Words and Deeds That Hurt at the Jewish Communal Table

In the aftermath of the vote by the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations to exclude J Street from the organization, I have been frustrated and angry about the state of the Jewish communal table. Granted, it was not a real surprise that J Street was denied, but the lack of transparency (secret ballot), openness (no statement from any organization which voted "no"), and awareness (no mention of the vote by the Conference itself) left me cold.

While I don't think J Street will be mortally wounded organizationally by this exclusion, and some might even say, the exclusion reveals how the conversation around Israel must change, the comments made by some members of the Conference, as well as the vote itself, underscore the insidious nature of intolerance within our community.

Obviously, this is not the first incident of "communal siblings" injuring one another. Jewish communal life has a long history of dissent and discord when it comes to debating the most important issues of the day. To engage in serious debate is to sanctify it, so we have been taught since the days of Hillel and Shammai. But we have also long been taught not to defame, shame, or injure others wantonly.

Parashat Behar, while ostensibly a text that focuses on the pursuit of holiness through laws of land tenure, sabbatical, indenture and indebtedness, offered me a new lens to think about the events of this week. In chapter 25 of Leviticus there are two verses that specifically speak to the prohibition of harming (tonu) another in transfers of property. Verse 14 reads: "when you sell property or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another" and verse 17 reads: "Do not wrong one another, but fear God; for I am your God."

These rules specifically apply to real estate transactions, but later rabbinic authorities expanded its scope to include all commercial transactions. Nonetheless, the repetition of the same phrase begs to be understood.

Rashi, the great 11th century French commentator explains that the first occurrence of the phrase indeed refers to commercial wrongs, however he interprets the second use of the phrase not to money or possessions, but remarkably, to feelings, and even more specifically to words. This may be a bit of a stretch, even for Rashi. But he draws his understanding from the Talmud, which discusses both verses as well, and concludes that the second use of tonu refers to injuring someone with words (BT Baba Metzia 58b).

The Sages reflect that it is injurious to take advantage, in any way, of someone with your words. Ona'at devarim - injury through words - can be deeply damaging, despite the old maxim that only "sticks and stones" can do that. Of course, injurious words are spoken often these days, especially when it comes to the contemporary dialogue around Israel, the quest for peace, and who is "in" or "out" of the conversation. As with many of the laws in pursuit of holiness, the reason for compliance is to make manifest godliness.

J Street might not be for everyone, but its exclusion from the Conference, as well as the characterization of the organization as one that "is out of the mainstream of what could be considered acceptable within the Jewish community" -- as the president of the National Council for Young Israel was quoted as saying -- injures the entire community. Our tradition has a long history of majority and minority opinions standing side by side, we should all be wary when that value is denied.