By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Recently, some Jewish websites and print publications published a rewrite of a Vanity Fair piece on Ivanka Trump. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s piece was penned by the agency’s deputy managing editor. The piece quoted the trash talk of a former acquaintance of Ivanka. Printing it is neither journalism nor news nor newsworthy at all, and is a violation of decency and integrity.
To its credit, one Jewish website apologized for running the piece. Aside from the obvious aspects of the many prohibitions of lashon ha’ra and rechilus in printing such a piece, there is another halachic aspect to the entire issue that must be expressed. What follows is a discussion of both the negative and positive aspects of how a ger must be treated.
Torah Prohibition With 36 Warnings
It is a Torah prohibition, with two violations, not to wrong or oppress the convert. The pasuk states: You shall not wrong a ger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were geirim in the land of Egypt (Sh’mos 22:20). The Torah (Sh’mos 23:9) repeats the thought again: “You shall not oppress a ger, as you know the soul of the ger, for you were geirim in the land of Egypt.”
The Gemara in Bava Metzia (59b) points out that the Torah warns us about mistreating the ger some 36 times. The Mechilta (Nezikin 18) sheds some more light: “Beloved are the geirim, concerning whom Hashem has written in many places: ‘You shall not oppress a ger;’ ‘You shall not wrong a ger,’ ‘You shall love the ger;’ ‘As you know the soul of the ger.’”
The Rambam’s Change of Wording
Hopefully, everyone is familiar with the famous dictum of Rabbi Akiva and the original verse in the Torah. The Torah says, “V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha — love your neighbor as yourself.” Rabbi Akiva adds, “Zeh klal gadol baTorah — this is an important principle in the Torah.”
Rabbi Akiva, a light unto his people, adds another thought. He states that this is a fundamental point in the Torah. Much of what we do, much of our Divine service, is predicated upon these three words.
Rabbi Akiva lived from before the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash until the aftermath of the Bar Kochva revolt in 135 CE.
We now fast-forward exactly 1,000 years from the passing of Rabbi Akiva. A new light to the people of Israel, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as the Rambam (1135–1204) was born. He will continue illuminating his people for millennia to come.
In the Rambam’s Mishnah Torah (Hilchos Dei’os 6:4), we read: “He has commanded us in the mitzvah of loving a ger, a convert, like we love His own Name.” Wait. There is a change here, a subtle one, but a change nonetheless. What happened to the word, “kamocha — as yourself?” The Rambam has changed the original wording from “kamocha” to “like we love His own Name!”
What is going on?
Rav Jewnin’s Insight
Rabbi Avrohom Yonah Jewnin (181–-1848), author of the Nimukei Mahari, printed in the back of the Mishnah Torah, points out this distinction. [Parenthetically, Rav Jewnin was a recognized world-class scholar in Grodno who died tragically young.] He explains that the Rambam’s intent is that there is no upper limit to the amount that we must love the convert.
We see clearly that, according to the Rambam, the mitzvah of loving a ger by far exceeds the amount we must love our fellow brethren who are not geirim.
Now, it is true that the Ramban states that the mitzvah of loving a ger states that it is equal to “kamocha,” disagreeing with the Rambam, but nonetheless it is at least equal.
The mitzvah of v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha is one mitzvah. However, the mitzvah of loving a ger involves the fulfillment of two mitzvos — ahavas ha’ger and ahavas Yisrael! If we love Hashem’s mitzvos, then we should surely love a double mitzvah!
Fulfillable at All Times
The mitzvah of loving a ger is one that we can fulfill at all times. We can do it in thought alone! It is one of the “thought mitzvos,” so to speak. So, the next time that we are standing in line without a sefer, or we are in a place where we cannot learn, for one reason or another, we can always contemplate the thought mitzvos — particularly that of loving a ger.
The Nivul Peh
Newspapers and websites should ascribe to a higher ideal — especially when it comes to the printing of grossly improper speech and conversation. The Midrash attests to this on the verse in Devarim (23:10), “When you go out to war, guard yourself from every evil matter.” How does the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 24:7) define evil matter? Something that is referred to in Hebrew as “nivul peh” — of a George Carlin nature.
The Midrash seems to indicate that it is a Biblically forbidden prohibition, whether in war or not in war. It is just that it is more common in wartime or in the soldiers’ barracks rather than in the typical social structure or setting to which the Torah generally speaks. The Machzor Vitri (424), one of the foremost students of Rashi, writes that the prohibition is Biblical.
There may be a different source for a Biblical prohibition, too. The Torah tells us (Devarim 23:17), “Lo yireh becha ervas davar — There shall not be seen within you an unseemly thing.” Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani in Vayikra Rabbah (24:7) rereads the words to say “ervas dibur” instead of “ervas davar.” The verse now reads, “There shall not be seen within you an unseemly statement.”
Avi Avos HaTumah
It seems this behavior is not an innocuous, harmless little activity. The Gemara in Shabbos (33a) tells us that because of the sin of cursing, great problems come to Israel. Harsh decrees are promulgated, people die young, orphans and widows cry out and are not answered. The Shelah (Osios Shin Shtika 24) writes that nivul peh is the avi avos ha’tumah, the ultimate source of impurity.
The neshamah, or soul, reflects the divine aspects of mankind. In contrast, nivul peh reflects the nefesh ha’beheimis, the animalistic aspect of mankind. Nivul peh emanates from and reflects the lowliest aspects of human behavior. The reason cursing is called “avi avos ha’tumah” by the Shelah HaKadosh is that such activity undermines holiness, both of oneself and of others. The Gemara in Kesuvos (5b) instructs the others just how they should react. The Gemara states that fingers were created like straight tent pegs for a reason—so that someone who hears nivul peh can place his fingers in his ears to blot out the sound.
The Midrash tells us that the Jews in Egypt reached the 49th level of impurity, but even then, they did not succumb so low as to use nivul peh (Pesikta Zuta Sh’mos 6:10). “They did not change their language” implies, according to the Midrash, that they did not change their manner of speech either. We see how serious such activity truly is.
It also reduces our predesignated lifespans. The Gemara in Niddah (16b) states that even if one had a lifespan of 70 years, nivul peh can turn it around in the wink of an eye.
Philosophers are sometimes at a loss in defining why it is so wrong. From a Torah perspective, the issue is impurity. Man was created in the Divine Image and possesses a cheilek Elokah mi’ma’al, a Divine section from Above. Cursing and the uttering of profane words darkens and sullies that Divine section from Above that we all possess.
The Mesillas Yesharim points out that this lesson about being careful in how we communicate our thoughts and words to others is found in the very beginning of Sefer Bereishis. Hashem instructs Noach to take both pure and impure animals to be placed in the ark. Yet when Hashem gives him these instructions, careful attention is given to make sure that the word “tameih” is not used. Instead Hashem tells Noach to take the animal that is “not pure.” Apparently, just reciting the word “impure” has negative effects.
The Jewish publications that picked up the Vanity Fair article should issue an apology forthwith — publishing it was a serious violation of the laws of how we must treat a ger tzedek. It was also a violation of nivul peh.
Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.