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Numbers 13:1-15:41: Speaking Out Against Sexual Abuse

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We are living through a moral revolution. Sexual abuse by those in power -- a topic that has long been kept under wraps -- is no longer easily covered up. The ethics of speech around abuse have changed, and they are shifting how we think about gossip, privacy and truth-telling.

In just the last month, two articles regarding sexual abuse were reported in the front pages of The New York Times: one about the prestigious Horace Mann private school in the Bronx and the other about Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn. While these cases are different in many ways, both articles delineated how a culture of silence developed in the face of complaints and how a concern for privacy and protection from malicious gossip in these close-knit communities were used to cover up abuses, whether through legal or religious means. If we are to truly revolutionize our approach to the reporting of sexual abuse -- and we must -- we need to seriously consider our ethics of speech.

"You can destroy a person's life with a false report," said one authority figure quoted in the Times piece. Indeed, the need to be careful with our speech has never been more important. We live in an age in which our personal information has become a commodity in the public online square. While there is a lot of public conversation about the need for corporations to be careful with our information, how careful are we with details of other people's lives -- family, friends, colleagues and others?

On the other hand, the aspiration to create a gossip-free discourse must not be used as a cover for greater evils. Reporting abuse is not gossip. How to walk the fine line of proper speech and ethical responsibility has been a source of debate within Jewish texts and communities for centuries and merits revisiting, particularly in this age of social media and instant global reach.

Jewish texts have developed a rigorous discourse about the dangers of "evil speech" -- lashon ha'ra. This week's Torah portion, Sh'lach (Numbers 13:1-15:41), tells of the 12 spies Moses sends to scout out the land of Israel. Upon their return, they bring back a disheartening report to the Israelites about their ability to conquer the land. The people revolt and are consigned to wander for 40 years in the desert as a punishment for their disloyalty to God.

Somewhat surprisingly, our rabbinic sages arrive at the following conclusion from this painful biblical episode: "One who speaks with their mouth is more detrimental than one who does a deed; for we have found that our ancestors were only decreed to wander in the desert for 40 years because of the act of malicious speech" (Mishnah Arakhin 3:5).

Malicious speech is defined by the rabbis as different from slander: while slander is false, malicious speech is the truth -- but the truth spoken out of context, designed for no purpose other than to cause harm to its subject. Proverbs claims that "Death and life are in the hand of the tongue" (18:21), and the Talmud adds: "Talk about a third person kills three people: the one who speaks, the one who accepts it, and the one about whom it is spoken" (Tractate Arakhin 15b-16B).

What a community we would be if we all avoided speaking maliciously of other people, in person or on our screens, and navigated the vast sea of information now available to us with a desire to avoid "accepting" gossip.

However, we must not let our desire for positive speech to cause us to conceal important truths. An ethics of speech must also include directives about when to speak up, not just when to stay silent.

This past year people in the highest echelons of society have been identified as sexual predators, from a trusted college football coach to international political leaders, despite extensive cover-ups. Attempts to dismiss or suppress legitimate reports of abuse are particularly shameful in religious contexts, be they in the Catholic Church, in New Age spiritual communities, or in Jewish schools or synagogues. While these acts happen in all sectors of society, when "people of faith" protect predators, preventing the truth from being uncovered and justice served, they are aligning Divinity with their world of lies, desecrating God's name in the process.

Throughout the generations, voices from within Jewish tradition have had the courage to set the record straight, not allowing the ideal of avoiding gossip to become a fig leaf for silencing painful truths. Whenever I am in doubt, the words written by Rabbi Yisrael Isser of Vilna in 1875, ring in my ears:

All of the books of Ethics make an uproar about the prohibition of gossip. I want to make an uproar about the opposite form of behavior -- one that is a far greater wrong and that is also much more widespread -- the withholding of information when it is necessary to communicate it in order to save a victim from his oppressor. This is like a person who sees a stalker about to attack his friend - will he not cry out to inform his friend about the potential attacker? Would this [his warning of his friend] not be a fulfillment of the commandment, "Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow" (Leviticus 19)?
Now where shall we set the boundary and the limit, to say "up to this point speak, but no more"? It is an issue given to the heart of each person to discern. If they are speaking out of maliciousness about the person being discussed it is "evil speech", but if they are speaking for the benefit of the other person, to save and protect the individual, it is a great mitsvah, a righteous deed [Pitchei Teshuvah OH: 156].

It is easy to doubt our ability to speak out effectively against abuse and other wrongdoings and easy to be cynical about our ability to change our own speech practices. The aforementioned slanderous spies also underestimated their power to change reality: "We were in our own eyes like grasshoppers" (Numbers 13:33) they said upon returning from their scouting mission. In so doing, they not only weakened the resolve of the people of Israel, but also slandered against themselves.

We must strive to create a healthy culture of speech, one in which we seek to curb gossip and to speak out when abusive behavior is apparent. In contrast to the band of doubting spies stands the figure of Caleb, the spy who did not engage in malicious speech but rather said, "Let us go up, yes, up and possess it, for we can prevail, yes, prevail against it" (Numbers 13:30)! Similarly, we have the spiritual and ethical resources to create a culture of honest and judicious speech, guarding against gossip yet speaking truth to power.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.