Sermon Lech Lecha 5781
It’s hard to believe, but it’s nearly November in this unfortunate 2020 year. The presidential, senatorial and Congressional elections will complete their in-person voting in a couple of days, and I, for one, will be greatly relieved not to have to watch any more political ads on television, YouTube, Facebook or listen to them on the radio. It’s not as though most of the political ads have been positively driven, either. I would guess that ¾ or maybe 7/8th of them have been negative political ads, harshly criticizing opposition candidates with statements and images that combine half-truths, insinuations and outright lies in an attempt to sway voters.
I wonder if it was an election year in Harran when Abram lived there, and maybe he wasn’t leaving Sumeria for the Promised Land after all—he was just escaping from all the horrible political campaign ads.
Look, it’s not as though negative political ads are a brand-new concept in American elections, or any elections anywhere, although it seems to be growing worse in each subsequent election cycle. Still, we can’t pretend it’s something novel: in the presidential election of 1800 then-president John Adams was pilloried as a tryant and tool of Great Britain. In 1828, President John Quincy Adams’ people accused Andrew Jackson’s wife Rachel of being a bigamist, which had grains of truth but broke her heart and, according to Jackson, killed her before he could take office. Abraham Lincoln was caricatured as “The Original Gorilla” for his gangly appearance. For many years after the Civil War, every Democratic Party candidate for office heard about the dead in that terrible conflict, and every Republican candidate at some point would “Wave the bloody shirt,” claiming all Democrats were Confederates and traitors.
In 1884 Grover Cleveland’s campaign for president was nearly upended by the revelation that he had fathered a child out of wedlock—he was himself a bachelor at the time—and Republicans chanted at him, “Ma, ma where’s my pa? He’s gone to the White House, ha ha ha,” perhaps the greatest presidential sloganeering ever. More recently, Lyndon Johnson ran the famous “Daisy” ad, showing a 3-year-old girl counting off petals on a daisy followed by the countdown and explosion of a nuclear bomb going off, and while it aired only once (!) it devastated Barry Goldwater’s right-wing campaign. Goldwater himself was never mentioned in that ad, by the way, not even his famous dictum “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” You were just supposed to figure it out, and people did.
In recent years negative attack ads have become more specific and much more ubiquitous: everyone running is called a crook, is supposed to have evil business connections and is corrupt, and even anti-Semitic ads implying Jewish control of the world economy, or of a particular candidate—can anyone remember the ads against Hillary Clinton 4 years ago that showed photos of her linked to an “International banking conspiracy” and “global political establishment” then showing photos of George Soros, Janet Yellin and Lloyd Blankfein, all Jewish, all financial leaders—those attacks are apparently legal and fair game. And while I would wager more negative ads are coming from one said, there have been plenty of negative ads on the other side, too. I guess our current leaders believe that you can’t win if you don’t get into the gutter.
It also seems to get worse every single electoral cycle now: robophone calls coming in every hour, robotexts from changing phone numbers several times a day, all those emails and ads on social media and old-line media, and a mailbox full of political ads, mostly negative. It’s genuinely horrible.
At times like these, I’d like to suggest a return to the Jewish standards associated with ethical speech, the laws of Lashon HaRa, in our public life. These rules come originally from the Torah, in which the clear statement is lo taleich rachil b’amecha, do not become a slanderer among your people, and are echoed and then vastly amplified in the Talmud, and particularly in the works of Mussar, the teachings of Jewish morality and self-correction. According the greatest authority on the ethics of speech, the Chofets Chayim, there are 31 different rules limiting harsh and defamatory speech. These go so far as to stipulate that even telling the truth in a hurtful way is prohibited, while lying to damage others is a particularly evil sin that no Jew should ever practice. Gossip is damaging, and according to the Talmud it kills three people: the one who tells the gossip, the one who listens to the gossip, and the one about whom the gossip is said.
In a way, this is embodied in the Rotary Club’s standard of speech, the 4-Way Test, which has always impressed me as derived from the same thoughtful, moral approach as Judaism’s understanding of the ethics of speech in its doctrines on Lashon HaRa and Motzi Sheim Ra.
Here’s the Rotary Club 4-Way test for how to speak, which would certainly also apply to political ads:
1. Is it the truth?
2. Is it fair to all concerned?
3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
I don’t think the vast majority of the ads we’ve been subjected to this election season could qualify under those standards, and certainly not under Jewish standards.
Now, perhaps this is just a fantasy, but let’s take a moment to imagine a world in which the rules of Lashon HaRa applied to all political advertising. That would mean that all negative political advertising, by candidates or super-PACs or national committees, would simply be banned. In that imaginary America campaign world you could say as many positive things about your own candidate as you’d like, and about your party if you wish, over any medium you chose. But you couldn’t spend your funds, creativity and effort to create a negative image of the opposing candidate. You couldn’t attack them personally, you couldn’t commit Lashon HaRah by making ugly innuendos about their family, you couldn’t insinuate that they were involved with international Jewish cartels to control the country. You certainly couldn't engage in motzi shem Ra, and simply lie about them over social media or the airwaves or in texts and emails and on websites or on news programs.
Imagine if American political campaigns were required to focus on the strengths of their own candidate, her or his accomplishments and good qualities. Imagine if they had to actually put out ads about the policies the candidate advocated, or the ideas that motivated the candidate to run in the first place, or his or her goals if he or she won the election, instead of merely saying awful things about the opponent. Imagine a politics of the positive, instead of the mess we are in now. What was that old song? Accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. Wouldn’t that be a mechayeh for everyone?
The concepts of Lashon HaRa developed over many centuries, and that gives them a deep and thoughtful validity that could be applied today. We can practice them in our own lives, if we choose to do so, and so improve our own ability to function as a successful congregation and community. And we can choose to advocate for them in our society, too, because the way that political advertising and campaigns have gone in America over the past few elections cycles cannot be the right way for a civilized society to go.
It’s too late to save the verbal standards of this 2020 election year. But it’s not too late to begin to move towards civility, honesty and positivity in our society, and so in our own lives. By choosing to embrace the standards of Lashon HaRa in our own conduct, and by refusing to pay attention to ugly ads that flood our lives in this election cycle, we can follow a course that leads to wholeness, honesty and positivity.
And then, perhaps the next election cycle, we will see real change in the way that words and images are used.
May this be God’s will—but mostly, ours.