A page of Talmud, tractate Bava Batra
A page of Talmud, tractate Bava Batra (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

Applying Jewish first aid to the damage words can do

The Talmud tells of Rabbi Eleazar, who berates a man because he is ugly and then is rebuked by the man for the ugliness of his insulting behavior. Rabbi Eleazar immediately acknowledges that he is in the wrong, prostrates himself before the homely man and begs his forgiveness.

Recently, and more than once, I have been reminded of this tale by someone in a position of power or privilege. Sadly, however, the latter part of the story doesn’t resemble the contemporary instances of verbal bullying and public humiliation that brought the tale to mind.

In the world of ancient Israel, words had magical powers. Blessings and curses had authority, vows and oaths were binding. In the Torah, words set the creation of the universe in motion, and trigger the action that follows. Even in the Talmud, words alone could cause death and destruction.

And, yet, words seem more powerful and violent today than ever. The last presidential campaign was characterized by more extreme invective than any in recent memory. Social media enable our words to travel faster and farther. And, perhaps because our online interactions are so disembodied, careless (and purposeful) cruelty seems increasingly customary. Is it any wonder that expressions commonly used to describe how words interact with the internet are: viral and weaponized.

“Life and death are in the power of the tongue,” says Proverbs. Which is why our tradition places enormous attention on the use of words. The laws governing speech are vast, and they demonstrate impressive understanding of the power of words and the psyche of the humans who wield them.

They address, among other things: the need to be truthful; the harm words can have on others (for example, destroying reputations); the capacity for our words to humiliate or embarrass another (even if they are truthful); and the damage of words not only to the target of the words but to others who hear or read them.

Precisely because it understands just how much damage words can do, our tradition has an approach to how we use words that can best be described as “vigilant kindness.”

Vigilant kindness in speech does seem counter-cultural these days.

We’ve been wondering: As our society appears to drift farther from Jewish values, such as those that pertain to shmirat halashon (mindful speech), perhaps we need to place a greater emphasis on teaching those values.

This is not a partisan issue. It’s about what behaviors are being modeled, and how social trends present greater pressures to abandon or violate Jewish teaching.

Jewish educators can be “cultural critics.” Jon Levisohn, an educational philosopher at Brandeis University, suggests that educators help students navigate the world by helping them interpret it through a Jewish lens. Our task is not to separate ourselves or our students from the wider world. Rather, to participate fully, how can we apply Jewish wisdom to make sense of it and contribute to it?

This question has motivated educators to gather at Jewish LearningWorks to compare notes and explore ways of strengthening the teaching of Jewish values seen to be counter-cultural or under assault.

It also inspired organizers of the Feast of Jewish Learning, scheduled for Jan. 21 at Congregation Beth Am, to choose the theme “The Power of Words” for this year’s event.

Words have positive power, as well. The power to heal, to guide, to praise. I saw the positive power of words at a shiva minyan not long ago.

We prayed. And then people told stories — loving stories, funny stories, healing stories. I was in a home filled with shattered hearts.  The words of the storytellers did not mend those broken hearts, but they helped. Their words were filled with intention, with care, with comfort. They felt like magic words. They did not have the power to bring the dead back to life. Except, in a way, they did.

In this brave new world, it often feels that the challenges we face — as a people, as a community, as a country — are new, and we need to make it up as we go along.

But aside from the trappings of technology and culture, Rabbi Eleazar’s tale seems quite familiar. Our tradition can help us navigate these waters; Jewish learning has never felt more important or more urgent.

Words can be weaponized for mass destruction, and they can be used to elevate, renew and heal. Education can help guide us and our children to use them wisely, to repair a broken world.

The Feast of Jewish Learning, featuring 23 classes over two sessions, starts at 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 21 at Congregation Beth Am, 26790 Arastradero Road, Los Altos Hills. Free.

David Waksberg

David Waksberg is the CEO of S.F.-based Jewish LearningWorks.