Thursday, February 19, 2009

Do not carry false rumors


Parashat Mishpatim of this weekly portion in Exodus 21:1-24:18 describes with much precision the laws and articles pertaining to justice, righteousness. Chapter 23 has some very appealing features. It deals with the respect and responsibility that should be exercised toward foreigners and enemies. "You must not carry false rumors; you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness. You shall neither side with the mighty (אחרי-רבים = acharei rabim = the multitude) to do wrong, you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty – nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute." (Ex. 23: 1-4).

"False rumors" = שמע שוא = shema shav »are things that are supposedly heard and reported, but not only that ! The Hebrew expression includes the fact that this slander or false allegations are heard and conveyed "in order to reduce to nil ». The phrase is special: "lo tisse shema shav\לא תשא דמע שוא" corresponds to something like "you shall not bear positive witness to what has been heard in order to exterminate, assassinate, reduce to nil". The root is "shav\שוא = shoah\שואה = reduce to silence, to nil, to exterminate". One way the humans have to wipe out without even paying any respect to anybody is to look blindly at those they want to destroy and annihilate. Thus, it is not possible to speak of "false, mistaken, erroneous" rumors or slander, words. In Yiddish, for instance "chap'n a shmu'es\כאפן א שמועות = to have a conversation". It is not so bad and describes with some humor a general tendency to blah-blah around. It always seems that chatting cannot really be bad or cause any serious damage. It is how things usually start. We always think we speak with much innocence. Russian thinkers have underlined that "every uttered word is a lie". This may be the consequence of some Scandinavian love for silence, developed in huge spaces and forests. It drifts to silence and every word has then a definite value and meaning.

There is a Yiddish saying stating that "the tongue is smallest muscle yet it can kill". It is fascinating how words can lead to misunderstanding, inability to share when people desperately look for being connected. It is maybe one of our biggest defects at the present, though all societies have always been at pain in have authentic and supporting dialogues.

But the prohibition, negative mitzvah is extremely strong, vehement. It is a commandment that strictly forbid any rumor, i.e. irresponsible gossiping, uncontrolled and bad speech about any other person. There is even more: this rule concerns our relationship with the others, the people who are different from us, do not belong to our "tribe, language, race, culture". It is the moral ethics applied toward foreigners and our enemies.

Intriguingly, such commandments are usually considered as "Christian", but they are basically rooted in the Jewish universal awareness of what humans are responsible for. We do know that innocence should be preserved as far as possible before a person can be brought to the court in order to be granted a real judgment. The whole of our present Israeli society replies upon a system of permanent
dribbled denunciation without proofs, evidence and trustworthy witnesses. As a consequence, many politicians and leading personalities are the victims of slanders. It does not mean they are totally and definitely innocent, but the social and media system just report them and "annihilate" their reputation. The system is international and shows everywhere because of some unbelievable power of false news, forged information, virtual or normal personal or collective attacks.

Rumors can kill. They do more: they reduce to nil. What is the difference? There is a fundamental commandment "lo tirtzeach\לא תרצח = you shall not kill, murder". In the Ten Paroles, the commandment directly corresponds to the way we are called to worship and venerate God as the Creator of all the living. This is a real "face-to-face", "heart-to-heart" proof of authenticity for all human beings. The animals kill each other "without remorse". They need to find food and they seemingly try to survive. There maybe more in their destinies, indeed. But this is a programmed combat for some more days, months, years. Humans have been breathed in a soul, a spirit; we are inspirited. This means that we would be able to struggle for life but this can be portioned in two or more ways: there is a real struggle in the way we are living, against elements, environmental factors, economic and social realities. Humans can be wolves in their relationships, but they know how to control their moods and attitudes.

On the other hand, the versatility of oral speech and the way it is carried and conveyed, persistently and swiftly, in very rampant and subtle manners, can only endeavor to do something that surpasses "simple" killing or murder. It is called in Hebrew "reduce to nil". This is the now famous root "shav/ shva- שו\שוא" that had been use for long in linguistics when a vowel disappears or "reduced to silent sound". The word is actually very well known and maybe too much in some way as determining "the Holocaust = the extermination of the Jews during World War II". "Too much known" in a special sense: the word is to be found in the psalms and shows up in many different verses of the TaNaKH.

"Shahava, shehi\שחוא\שהי" means "wasteness, ruin" as in Targum Psalm 78:18. The radical tracks back to interesting notion of something that cannot be grasped, seized, stopped and disappears without leaving any material traces. The best example is "time = shahut\שהות", (not to be compared with "hour = shaah\שעה that on the contrary depicts time as an event that is made real and may even save, laasot/lehoshiya- לעשות\להושיע). There is a concept of "delay, delaying", something that tarries out anyhow.

One of the best examples for "vacancy, inanity, falsehood" is found in the following statement: "I swear that I will eat this loaf and I swear that I shall not eat it" in which the former is the useless oath or vow, the second is a false oath (Shevuot 3, 9). In both cases the Talmud underlines that the person feels guilty for not accomplishing the oath either because he does not eat the loaf or he takes an oath that he will not implement. The matter is a real versatility and lack of responsibility in giving a word. This is why Jesus, in the Gospel, asked his disciples to refrain from taking oaths. In the Semitic tradition and cultural environment, words are like oaths, i.e. that they definitely link humans with their conscience, their awareness and responsibility in achieving something, which always link them to God. In this view, God is told to have His Word: "The Lord had sworn and He does not deny His saying/ does not "discomfort" His parole/ HaShem nishba ve lo yinachem\ה' נשבע ולא ינחם" (Ps. 110:4).

Thus, rumors and gossip are comparable to "timeless delays" because time cannot be stopped and it disappears without leaving any traces of time-funded materiality. Words are still "materialistic and real" in the Semitic environment. "Davar\דבר = word, but also matter, object, thing". Long before recorders existed, the Semites had considered that sounds and words are as real as stones or visible elements. This is why silence is also made of unutterable sounds or still "unveiled" substances, just as the scrolls of the TaNaKh. This also makes the Gospel more dynamic and vibrant because the words it include can always be discovered in new ways.

In Hebrew and Aramaic, "rumors" are linked to sounds and hearing. Thus it is a mixture of very special psychological and sociological attitudes: time cannot be controlled, but rumors can swiftly go back and forth; they open the field of impossible matters or purposes that can be substantiated although most people concerned are duly aware of the fact that their nature and consistency does not exist and thus does not allow any form of possible materialization.

Instead of being true and really upon authentic facts and elements, rumors drizzle and wither because they are based on more than time that passes. When historical factors and events do exist, they are stored and can be interpreted in many different ways with regards to their backgrounds. Rumors are spread upon the basis of what is fancied from minuscule elements that suddenly turn to be real in some niches of our common imagination and aim to destroy what is usually a tiny source of life.

Again let's take a statement: "It is vain (shav\שוא = a source of reduction to nil) to assert something that is known to be impossible, e.g. that we can see a camel flying in the air" (Shevuot 3:9-10). An oath that slowly destroys by reducing a matter of a subject to nil is a "shav - שוא" and therefore should be considered as a "shekerשקר = lie, false oath". "A vain prayer is a prayer that deals with a matter or a thing that cannot be changed" (Berachot 9, 3). This is a big concern for the Jewish tradition as well as for the Christian faith. "Nothing is impossible to God" (Gen. 18: 14; Luke 1: 37). Still, false rumors aim at denying the reality of various opinions, matters, existences, lifestyles and paths, what can truly be ascertained as real and extant.

The paradox of life with God on based on something that only relies upon Divine Providence (Shechinah\שכינה) is that it cannot be proven regularly and requires a lot of time to be evidenced with some and then more and more certainty and precision. In this field, human nature often prefers to test and testing implies distrust and/or absence of trust or hope. It often the consequence of self-denial for some specific reasons. Faith and trust always require somehow to surpass our own mental "status quo".

Hatred or alterity are natural orientations. People might protest and claim that this is not real. Indeed, our first human reaction is a sort of Kafka's "strach - touha" i.e. "attractiveness and repulsion". Franz Kafka was driven to personal despair. It might be more comfortable for most of the people to get drifted to such negative feelings. The way of faith, on the other hand, teaches how to get rid of such contradictory and nullifying tendencies.

Traditionally, only miracles can change or even slightly alter the cause of false rumors and their consequences. The famous example in the Bible is given by Bilaam, the pagan prophet who was paid to exercise his competences by cursing Israel. On his way, his she-donkey gave him a kick and stopped. He fell twice ut could not understand what was going on (Numbers 22: 5 ssq.). The she-donkey had more insights with brains or any understanding of the matter than a professional prophet who simple was about to do his work. Finally, his "mind reversed" and he unintentionally started to praise Israel (Numbers 24: 5)with the words that continue to open the Jewish daily morning prayer: "How beautiful are your tents, Jacob, your dwellings, Israel!"

It is significant that Israel's daily prayer starts with the words of a pagan, non-Jewish and cursing prophet who was sent to exterminate the House of Israel. Because Israel, as true believers do, does not exist for her sake and her pride. On the other hand, she shows God's loving-kindness and Finger in His actions to save and redeem. This is a major point that should draw us to humility and patience, keeping the non-judgmental line. The commandments is essential. It is most important at the present, although it might often be misinterpreted by the Jews and the non-Jews and other believers. Self-justification hardly allows to unfold common blindness. It often explains why pushy actions are required in numerous situations.

Nonetheless, God gives a very fundamental commandment in the weekly "Mishpatim" portion: we ought to abstain to gossip or to carry false and exterminating rumors about ourselves and the others, whoever concerned. Foreigners, alien people are those whom we do not regard correctly. They may seemingly rebuke, oppose us or our egos, lifestyles, cultures, thoughts, traditions. There is a repeatedly mentioned commandment that is recalled by the Jews at Rosh HaShanah (New Year day in the Autumnal Feasts): "Do remember that your ancestor -Abraham - was a wandering Aramean" (Deut. 26: 5 = "a fugitive Aramean = ארמי אבד אבי = 'arami oved ani'") with somehow corresponds to the heralding Presence and decision of God (Genesis/Bereishit 4:12). It is not a question of cursing, it is not a punishment though many would continue to comment in this way. It encompasses the whole of the human call to enhance who humankind is as a God-interface partner throughout history. It is possible to get to the fulfillment of love, depth, breadth, length.

In the present, we see how alteration can be powerful to threat human unity. There is a constant "back and forth" movement that goes from inclusion to total exclusion, attempts to love the others and some enemies and, on the other hand, to deny them and reject them till they are reduced to nil. The point is that "false - reducing to nil - rumors" do not require any killing or murder. The point is that rumors are comfortable when they slander and play the odious role of those who never touch the others. Or they come close to the aliens and then quickly fake to disappear. Rumors do not kill. They do not look face to face; the rarely face the enemy. This is why those who hate via the medium of rumors and false statements pretend they do not know of anything; or that they were told. Or that they need more evidence. We do not need to be member of any religious hierarchy to act that way. We just can click and connect on the computer and then report anonymously, remove and delete. It is more convenient! Simply for convenient. If people carrying gossips and false rumors could get a bit aware of what they do, they would consciously get ill and "out of order". It is a part of the long-term spiritual healing to allowing a societal curing of attitudes that cannot get out of our fancies. This is why Jesus is told to get away from the region where he cast the swines down the mountain into the sea (Matthew 8:32).

The mental aspect is essential and makes a spiritual conflict that should be healed. Rumors are not materialized and they need to remain in such a stand. Otherwise they would be destroyed very quickly. On the other hand, rumors need to sound credible though human minds could admit they are false. This would be a source of discomfort. Thus, rumors exist to pour out the poisoning wickedness that our brains cannot suppress in a natural way. This is also why there is a great sense of responsibility shared by God in the giving of His Mitzvot. He is convinced that, in the end, the humans will be able to overcome their passions and irrationalities.

A famous rabbi was asked by a so-called talented student how he could be ordained a rabbi? The answer of the Sage was that he should learn the Shulchan Aruch (The Prepared Table) and its five books. The student immediately corrected and proudly declared: "There are only four books in the Shulchan Aruch!" The tzaddik replied: "Not at all! There are indeed four books that are written, but there is a fifth volume that is more important and not written down: "sechel\שכל = discernment, capacity to have brain and judge without judging".

It takes a lot of time and we are not patient. The commandments given this week are definitely essential because they show that God trusts in human beings. He has sworn that He will not try to destroy the world. The question is pending: why do we continue to slander? Maybe because we are lightminded. We did not reach the Gates of death to widely boomerang around the power of life.

av aleksandr [Winogradsky Frenkel]

February 19-6, 2009 - 25 deShvat 5769 - כ"ה דשבט תשס"ט

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