Like all of us, I was horrified to turn on my television after Shabbat this past weekend and learn about the horrific shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and some 19 others. As saddened as I was by the event itself, I was not surprised to learn that the alleged shooter was someone whose apparent mental imbalance didn't allow him to ignore extremist speech. Our public language as an American community has become so terse and adversarial when we discuss political and social issues that we have come to see aggressive, disrespectful and dismissive speech as normative. To publicly frame every issue as one of good versus evil and every person who disagrees with a given position as someone of lesser or poor character, intellect or judgment has become the way we engage each other politically. And, as both Rep. Giffords (responding to a March vandalism to her office) and the local County Sheriff who led the first responders to her wounding pointed out, aggressive language has real consquences. I actually made this the chiddush (point of understanding) of a recent Torah portion commentary printed here in the Jewish Chronicle. This is a problem that crosses all segments of our society, and I have heard nastiness and vitriol from both sides of the political, social, cultural and religious divide. It is not about laying blame for the actions of a deranged man, (even though that is already happening as this great clip from Stephen Colbert points out) but recognizing that abusive speech, like secondhand smoke, can poison others who were never intended to ingest it.
The obligation is upon all of us, regardless of opinion, to teach the Jewish value of derech eretz (mutual respect). Our children listen to how we speak as much as what we say, and in Jewish education we must renew efforts to instill a common decency. It was not that long ago that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was murdered by a young Israeli man who had taken the extremist language of both politicians and rabbis in the media who disagreed with Rabin to heart. They had called him a murderer, a terrorist, a Nazi and a threat to the Torah who needed to be stopped, and his murderer took that literally. Now a Jewish congresswoman has been gunned down here by a disturbed young man who appears to have been triggered by extremist speech. He was not Jewish as far as I know, but that doesn't change the obligation of our community to set the example and demand civility under any circumstances.
Jewish educators across the communal spectrum should be developing lessons, teacher trainings and parental dialogues to speak about the power and danger of bad speech. Concepts such as lashon harah (gossip, slander), booshah (public humiliation) and being a doogma (role model) and a mensch (upstanding person) should be highlighted, encouraged and honored. This is about the entire community too and not just our children. Our rabbis of course need to speak out about it, but our board presidents and committee chairs need to enforce a ban on it at all lay leadership forums regardless of the organization. Jewish media needs to run editorials on the subject and set some policies that balance free speech with aggressive speech. (It is no secret that I am a major advocate of free speech, but I learned in law school the excellent maxim that "your rights end at my nose" which certainly seems to apply here.) Basically, we need to tackle this problem the way we handle all chronic problems in society - persistant, even-handed and committed public education and expectation. It worked for smoking in our congregations, and it can work for speech in them as well.
I urge educators to take a look at the JCPA's campaign on civility that was underway well before this past weekend for some great resources on how to make your community and its institutions more civil. Groundspark is also a really innovative education program for introducing mutual respect in to communities, as is the anti-bullying curricula out there examplified by Operation Respect. The American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League have excellent curricula on co-existence and pluralism already in place, and I am sure more will be coming from a variety of Jewish education sources in response to this tragic event. Now is the time to ask what your Jewish educational institution is doing to teach the values that will create a more civil and respectful community. Teaching respectful speech is literally an act of pikuach nefesh (saving life).