V’al chet she-hatanu l’fanekha bil’shon ha-ra, “And for the sin we have committed before You through slander” — over the course of Yom Kippur we say these words over and over again as we recite the Viddui (Confessional) quietly to ourselves and then aloud communally. As we say them, we beat our breasts to physically hammer home the meaning of the words we say. In fact, sins of the tongue represent the most common single category of transgression in the Al Chet confessional.
Unfortunately, President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney, along with most of their political operatives and the funders and staffs of the super PACs who support them, will not be sitting in shul all day on Yom Kippur and will not hear or say these words and allow their meaning to seep into their brains and souls. And so, I fear that over the course of the campaigning of the coming weeks, the slandering that has become a hallmark of the political process in the 21st century will continue unabated. I believe that, given the immediate and wide-ranging impact of today’s electronic media, the political divisiveness that we are witnessing today is, to a considerable degree, a result of the vitriolic defamation of character and proffering of half-truths that have come to dominate the rhetoric of our political process.
Some will say that the ends justify the means, and, in order to get the right people into office so as to develop the correct public policy, almost any tactic is “kosher.” I disagree strongly with this approach. For a democracy to work, it must be based on the principle of respect for one’s political opponent and the understanding that in a democracy there will be many opinions expressed — otherwise it becomes a tyranny. In a democracy, respect, negotiation and compromise are the only way the needs of the people can be served in the long run. If we demean a person with whom we disagree, then we lose respect for that person and we can become more than political opponents — we can become enemies. Enemies harm one another. Enemies do not work together to solve problems — indeed, their enmity creates more problems.
Our rabbis teach us that Jerusalem fell to the Romans because of baseless hatred within the Jewish community of Eretz Yisrael. Slander leads to hatred. Hatred leads to weakness. Weakness results in defeat. What America needs now, more than ever, is not a fractured polity, but a polity that can unite and work together for the greater good. The sin of slander, lashon harah, prevents that from happening and must be excised from our political campaigns. Please convey this message to the leaders of the political party you support, and remind them of the words of Torah (Deuteronomy 16:20) with which we are all familiar: “Justice, justice you shall pursue” — the means must be in agreement with the end, and the pursuit of justice must be accomplished justly, not with lies (R. Simcha Bunim).
Rabbi Joel Rembaum is rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth Am.