A nineteenth-century Jewish folktale tells of a man who went about town slandering the rabbi. One day, realizing that many of the things he had said were unfair, he went to the rabbi’s house and begged for forgiveness. The rabbi told the man that he would forgive him on one condition: that he go home, take a feather pillow from his house, cut it up, and scatter the feathers to the wind. After he had done so, he should then return to the rabbi’s house. Though puzzled by the rabbi’s strange request, the man was happy to be let off with so easy a penance. He quickly cut up the pillow, scattered the feathers, and returned to the rabbi. “Am I now forgiven?” he asked. “Just one more thing,” the rabbi said. “Go now and gather up all the [disbursed] feathers.” “But that’s impossible. The wind has already scattered them.” “Precisely,” the rabbi answered. “And though you truly wish to correct the evil you have done, it is as impossible to repair the damage done by your words as it is to recover the feathers.”
This Chasidic classic has been used for centuries to warn people about the dangers of gossiping and telling stories about others. Speaking lashon ha’ra has typically referred to the verbal assaults we launch on one another and how these words have the power to hurt or destroy someone for a lifetime. However, in this day and age of Facebooking, tweeting, and emailing, it is imperative that we pay attention to the potential immediate and widespread damage that can be caused by our written words as well.
Last week, for example, Andrew Adler, owner of the Atlanta Jewish Times, published a piece in which he wrote that Israel should “give the go-ahead for U.S.-based Mossad agents to take out a president deemed unfriendly to Israel in order for the current vice president to take his place, and forcefully dictate that the United States policy includes its helping the Jewish state obliterate its enemies.” Sad, but true, Adler actually advocated assassinating President Obama! As you can imagine, the news of this caught on like wildfire, evoking international attention. And, even though Adler has issued an apology for his remarks, the damage has been done. It’s all in print; it’s now out there; and people from all over are talking about it.
What have been the effects of this malicious, unethical, immoral, stupid (feel free to use your own words) statement? The entire Atlanta Jewish community is in a mortified uproar that is forcing every Jewish organization to publically denounce, disavow, or disassociate from the Jewish Times. People are calling for Adler’s resignation, canceling their subscriptions, and/or pulling their advertisements. The Jew-haters are especially out in full force, offering anti-Semitic rhetoric about how subversive and dangerous Jews really are. In summary, no good will come of this (although rabbis will have great current material for sermons!). And though it’ll die down in time, it’ll never be forgotten.
So why did Adler do this to himself and the Jewish community? While I have only met him once, he seems to enjoy stirring up controversy. He thinks it somehow unites the Jewish community; it gets people talking; it ensures that people know who he is; and, yes, it helps him sell newspapers. Wow. With this piece, he actually may have accomplished all of those things! But, at what price? Was it really worth it?
Personally, this episode has given me new reasons to proceed with caution as I speak and write. Words clearly have the power to take on a life of their own, regardless of what the speaker or writer may have actually meant.
Andrew, good luck picking up all of those feathers…