Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, a 20th-century leader of Jewish thought, once taught that U.S. Jews stand with one foot in the U.S. civilization and one foot in the Jewish civilization.

In my experience, the values at the core of each are sometimes congruous; where they are, they fortify and fuel each other. Sometimes, though, they are conflicting; in those cases, we can engage the values of one to address the shortfalls of the other.

Both of these civilizations are governed by underlying questions that guide broader values. The U.S. civilization asks: What’s my right? The Jewish civilization asks: What’s my responsibility?

And so, with a foot in each place, U.S. Jews would do well to examine the interplay between responsibilities and rights. Ultimately, we are called upon to balance these in a way that brings the most good to ourselves and to others.

When we apply that rubric to the question of speech, our actions and choices have immense implications — both materially and spiritually. Make no mistake: Nothing less than the character of our souls, the survival of our societies and ultimately the quality of the world we inhabit are at stake.

Judaism holds speech in the utmost regard. Our Torah teaches that God created the entire universe through speech: God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Ancient rabbinic teachings on the power and implications of speech fill thousands of pages, for the rabbis recognized our words create new worlds unto themselves — worlds of trust and compassion, empathy and kindness, or worlds of distrust and malice, hurt and suffering.

So, yes, as Americans, we can choose to speak in any way within the legal bounds of free speech. That’s our right. But just because we can doesn’t mean we should. And just because it is our right does not at all mean it is righteous.

At the same time, we should not censor ourselves because the truth may be hard to say or hard to hear. Rather, the opposite is true.

By no means does Judaism want us to play it safe with speech: Nothing cuts against the grain of Judaism more than to hold one’s tongue when one should speak. Only through honest, courageous conversation can we gain insight into transcendent truth and effectively pursue the common good. Rabbinic teachings on the importance of speaking what one thinks, believes or experiences to be true — particularly when it is unpopular or the stakes are high — likewise fill thousands of pages.

Jewish spaces are not safe spaces. They are brave spaces. Indeed, the U.S. Jewish question is never whether to say what we need to say: The answer is almost always “Yes.” Rather, the question is how best to say it.

Balancing rights and responsibilities around speech is certainly not impossible. Judaism provides abundant tools to help us do so, as does secular society.

Speak for yourself, not on behalf of or in defense of a whole group; let others do the same.   When you hear something that makes your heart race and your temperature rise, keep listening; breathe, slow down and consider how to say what you need to. When you feel hurt, be honest with yourself and the person who hurt you — but give them the benefit of the doubt first.

The older I get, the more I find that saying what I need to say — regardless of how it may be received — is essential to my well-being. Even if I don’t get the result I want from the powers that be, I am not discouraged. When that gets really hard — as it sometimes does — I hold on tight to my conviction: Ultimately, the cumulative power of true speech will move the dial and change the world. Though sometimes it hurts a lot, I want to be a part of that long game.   

Rabbi Rachel Gartner is the Director for Jewish Life at Georgetown University. Interfaith Insights is a series of Viewpoints written by chaplains at Georgetown University.

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