The rabbis moralised the condition of tzara’at – often translated as leprosy – the subject that dominates last week’s sedra and this. It was, they said, a punishment rather than a medical condition. Their interpretation was based on the internal evidence of the Mosaic books themselves. Moses’ hand became leprous when he expressed doubt about the willingness of the people to believe in his mission (Ex. 4: 6-7). Miriam was struck by leprosy when she spoke against Moses (Num. 12: 1-15). The metsorah (leper) was a motzi shem ra: a person who spoke slightingly about others. Evil speech, lashon ha-ra, was considered by the sages to be one of the worst sins of all. Here is how Maimonides summarises it: The sages said: there are three transgressions for which a person is punished in this world and has no share in the world come – idolatry, illicit sex, and bloodshed – and evil speech is as bad as all three combined. They also said: whoever speaks with an evil tongue is as if he denied G-d . . . Evil speech kills three people – the one who says it, the one who accepts it, and the one about whom it is said. (Hilkhot Deot 7:3) Is it so? Consider just two of many examples. In the early 13th century, a bitter dispute broke out between devotees and critics of Maimonides. For the former, he was one of the greatest Jewish minds of all time. For the latter, he was a dangerous thinker whose works contained heresy and whose influence led people to abandon the commandments. There were ferocious exchanges. Each side issued condemnations and excommunications against the other. There were pamphlets and counter-pamphlets, sermons and counter-sermons, and for while French and Spanish Jewry were convulsed by the controversy. Then, in 1232, Maimonides’ books were burned by the Dominicans. The shock brought a brief respite; then extremists desecrated Maimonides’ tomb in Tiberius. In the early 1240s, following the Disputation of Paris, Christians burned all the copies of the Talmud they could find. It was one of the great tragedies of the Middle Ages. What was the connection between the internal Jewish struggle and the Christian burning of Jewish books? Did the Dominicans take advantage of Jewish accusations of heresy against Maimonides, to level their own charges? Was it simply that they were able to take advantage of the internal split within Jewry, to proceed with their own persecutions without fear of concerted Jewish reprisals? One way or another, throughout the Middle Ages, many of the worst Christian persecutions of Jews were either incited by converted Jews, or exploited internal weaknesses of the Jewish community.
Moving to the modern age, one of the most brilliant exponents of Orthodoxy was R. Meir Loeb ben Yechiel Michal Malbim (1809-1879), Chief Rabbi of Rumania. An outstanding scholar, whose commentary to Tenakh is one of the glories of the nineteenth century, he was at first welcomed by all groups in the Jewish community as a man of learning and religious integrity. Soon, however, the more ‘enlightened’ Jews discovered to their dismay that he was a vigorous traditionalist, and they began to incite the civil authorities against him. In posters and pamphlets they portrayed him as a benighted relic of the Middle Ages, a man opposed to progress and the spirit of the age. One Purim, they sent him a gift of a parcel of food which included pork and crabs, with an accompanying message: ‘We, the local progressives, are honoured to present these delicacies and tasty dishes from our table as a gift to our luminary.’ Eventually, in response to the campaign, the government withdrew its official recognition of the Jewish community, and of Malbim as its Chief Rabbi, and banned him from delivering sermons in the Great Synagogue. On Friday, 18 March 1864, policemen surrounded his house early in the morning, arrested and imprisoned him. After the Sabbath, he was placed on a ship and taken to the Bulgarian border, where he was released on condition that he never return to Rumania. This is how the Encyclopaedia Judaica describes the campaign: M. Rosen has published various documents which disclose the false accusations and calumnies Malbim’s Jewish-assimilationist enemies wrote against him to the Rumanian government. They accused him of disloyalty and of impeding social assimilation between Jews and non-Jews by insisting on adherence to the dietary laws, and said, ‘This rabbi by his conduct and prohibitions wishes to impede our progress.’ As a result of this, the prime minister of Rumania issued a proclamation against the ‘ignorant and insolent’ rabbi . . . In consequence the minister refused to grant rights to the Jews of Bucharest, on the grounds that the rabbi of the community was ‘the sworn enemy of progress’. Similar stories could be told about several other outstanding scholars – among them, R. Zvi Hirsch Chajes, R. Azriel Hildesheimer, R. Yitzhak Reines, and even the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik of blessed memory, who was brought to court in Boston in 1941 to face trumped-up charges by the local Jewish community. Even these shameful episodes were only a continuation of the vicious war waged against the Hassidic movement by their opponents, the mitnagdim, which saw many Hassidic leaders (among them the first Rebbe of Habad, R. Shneur Zalman of Ladi) imprisoned on false testimony given to the local authorities by other Jews.
For a people of history, we can be bewilderingly obtuse to the lessons of history. Time and again, unable to resolve their own conflicts civilly and graciously, Jews slandered their opponents to the civil authorities, with results that were disastrous to the Jewish community as a whole. Despite the fact that the whole of rabbinic Judaism is a culture of argument; despite the fact that the Talmud explicitly says that the school of Hillel had its views accepted because they were ‘gentle, modest, taught the views of their opponents as well as their own, and taught their opponents’ views before their own’ (Eruvin 13b) – despite this, Jews have continued to excoriate, denounce, even excommunicate those whose views they did not understand, even when the objects of their scorn (Maimonides, Malbim and the rest) were among the greatest-ever defenders of Orthodoxy against the intellectual challenges of their age. Of what were the accusers guilty? Only evil speech. And what, after all, is evil speech? Mere words. Yet words have consequences. Diminishing their opponents, the self-proclaimed defenders of the faith diminished themselves and their faith. They managed to convey the impression that Judaism is simple-minded, narrow, incapable of handling complexity, helpless in the face of challenge, a religion of anathemas instead of arguments, excommunication instead of reasoned debate. Maimonides and Malbim took their fate philosophically. Yet one weeps to see a great tradition brought so low. What an astonishing insight it was to see leprosy – that disfiguring disease – as a symbol and symptom of evil speech. For we truly are disfigured when we use words to condemn, not communicate; to close rather than open minds; when we use language as a weapon and wield it brutally. The message of Metsorah remains. Linguistic violence is no less savage than physical violence, and those who afflict others are themselves afflicted. Words wound. Insults injure. Evil speech destroys communities. Language is G-d’s greatest gift to humankind and it must be guarded if it is to heal, not harm. Without words there is no such thing as meaning.
Excerpt from the Faith Lectures - Revelation - Torah From Heaven - 26 March 2001
There was - and many of you will know more about this than I do, so correct me if I get this wrong - a very great mathematician, I think in Cambridge, in the 1940s or 1930s, called Alan Turing. Have you heard of him? Alan Turing was one of the first theoreticians of the computer. Turing, as well as drafting something called the Turing machine which sort of heralded the concept of software also was interesting in the question of artificial intelligence. At what point does a computer become an intelligent life form? This has been a big subject for the last 20 years: he was the first to raise it. He constructed something called "The Turing Test". What is The Turing Test? It's very simple. It says that if you can hold a decent conversation with it (presumably during krias haTorah), then that is intelligent life form. If you go and speak to this thing - in other words, if you are typing in stuff and stuff is coming back to you and after five or ten minutes of conversation you cannot tell whether that is a human being or a computer, then you have artificial intelligence. That computer has suddenly become a person. Now I don't think we are there yet, are we? We have cars that talk back to you and goodness knows what nowadays, but I think we can tell the difference. Anyway, there it is. Turing told us that fundamental thing. What is essential to our concept of a person is conversation - or what I have called during these lectures 'dialogue'.
Dialogue is the essential meeting of one self and another self: of one person and another person. Essential to that moment is communication: words spoken; words heard; words responded to. That to and fro which creates conversation which is the single, most fundamental test of personhood that we know of. Therefore, here is a Jewish understanding a long, long time ago - many thousands of years ago - that the definitive moment at which two selves, two persons touch and relate to one another, is when they can speak t one another and listen to one another and respond to one another. In other words, the great insight of Judaism, having said that the most radical thing about Judaism is that G-d is a person - that I have told you in all the other lectures - the most radical thing is to draw the inference that if G-d is a person, then that which is holy is language. That is how G-d reveals Himself. That is when G-d reveals Himself. Not as a force or a power or a big 'It', or a concept. But when G-d reveals Himself as a person it is when G-d speaks. It is through speech, language, words that that point - heaven and earth - touch. Through words. And no religion, I think, has been more fascinated, or indeed attached a higher significance to words so that even very secular Jews have become our major theoreticians of language in the past century. People like Wittgenstein, Lévi-Strauss, Chomsky, George Steiner, etc. etc. That is through words. Through words G-d created the world. Vayomer elokim yehi - And G-d said "Let there be" - and it was. Through words, human beings create order. The first thing Adam does is name the animals. The beginning of taxonomy, of classification, the beginning of human domination of nature. Through words. We can now map Judaism on the logical geography of world religions. There are basically two religious moments. East and West. Whatever. I don't want to generalise. Either there are people who think that G-d is objective, in other words out there. Or G-d is subjective, in other words in here. These are the two basic things. Either we will find G-d in the universe out there, or we will find G-d in the soul in here. The objective as against the subjective. Judaism says neither. Judaism says both of those are secondary. Where do you find G-d? In the arena not of objectivity nor of subjectivity but inter-subjectivity. And that is the realm of language, where two persons - both of whom have an inner life - communicate with one another. Language is the place of inter-subjectivity. And I don't know of any other religion that locates itself in that arena.
What, therefore, is distinctive of Judaism is that G-d speaks and, through speaking, enters a dialogue with mankind. That is the first belief of Torah min hashomayim: words are holy. Now let me ask you some simple questions. What does the third movement of Beethoven's String Quartet in A Minor, Opus 130 mean? Can you imagine if I had put up here a canvas by Mondrian? What does that mean? Or - Napoleon's Russian campaign. What does that mean? The answer is that these questions are questions that we cannot answer. We haven't got a clue what an answer would be. We don't even know where to look. Then, however, when we discover that Beethoven (you'll forgive my German: I never learned any) - that when Beethoven wrote over that movement "Das heilige danke …" and when he writes at a certain point "Neue Kraft gefühlen" - "A song of G-d and thanksgiving" and "Feeling new strengths", and you suddenly understand that that is Beethoven's recovery from an illness and you suddenly feel: Oh, now I can understand what that music means. When Mondrian puts under that dazzling canvas "Broadway Boogie-woogie", you suddenly see what he's getting at. You want to know the meaning of Napoleon's Russian campaign? You read "War and Peace" and you know at least what Tolstoy thought it all meant. Without words there is no such thing as meaning. And that is why the soul in itself, the universe in itself - are not a place to find meaning. It is only when we have words that we can give meaning to anything. We could not read meaning out of creation. The Gemara says that if the Torah had not been given we would have learned industry from the ant, modesty from the cat. But the truth is that if the Torah had not been given, we could equally well have learned cunning from the fox, scavenging from a wolf, violence from a tiger. The universe does not contain meanings on the face of it. Secondly, history does not bear meanings on the face of it. Do you really think the Egyptians saw yetziat mitzrayim [the exodus from Egypt] in the way we did? Or to give that lovely description of history by Joseph Heller author of "Catch 22" who defined history as a "trash bag of random coincidences blown open by the wind". In other words, without words nothing conveys meaning. That is why I say that revelation is the belief in Judaism, not one belief in Judaism. We believe in creation. We believe in redemption. We believe, in other words, in G-d in nature, G-d in history. But if we did not have the Torah we could not even arrive at the concept of creation because nature does not carry a meaning on its surface. If we did not have the Torah as history, we would not understand redemption because there is no unequivocal meaning of history. That is why Torah is essential to meaning because Torah locates kedushah in language.
I quote a lovely sentence of that great writer Paul Johnson who said at the beginning of his "History of the Jews" that "The Jews stand right at the centre of the perennial attempt to give human life the dignity of a purpose." That is because Judaism holds what is fundamentally holy is not a place, a person or a power. What is fundamentally holy is words. G-d's speech to us and our response to G-d. Meanings lie in language. We would not find them anywhere else. That is why Judaism is the supreme example of a religion of language and, therefore, of meaning. If we do not find G-d in the Torah, we will not find Him anywhere else. I challenge anyone to oppose that. In Torah, G-d speaks to man and asks Ayeka? Where are you? We speak to G-d and ask G-d - Where is He? And in that dialogue between earth and Heaven, Judaism lives.