Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Last night, as the Republican debate began, a Facebook friend wrote that she was having her own internal debate about whether it was a responsible parental decision to allow her 12-year-old to watch. I don’t think she was worried about issues that might be too complicated for her son or that he might be bored – instead, she was worried that there might be a complete lack of civil discourse in the debate. And it turns out, she was right to worry.
When I was younger, nobody would have thought it was a bad idea to expose their tweens to political discussions and to let them see the election process play out in the debates. The most raunchy thing I remember was when someone asked Bill Clinton if he preferred “boxers or briefs”? Perhaps that crossed a line, but it seems to be nothing like what we are seeing in some of the recent debates.
Last night, a real low was when Trump felt the need to defend the size of his genitals. This was just one in a series of inappropriate remarks made in speeches, debates, and in the Twittersphere by various presidential candidates. While Trump’s words last night are the most recent example of this, the reality is that poor civil discourse crosses party lines and is not unique to this election. Nor is this just about politicians; news stories are filled with celebrities, athletes, and people of other kinds of fame spewing angry words in the wrong place and time.
And yet we know that words used inappropriately are hard to recover. Even when we apologize for angry words or inappropriate words, we cannot undo what we have said. I am reminded of a Jewish folktale in which a woman who loved to gossip went to her rabbi to say that people in town were avoiding her and didn’t want to hear her stories anymore. To show her that her words might be damaging, the rabbi asked the woman to bring a feather pillow. When she did, the rabbi went outside, tore it open, and let a gust of wind scatter the feathers. Then, the rabbi asked the woman to collect the feathers and when she could not succeed, the rabbi used it as a teachable moment to illustrate that taking back words is as difficult as taking back scattered feathers.
Indeed, words are powerful. Words liberate, they inspire, they heal, they hurt, they allow us to express our needs, they help us describe what we see, they connect us to others. Some words ring on for generations: “I have a dream…” “Four score and seven years ago…” “Ask not what your country can do for you…” “All men are created equal…” “Proclaim liberty throughout the land…”
Those words of proclaiming liberty are not only on our nation’s Liberty Bell, but they are words that come from the Book of Leviticus in the Torah. Our ancestors who wrote the Bible knew the power of words. If we look at the creation stories in the Torah, though they borrow liberally from the stories of surrounding ancient cultures, a distinction is that the Torah emphasizes words. Whereas in the Babylonian myth, the great god Marduk creates the world by physically beating his enemy Tiamat and emerging victorious, the Genesis creation legend portrays God creating the world by words: “And God said…”
The Torah portion Balak reminds us that for our ancestors words were a weapon and also a way to bless. The Book of Proverbs notes that “death and life are in the power of the tongue.” The rabbis of the Talmud tell us that words used to humiliate a person can kill the spirit.
Words matter. While we cannot control the words that others spew, we can commit to using words with great intention and care ourselves.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.