(RNS) — When it comes to conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh, who died the other day of lung cancer at the age of 70, I will gladly enter a contempt contest.
I detested everything that he stood for. I reviled everything that I ever heard him say publicly. I hated many things that he was reported to have done.
Among his “greatest hits”:
- This is a man who birthed the “birther” theory of President Barack Obama’s birthplace.
- This is a man who said that the Obama health care bill would entail “death panels.”
- This is a man who called abortion rights defenders “feminazis.”
- This is a man who said that global warming was a hoax.
- This is a man who mocked AIDS deaths.
I remember experiencing intense nausea as then-President Donald Trump awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, this nation’s highest civilian honor, last February. It was easy to recall that feeling of nausea because I experienced it again the other day when the governor of my state, Ron DeSantis, ordered that all flags in the state be lowered in Limbaugh’s honor.
Nauseated, but hardly surprised. The truth is: Limbaugh’s hateful rhetoric was the verbal midwife to the Trump politics of hate. Consider this: Limbaugh had ridiculed the Parkinson’s tremors of actor Michael J. Fox — just as Trump ridiculed a disabled reporter.
Which, in a normal world, should have been the death knell of the Trump candidacy.
Let me put it another way: No Limbaugh, no attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6. That is how malignant he was.
I know Jews who think that Limbaugh was the greatest thing since sliced challah. I hold their views in contempt. I want to ask them: “Do you davven (pray) with that brain? Can you name me one — just one — Jewish value that this man embodied?”
I also know people — friends and colleagues — who agree with my assessment of Limbaugh. We have piled up our post-mortem critiques of his words and his actions.
But there is something that troubles me.
I cannot begin to count how many times I have seen the following sentiment on Facebook: “I am glad that he is dead!”
Um, no. As my grandmother would have said, had she spoken Yiddish: Past nicht. No — that is simply wrong.
Let me speak, first, as a humanist.
By all accounts, Limbaugh was a contemptible human being.
That being said, he was a human being, and he had loved ones who rightly mourn his death.
Almost 20 years ago, when Saddam Hussein’s sons, Qusay and Uday, were killed, my then-11-year-old son asked me: “Do you think that Saddam Hussein is upset?”
My response was: “Of course.”
My son, in his youthful wisdom, was evincing an important lesson: Bad people die. They still have family.
Let me speak, second, as a teacher of Judaism.
This is what that tradition embodies: “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice.” (Proverbs 24:17)
Perhaps with that teaching in mind, a classic rabbinic legend states that when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and the Egyptian soldiers drowned, the angels broke out in song. God rebuked them: “The work of my hands is drowning in the sea, and you are filled with song!?!”
At the Passover Seder, as we chant the plagues that fell upon the Egyptians, there is the custom to remove a drop of wine from our glasses, one for each plague, in order to diminish our joy.
But there is more. When we participate in the politics of vitriol, we give tacit permission to our enemies to continue slinging their own verbal manure. If we feed crap into the system, let us not be surprised when it comes back at us.
There is such a thing as civility, and as Americans, human beings and religious people, it is our duty to embody it.
Regarding Limbaugh: My favorite quote was by a wag on Twitter, who said: “Limbaugh presaged the recreational cruelty of the Trump era. I’m not happy that he’s dead, but I’m not happy that he lived.”
Or, I thought that it was my favorite quote.
Until yesterday morning in Torah study, when one of our regulars said: “Let’s not rejoice that he is dead. Rather, let us rejoice that his hateful tongue is forever stilled.”
Many people suffered because of that tongue — that tongue that broke every rule of ethical speech that any religious tradition could ever invent.
That ugly voice is no more.
Except: It has left behind its echoes, and its imitators.
Some — too many — are in positions of political power.
Some — too many — have guns.
As my non-Yiddish-speaking grandmother would have said: Nicht gut.
This is not good.