The environmentalists of the world, as well as many us poor unwashed souls, are rightfully concerned regarding pollution, particularly regarding the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food that we consume. These are all legitimate concerns. The Torah itself bids us to take care of the world that God has entrusted to us, not to abuse its resources nor endanger its living creatures.
Physical pollution of the environment is dangerous to everyone’s health and well-being. And again we are bidden by the Torah not to place ourselves unnecessarily into potentially dangerous situations. But the main gist of this article is not so much about the physical pollution of our environment as it is about the spiritual and psychological pollution.
Judaism places great emphasis on the criteria by which we choose our friends and about the general tenor of the behavior and speech in the environment that surrounds us. Maimonides goes so far as to say that if one lives in an environment that is not conducive to morality and probity and where the values of the Torah are mocked or ignored, then that person should move out of that society even if it means wandering in the desert alone! For just as our bodies are influenced by the air that we breathe so too are our souls shaped by the social and moral environment of the society that we live in. It has often been said that we today live in an open environment. Openness has many advantages but oftentimes it also brings with it many disturbing, and sometimes, even lethal consequences.
Though the Talmud describes the Jewish people as being am pezizai - hasty, impetuous, utopian and always given to experimentation with new radical ideas and programs – Judaism itself is essentially low-keyed, modest, reticent and conservative in its outlook and demands. Thus Judaism searches for a society of compassion, tolerance and pleasantness. It forbids slanderous statements spoken gratuitously and unnecessarily even if those statements somehow may be true.
The Torah is aware that our world is one of sleaze and scandal. The Torah is never naïve about human nature and therefore never demands the impossible from us. But, nevertheless, the Torah sees no advantage in advertising that shoddiness to such an extent that all of society is exposed to its unhealthy radiation.
We live in a world where we, the plain ordinary citizens who would be happy to mind our own business, know too much. We are too informed about diseases which induce hypochondria in all of us, about aberrant behavior that plants the seeds of that behavior in those who would otherwise not even know that such things exist; and about violence and hurt that engenders, almost inevitably, other forms of violence and hurt.
One of the great blessings of the Sabbath day is that it shuts off, at least temporarily, the flow of information that drowns us during the six workdays of the week. It serves as an antidote to the otherwise persistent air pollution of our social and moral society.
Judaism does not subscribe to the “ignorance is bliss” school of thought regarding anything. However, like in all other areas of life, Judaism does set limits on speech, behavior, invasion of privacy and the general tone of debate and atmosphere in a community. It sees no reason to encourage salacious rumors and descriptions of events and people when those rumors and/or descriptions will bring no positive benefit to the society whatsoever. Its ways are darkei noam – ways of pleasantness – and this is an overriding value transcendent to almost all other values in Jewish life. When knowledge of certain facts or events contradicts or opposes that value of darkei noam, Judaism frowns upon the dissemination of such knowledge. It will inevitability pollute our spiritual and moral air and society.
Over the ages the Jewish people, as a whole, has been victimized by false information and accusations disseminated in the non-Jewish world. We also suffer from the fact that we are always in the limelight of the world’s interest, curiosity and oftentimes malevolence. We are too well known and that brings us to the attention of many people who are jealous, hateful and just plain evil.
Anti-Semitism is an extremely poisonous form of air pollution that infests our political, moral and social environment. It invests a fall out of fumes that lasts for generations and permeates all who come into contact with it. In our attack against the physical pollution of our environment we should always be aware that the Torah also bids us to address the pollution of the spiritual and moral environment in which we live.