Isolation is a terrible thing. In the news now is our practice of isolating difficult prisoners for weeks and even months on end, a horrific punishment. But we should have known this. Our rabbis differentiated people from other life forms by calling human beings m’daber — the species that speaks. We require conversation no less than food and water; talk is food for the soul.
Recognizing the human need for conversation, our rabbis took careful stock of the instructions in this week’s parsha to isolate victims of the disease known as tzara’at. Its exact nature remains uncertain, but whatever it was, its victims were to be quarantined, and the rabbis ask whether that was meant as a form of divine penalty for some moral character flaw that had brought on their illness? Or was it to prevent their passing on their disease to others?
The answer given by Jacob ben Asher, author of the influential law code the “Tur” is especially noteworthy. Isolation, he says, is preventative, not punitive. We would imagine he has in mind something like the flu or a bronchial infection — where contagion follows from physical contact. No surprise there. What surprises, however, is his claim that the disease is transmitted also from the simple act of conversing.
Living in the 13th-14th centuries, Jacob Ben Asher knew nothing of bacteria and viruses. On his mind, instead, was the medieval sense that illness is a form of divine retribution; tzara’at, in particular, was held talmudically to be punishment for the especially heinous sin of slander.
But why then would Jacob Ben Asher have called the quarantine “preventative,” not “punitive”? He must have thought that some forms of speech — slander, among them — are contagious, the way physical ailments are. And here is a lesson we should take to heart: Societies that treat slander lightly risk its spread to the point where the body politic loses all sense of civility, where the entire culture deteriorates into nastiness.
We are not far from that disastrous outcome. No good can come of a culture in which entertainers pepper their routines with expletives that shock more than enlighten. And whatever happened to the grand tradition of civil debate in Congress? Public discourse is becoming ever more unpleasant and often downright malicious. We have become immune to the corrosive negativity from political leaders who pander to a public that thrives on disparaging noise rather than informative opinion.
If negativity is contagious, so too is its opposite: the ennobling rhetoric that elevates a conversation and reminds us how decent we can be. The issues that face us as a people require forthright debate; if we are to make wise decisions about them, we need to know what is at stake. But regardless of what choices we make in the end, we will either be ennobled or degraded by the atmosphere in which the conversation leading up to it occurs.
By insisting instead on a rhetoric of respect, we affirm our right to be known as “little lower than the angels” and “made in the image of God.”