As many of you may be aware, There has been a troubling episode centered around Senator Joshua Miller over the last week or so . . . letting his guard down in the face of an overly-assertive NRA-aligned journalist, the Senator delivered an unfortunate explicative in public. Senator Miller has since apologized for his inappropriate language. The incident received national media attention (you can read what seems to be a balanced account in this Huffington Post article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lincoln-mitchell/gun-regulation-profanity_b_5079352.html
In the wake of this incident, as the HuffPost article indicates, Senator Miller became the target of internet attacks, threats against his home and family and very aggressive anti-semitic vitriol. I met with the Senator for a few minutes yesterday and confirmed all of this.
This is a complex issue made murkier through the senator's unfortunate utterance. Nonetheless, the intensity of the anti semitic rhetoric directed at the senator through voice mail and e-mail is very disturbing. The ugliest spewing you can imagine. Now, it may very well be that Senator Miller's support of gun control legislation would have been sufficient to turn him into a target of anti-semitic attacks . . . but it may also be that he drew this disproportionate, vile attention to himself because of that one very human moment when he did not "guard his tongue."
This week's Torah portion, Metzora, relates the steps to be taken by the kohein, the priest when a person presents with the affliction known as "Metzora." The traditional translation of this term has long been "leprosy," but there is much debate about the nature of this skin affliction: psoriasis? some other skin disease? Not clear.
There has been a clear link, in the rabbinic mind, between the affliction of metzora and the affliction of inappropriate speech. Rabbi Jordan Cohen explains (posted in myjewishlearning.com):
"The laws of the Metzora have long been the basis for numerous rabbinic homilies against the spread of lashon ha-ra--literally "evil speech" or gossip. Metzora, the rabbis conjectured, sounded just like motzi-ra--the bringing forth of evil with the mouth. Cause and effect: if one is guilty of lashon ha-ra, one will be afflicted by tzaraat and thus becomes a Metzora."
There is a tale the rabbis have long told about a person who chats around the village spreading false rumors. Ultimately, the offender is brought before the rabbi and apologizes for all the inappropriate things said to neighbors and friends. The rabbi instructs the offender to take a feather pillow out to the village square and tear it open, allowing the feathers to fly out. The person comes back a few moments later and reports that the pillow has been ruptured and the feathers are all over the square. "Good," says the rabbi, "now go collect all the feathers." An hour later, the person returns breathless and declares that the task cannot be done, the feathers have flown in all directions. "Yes," replied the rabbi, "that is the case with the inappropriate words you have let fly out of your mouth. Apologizing won't bring those words back, the damage cannot be undone."
And we thought it was only in the internet age that "postings" couldn't be retracted....
Senator Joshua Miller is going to regret his momentary slip for a long time and the video of his utterance on the internet is going to keep making the rounds for a long time, too. His words have flown off in all directions.
None of that, however, justifies the appalling response of hatred, vitriol, personal attack and threat that poured over the senator, his family and his faith in the wake of that moment.
For us in Rhode Island, it is disturbing to find anti-semitism so close to the surface. We need to ponder this reality and respond with maturity and perspective.
But let us resolve, right now, that measured debate on issues of public policy must never spill over into personal attacks. There is no way to govern with intelligence when vitriol is involved.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.