday] morning we will go
to work and in most workplaces and in all official offices there will be
memorial ceremonies. Many will wear white shirts, as is the custom. Thousands
will go to the military cemeteries to stand next to their loved ones, next to
their friends at 11 as a two-minute siren will sound all over Israel. We will
stand next to the grave that bears a name, a birth date, an age at the time of
death. ages will usually be between 18 and 21. Those are the ages of the fallen soldiers. On Mount Herzl, at the military section of the cemetery, there are thousands of graves, in row after row after row. They are all the same. All as uniform as the clothes worn by our fallen soldiers. All identical, but bearing different names. We will be there, and we will see the family of the fallen soldier in the grave to the right and the family of the fallen soldier in the grave to the left. The families that we see every year, as a matter of ritual. The families that get older each year while the tomb of their loved ones remains as fresh as it was so many years ago……….”
Military Cemetery at Mount Herzl, Jerusalem

The following day, the national
mood changes from somber to joyous, as Israel celebrates the 67th
anniversary of its founding as a modern state. For me, the founding of the
Jewish State and its continued well being should be at the core of one’s Jewish
identity.  I wish every Jewish person in
our country would have as one of their goals in life to visit Israel at least
one time.  Yet, in a survey conducted last
year by the Pew Research Center, when Jews were asked what is essential to
being Jewish, 73% of them responded, “Remembering the Holocaust”. Only 43% of
them responded, “Caring about Israel”. This was only 1% higher than those who
responded that “Having a good sense of humor” was an essential part of their
Jewish identity.
Red Buttons, born Aaron Chwatt, is one of many Jewish comedians that contributed to American Humor in the 20th century. 
Peninnah Schram, author of
the story collection One 
Generation Tells Another —
one of my favorite books.
Yet, “Caring about Israel” ought to
be an essential element of our Jewish identity, particularly in the times we
live. The American-Jewish teacher and author Peninnah Schram tells of the time
when she had completed graduate school in 1960 and wanted to travel to Europe
for the summer. She wanted to visit Buckingham Palace, the Louvre, the Roman
Coliseum and all of the churches and historic cities of England and France and
Italy. Her father suggested she visit Israel instead. “Peninah,” he said,
“Israel is like your mother. There are mothers who are more fashionably dressed
than your mother. There are mothers who are better educated than your mother.
There are mothers who speak without an accent, like your mother does. But your
mama is your mama. So, too, there are countries that have more beautiful
museums than Israel. There are countries that have older universities than
Israel. There are countries that have much more magnificent architecture and
art than Israel. But Israel is like your mother.”
Did Benjamin Netanyahu run as a bigot as
Joe Klein claims? 
“Israel is like your mother”. I think
that is a beautiful sentiment, and one that all Jews should consider when
talking publicly about Israel. That is why I was particularly pained when a
Chicago rabbi that I know and like, in commenting on the recent elections in
Israel, casually opined, on a television news program, that Benjamin Netanyahu
made “racist statements” in trying to get out the vote for his party. But that
was mild compared to the words of Harold Meyerson, an American Jewish journalist,
who, in a column in the Washington Post, compared Neyanyahu to George Wallace
and suggested he and his party might want to open an “Institute for the
Prevention of Dark Skinned People from Voting”. 
Joe Klein, the American Jewish columnist for Time Magazine, wrote that
Netanyahu won the elections because he ran as a bigot and that “A great many
Jews have come to regard Arabs as the rest of the world traditionally regarded

 So, it seems, after all, I was
unable to get away from the Torah portion of the week, Metzorah.  I remind you that the rabbis said that this
particular skin affliction was punishment for “Motzi Shem Rah” – literally,
“Bringing forth, or drawing out, a bad name”. 
In other words – slander.  It is
instructive, in this context, to recall the words of Peninah Schram’s father
when she wanted to visit Europe as a young woman – “Israel is like your
mother”. Jewish Law does not attempt to legislate feelings toward ones
mother.  It does not instruct us to love
her or to admire her. Rather, it instructs us to treat her with respect.
Similarly we cannot tell Jews that they have to love or admire Israel. Some,
perhaps many, clearly do not. But we could say that a fellow Jew ought to speak
or write about Israel with some modicum of respect and understanding. Respect and
understanding for the sacrifices that have been made to create and to defend
her; respect and understanding for the particular difficulties that she needs
to negotiate, sunrise to sunset, Shabbat to Shabbat, year in and year out.

Shabbat Shalom