Is “freedom of speech” a Torah/Jewish value as well? Or does Judaism believe that there should be a limit on what we say?
Freedom of speech is an important value. We can hardly imagine a democratic form of government without it. And long before any Western constitution was written, the prophets of Israel were demonstrating (possibly for the first time in history) the importance of speaking truth to power and communicating unpopular ideas. This was indeed one of the precedents that the American founders had in mind when they sought to limit the power of government by guaranteeing broad rights to political and religious speech even when it is unpopular.
Yet every system of government also confronts the need for some limits to freedom of speech. The United States Sedition Act of 1918 was an attempt to prohibit speech that would interfere with the war effort or with military recruitment. It was repealed in 1920 and is not remembered very favorably today, but my point is that American courts and governments have struggled with this issue throughout our history. One criteria that has gained traction today is the idea that it is not permissible to “yell Fire! in a crowded theater” because of the harm to many people that would ensue. Yet even outside the relatively broad boundaries of legally protected speech, Americans continue to debate vociferously how much freedom of speech is good for society and how much they will tolerate in different settings. For example, the government cannot penalize hate speech, but we increasingly expect private institutions to do so, even to the point of depriving people of their livelihoods for speech considered hateful (think of Don Imus or Helen Thomas). So it would not be right to say that “American values” simply promote freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is an important value, but it is not the only one and not always even the dominant one in American public life.
Now, comparing American values and Jewish ones on a matter like this is a little bit like comparing apples and automobiles. The American value of free speech is usually discussed in the context of a constitutional protection against government interference. It relates primarily to political speech in a well-organized state that is now over 200 years old. But Jewish approaches to speech and its power relate not just to the government but to the religious and ethical development of individuals, and not just to life in an organized state but also to nearly two millennia or wandering and exile in some of the worst situations imaginable. Another way of saying this would be that American freedom of speech is mostly about individual liberty and limits to the power of the state; the rules of speech in Judaism are mostly about human virtue and ethical attainment.
This makes Judaism stricter in many cases than American public culture, because the issue is not what the government can punish you for but what speech you should avoid for your own sake.
Some forms of speech are unambiguously prohibited under Jewish law. Cursing your parents falls under this category. So does cursing God or a judge or spreading slander about another person. Where Jewish courts are functioning, a person can be penalized for these crimes. Under Jewish law, moreover, there is absolutely such a thing as “victimless crime.” The Torah itself prohibits cursing a deaf person, even though they cannot hear the curse or have their feelings hurt by it. But there are also many other forms of speech that are considered bad or degrading and to be avoided even though it is not obvious that a court of Jewish law would take interest in them. Examples are speaking negatively about someone where there is no financial harm, or speaking lewdly and immodestly, or speaking in a way that causes a desecration of the name of God—like yelling at people in the name of religion. Because Jewish morality is concerned with making you the best person you can be and not just controlling the power of the state, it makes sense to tell people to avoid speech that is bad for them or bad for society. When it comes to the rules of gossip, whole books have been written going into great detail about how careful one has to be to avoid even unintentional gossip, because of the corrosive and often ignored consequences of such behavior on human communities.
So does Judaism value free speech? Absolutely. We depend upon it for the democracy on which we all rely (and we have seen what the absence of democracy means to everyone, especially Jews). In the Sanhedrin or Supreme Court of old, the most junior scholars had to speak first so that they would not be swayed or intimidated by their more senior colleagues. But do we believe in limits to what should be said? Again, absolutely. Life and death, as the saying goes, lie in the power of the tongue. Yet while piety requires that we should control our own speech very closely, it also requires that we should be cautious about any attempt by the government or even by religious communities to suppress speech through force. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who was the chief rabbi of the Jewish Yishuv in the land of Israel during the 1930’s wrote in one of his letters that the coercive powers of the state and of Jewish courts are naturally curtailed in an era such as our own, in which the hand of God is not obvious to everyone, and there is therefore a certain divine providence in our inability today to enforce some of the rules that would have been enforced in Talmudic or Medieval times. I have always found this to be an inspiring approach, because while it reminds me that my own freedom of speech should be limited by whatever wisdom and humility I may attain, the freedom of speech of others needs to be respected.
While Judaism offers a great deal of latitude for the freedom of expression, I do not think it would be correct to characterize freedom of speech as a 'Torah value' or a 'Jewish value,' at least in the sense that we define freedom of speech in the contemporary world.
When we speak of freedom of speech, we think of the American Bill of Rights. In Jewish law and in Scripture, Judaism is defined not so much by individual freedom as it is by communal responsibilities and obligations. American law is structured to protect the individual from governmental controls. The primary purpose of Jewish law is to create a 'nation of priests and a holy people.' It is more concerned with promoting righteous living than it is with celebrating the autonomy or the rights of the individual.
There are limits, then, placed on self-expression particularly when it comes to words that could harm others. This goes far beyond laws against slander in our society. Gossip, even when it is not malicious, is prohibited by Jewish law and is considered a sin from a Jewish standpoint. In addition, limits were often placed on the community when it came to the expression of ideas outside the accepted norms of Judaism. The rabbis could resort to ex-communication to place controls on self-expression within the context of community as we see in the case of Benedict Spinoza.
That being said, there is a great deal of room in Jewish discourse for the expression of dissenting points of view. Talmudic law is not as concerned with presenting the official point of view as it is with arguing the pro and con of each issue. Minority opinions are included in the Mishnah and the Talmud even when they are not the accepted point of view, as we see in the cases of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. Even though the School of Hillel is almost always the accepted point of view in matters of Jewish law, the rabbis took the opinions of the School of Shammai seriously. At the end of the day, however, the official point of view must be accepted as the law no matter what the theoretical arguments for the other point of view may be.
One of the best known examples of this conflict between individual expression and communal norms is the story of the aknai oven (Bava Metzia 59a-b). In this famous case Rabbi Eliezer took exception with his colleagues regarding the ritual purity of a certain type of oven. Rabbi Eliezer offers a series of 'proofs' for his point of view which are entirely circumstantial; he says that if he is correct then, a carob tree will uproot itself and move to another spot; the river will flow backwards; that the walls of the academy will fall. In each case the sages reject his 'supernatural' proofs. In the end Rabbi Eliezer says, "If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!’ Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: ‘Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!’" Despite the voice of God taking sides the rabbis again reject Rabbi Eliezer's point of view by saying: "The Torah is not in heaven! …the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, since it is written in the Torah, 'After the majority must one incline.'" Less well known is the end of this story: the rabbis excommunicated Rabbi Eliezer because he was unwilling to accept the majority opinion.
Whatever the classical point of view may be, I would have to say that we value freedom of speech today as if it were a "Torah value." Living in a world in which self expression is deeply important and in which pluralism is part of the vitality of the contemporary Jewish community, we recognize that we gain a great deal by encouraging freedom of expression in the Jewish community. Like the sages of Talmud, we affirm the teaching Lo bashamayim hee, "the Torah is no longer in heaven, and there are many different ways of reading Torah today. As Jews we have often been the victims of political and moral oppression. There is much more to be gained by being advocates of freedom then there is by curtailing the freedom of the individual.
As in so many things in Judaism, the answer to this question is ‘yes and no, it depends.’ :-)
Judaism certainly values the ability to speak one’s mind, and particularly, to ‘tell truth to power’ – as is often seen in the case of the prophets speaking to kings.
Though there is not a specific statement regarding ‘freedom of speech’, it is arguable that the Torah commands us to speak out even to our harm; based on Deut. 16:20 requiring us to pursue justice/righteousness, and to judge fairly and not to act to cause injury nor to stand idly by when another is in danger in Lev. 19:15-16, as a barebones framework. As a general principle in the Tanakh (Jewish bible), no one was happy to be singled out to be a prophet because it meant that they would be delivering G-d’s message to those who did not want to hear it, and would be subject to discomfort, distress, and even death as a result.
For one clear example, note in this regard the biblical account in 2 Samuel 12, in which the prophet Nathan rebukes and chastises King David for his actions in regard to Bathsheba (through a sort of parable/story followed by an accusation). Nathan is certainly free to speak, and to tell the truth, and this is in accord with what G-d would wish. At the same time, note the circumstances in this story. This is not a public declaration decrying David to others - Nathan is saying this directly to David, perhaps in private.
That fits in with another, equally important value in Judaism concerning the power of words and the need to be careful in speech. This principle is often referred to in short as the topic of ‘lashon hara’ (the evil tongue, or evil speech). There is a great deal of discussion of this idea in Jewish texts, including in the Talmud (e.g., BT Baba Metzia 58b ff.). It is also tied to the concepts concerning ‘rechilut’ (talebearing). The truth of a statement is not a justification by itself in Judaism (though it is a complete defense in common/secular law, where we see the issues regarding speech dealt with in the areas of slander and libel).
The principle in Jewish law and thought is that speech must be governed and controlled. One may not say anything they wish; it must be said in the correct context, to the appropriate person(s), and mindfully, so as not to inflict injury or harm without necessity.
So the answer to your question is that although one may speak up, and may even be obliged to do so, this is not freedom of speech as understood in the common view of American society and the American legal system. Judaism has a more nuanced and balanced position on when one is permitted/obliged to speak or remain silent, and in what circumstances.
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