The author argues that comments about political correctness frequently aren’t, at their core, about free speech, free thought and free expression. The Torah portion’s use of the word “abomination” reminds us that we can elect not to be silenced and that we have some choice in how we respond to others’ attempts to pull the wool over our eyes.
By Rabbi Seth Goren
Silencing Abominable Language
by Rabbi Seth Goren on Saturday August 11, 2007
27 Av, 5767
Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17,Shabbat, 27th of Av, 5767
I have to confess that this week’s portion, almost through no fault of its own, kind of annoys me. It’s not the command to put false prophets to death or the requirement to tithe crops to the benefit of the priestly caste, both of which strike me as problematic, to say the least. My thoughts and frustrations are triggered by Parashat Re’eh’s mention of an abomination of significant proportions. No, not that abomination. That’s back in Leviticus 18:22. But it’s something that’s presumably just as bad. Yep, you guessed it: the camel, which, along with a whole host of other “unclean” animals, is dubbed an “abomination” smack dab at the start of Deuteronomy’s Chapter 14.
Go figure, right? Who’d have thought that the camel, even with its bad breath, rank odor and penchant for expectorating, is sufficiently revolting as to be classified as abhorrent? It certainly isn’t something that I remember being taught in Hebrew school. But lest the camel feel singled out, the list of biblical abominations is a lengthy one. The word often slogged through translation and dragged into English as “abomination” appears biblically no fewer than 105 times in one form or another, denoting anything from a deceitful merchant to intermarriage, from a “haughty bearing” to a person who incites siblings to argue with each other. As Jay Michaelson laid out so eloquently in his queery last April, biblical “abominations” like these are merely one thread in a broader tapestry of ancient purity laws, and the actions, events and objects that potentially run afoul of these laws are many and varied.
To be clear, I have nothing against camels specifically. Rather, my frustration stems largely from our present-day “abomination” amnesia and how all talk of biblical “abominations” has been condensed in modern religio-political discourse to one specific act alone: gay sex (which apparently also encompasses lesbic intimacy even though the Bible overlooks lesbian sex completely). Many anti-gay crusaders essentially take a censor’s pen to the Bible and black out portions they’d prefer to ignore, leaving a document that looks more like a Guantanamo hearing transcript than a holy book and hoping the rest of us don’t notice the difference. As an upshot, we find the Religious Right and other religious conservatives enjoying a perceived monopoly when it comes to interpreting a foundational text of American society, while those who have non-dogmatic perspectives have largely been silenced.
The irony, of course, is that those who would blind us to all but specific verses in the Bible, are precisely those who so often cry out as being the victims of “political correctness,” hate speech codes and the “thought police.” The rallying cry that “I can say whatever I want, whenever I want” is all too commonly heard from individuals who have little regard for the liberty of others.
Let’s set aside the proverbial “fire-in-a-crowded-theater” hypothetical and address this more practically and directly: to some degree, bristling at being told what types of language are unacceptable is understandable. As much as we can appreciate the importance of living in relationship with others, the thought of abdicating our chosen mode of expression is a latter- day abomination in and of itself, at odds with so much of what we treasure. The chilling effect from limiting certain types of speech has the potential to make us all come down with a case of the censorship flu. That said, comments about political correctness frequently aren’t, at their core, about free speech, free thought and free expression. For the sake of argument, I’ll concede that yes, a non-specific “you” generally may be entitled to call me an “abomination,” if “you” so choose. You can say that I’m a “fag,” a “sodomite,” a “faygele” or even the tamer, more clinical “homosexual.” You can say that I’m partially responsible for the 9/11 attacks, as the late Rev. Jerry Falwell did, or that I’m a causal factor in the death of thousands of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, as the thankfully inimitable Rev. Fred Phelps rants. You can say that I shouldn’t have the right to get married or that it should be OK to fire me because I’m gay. As a rule, you may have the right to say all of those things.
At the same time, I have the right to think that you’re a big jerk for doing so, to articulate that opinion and to react with some choice words of my own.
I feel pretty comfortable in holding this way. Having the freedom to say something doesn’t bring with it the right to control how others hear it. It doesn’t mean that we make pronouncements in an echo chamber or that there are no consequences for what we verbalize. It means that each of us has a far-reaching right to say and think and feel autonomously, independently and individually; it applies as much to those who hear and respond as to the initial commenter.
This thinking is no less applicable in the context of our biblical examples. The voices of religious homophobia and deceptive reasoning may be deafening at times, but we have it within our power, to a greater or lesser extent, to manage our own reactions to them. Some may elect to engage in intellectual debate, consistently jumping to highlight the camel and other biblical “abominations” or leaping at every chance to demonstrate the hypocrisy inherent in a Leviticus 18:22-centric world view. Others are simply exhausted from having the same conversation over and over and over, feeling nothing but apathy for this discussion. Most of us live somewhere in the middle, periodically challenging misconceptions, at other times hitting the debater’s equivalent of a snooze button. Regardless of where we end up on the spectrum of possible responses, those who’ve imparted their biblical tunnel vision to the rest of us can’t restrict how we choose to express ourselves.
So maybe this week’s mention of the camel and other “abominations” can serve a more positive purpose. True, the passage can trigger the realization that certain verses of the Torah have been wiped from public consciousness. At the same time, it can also remind us that we can elect not to be silenced and that we have some choice in how we respond to others’ attempts to pull the (camel) wool over our eyes.
H.T. to J.A.T.