Religion, Metaphor and Getting the 'Nazi' Out of Our Rhetoric

There was, in my first full year living in Israel, a point when I began to get frightened. The year was 2005, and the disengagement from Gaza was rapidly approaching. In the media, on the buses, in public places I started to hear a repeated phrase in the mouths of the religious far-right about the prospect of the withdrawal: "it's like Ariel Sharon is coming to rape my sister," they would say. This statement terrified me.

It terrified me because this peculiar metaphor has specific meaning in Jewish ears. There is a law in the Talmud called the rodef -- the pursuer. It describes a person in the act of attempted murder or rape (i.e. pursuing another person to commit a crime). Halakha, Jewish law, states that it is permitted, if not commanded, to kill such a person before he accomplishes his intent. What I was hearing on the bus was the religious justification for political assassination.

What I was hearing also wasn't true. Sharon was attempting to leave Gaza, and forcibly remove Jews from their homes. But no matter one's opinion on the disengagement, he was not, in fact, coming to rape anyone's sister.

Ridiculous metaphor is now a trait American and Israeli societies share. My sense is that the right has cornered the market on inappropriate metaphor, as Jon Stewart's lampoon of Fox News justly shows, but Rep. Steve Cohen, Keith Olbermann and others of us have given in to the provocation. My experiences in Israel, hearing the call of "rapist" and "Jewish Nazis" in the midst of burning trash during Ultra-Orthodox protests, convinced me that political metaphor is unstable. I believe that we Americans must back away from the "Nazi" brink to which we've driven ourselves.

The irony is that I deal in metaphor for a living. Being a rabbi, or any serious religionist for that matter, means living in a thick skein of metaphorical connections. Because God is beyond our comprehension, because our minds are not capable fully grasping the sublimity of the world, because spiritual experience lives both before and beyond words, those great souls who experience God's presence describe the glory of it in metaphor. There is no other choice, nor is another choice wanted.

But though metaphor is essential to understanding emotion and the spirit, it's simply awful for clarifying political or legal debate.

Disagree with Israel's policies? Call them apartheid. Watch the critical nuances of that conflict swallowed up. Lose perspective on the fact that there's broad agreement on the two-state solution. See the potential for peace fade away.

Want to debate health care? Call it a Nazi policy -- to a gay Jewish Representative as to Barney Frank in 2009, just to be special. See, as by magic, actual substance dissolve. Watch one of the nation's most critical issues become bogged down in bitterness born of nonsense.

Using metaphor this way is damned dangerous and irresponsible. Hitler was Hitler -- not the leader of the political party we despise, who isn't in fact a genocidal terrorist. Nazis are Nazis -- not the au courant favorite political insult both here and in Israel. And a blood libel is the false belief that Jews used the blood of Christian children in baking matza -- a lie for which we died by the tens of thousands -- not Sarah Palin's attempt to deflect criticism.

Torah teaches us, "just scales and just measures ... you must have - I am the Lord your God, who took you out of Egypt" (Leviticus 19:31). Part of that verse is "a just hin (a kind of liquid measure), you must have." The Talmud, an unrivaled word player, remembers that the word hin (measure) sounds a lot like the word hen (a word for "yes"). So this is how it understands the the Torah: "Rabbi Yosi said in the name of Rabbi Yehudah ... this is to teach you that your 'yes' should be just and your 'no' should be just as well" (Talmud Bava Metzia 49). That is to say that our words should be just as accurate as the scale upon which we weigh our purchases.

Speak precisely, speak honestly, measure your words well -- this is the Torah's commandment. As much as it seeks to uplift our souls, Torah also demands that we ground ourselves in clear understanding: What, exactly, is this matter before us? How, precisely, does it resemble what has come before it? How, undeniably, is it is unique and without parallel?

Precise and measured description is now an untraveled path in contemporary political discourse -- one of which we should avail ourselves. The exercise is not academic: Metaphors only live as such for so long before some nutball decides they are reality literally described.

"Life and death are in the power of the tongue" (Proverbs 18:19). Let us speak more carefully.