I like to say what’s on my mind! It’s my right as an American, after all, to say what I want to say. After this past year, however, when words have led to questions and outrage and controversy, maybe it’s time to stop and assess the actual nature of “free speech.” Judaism asks not whether one has the right to speak their mind, but insists that one makes sure that they speak what is right. At this time of year in particular, people focus on “guarding their tongues” and attempt to repent from transgressions they committed, including verbal and interpersonal transgressions.
It is interesting to note that among the items listed in the repentance service recited on Yom Kippur, ten of them are related to issues associated with speech. A few examples include insincere confessions, foolish talk, lying, scoffing, and tale-bearing.
Forget the old rhyme that claims that “words can never hurt you.” It’s a lie! Jewish tradition recognizes that quite often, words can be the most dangerous weapons of all. Once spoken, they can never be taken back, and this is especially true in the age of the internet! They can be officially “retracted” or apologized for, but they never fully disappear. Worse than that, they can be twisted and misconstrued. In the Jewish laws of proper speech, one is even warned about how to give a compliment properly (praising someone in front of a third party or a group of people, could lead someone else to say something nasty).
In America, Free Speech is our right. And it is important for people to be allowed to voice their opinions. But one of the greatest gifts given to humankind is the ability to think before we act and speak.
Shana Tova, Happy New Year.