Trigger Happy/Sad

“Behold the Lord stood by a wall of wrongs, and in His hand were the wrongs.”

Amos 7:7



I learned a new concept this week: the preemptive trigger. It has been spreading on college campuses and has been reported in the Times, The New Republic, The Nation, and The New Yorker. I am always the last to know.


A preemptive trigger is a verbal or written alert offered by professors in advance of presenting or discussing material that may be racially, ethnically or sexually offensive in the classroom. Issues of privilege or oppression also need to be flagged. Originating in online feminist forums, it seems to be an academic offshoot of political correctness. Students who encounter material that may trigger traumatic feelings, particularly if they are revisiting a personally painful subject, need time to prepare emotionally. If the classroom is to be a place of authentic learning, it needs to be a safe space.


This is a presumptuous statement about the nature of education. The assumption that learning takes place in emotionally comfortable environments undercuts what many educators believe is at the heart of education: making people uncomfortable enough to question themselves and their universe. Some educators believe that the preemptive trigger fails students precisely because we rarely get warnings when an insult or offense is thrown our way. Journalist Jessica Valenti contends that there are so many possible ways to hurt people that it is impossible to catalogue them. And even if you could: “There is no trigger warning for living your life.”


What does Jewish law say about the preemptive trigger?


The closest legal parallel I could find is the rabbinic explanation of a verse in Leviticus: “A person must not oppress his fellow. He should fear the Lord” [25:17]. This chapter contains both the transgression of oppressing someone with money and oppressing someone with words. A mishna records the comparison [Bava Metzia 58b-59a]:


Just as it is wrong to aggrieve someone in business, is it also prohibited to aggrieve someone with words. One should not ask how much an item costs if he has no intention to purchase it. If a person once led a sinful life, one should not remind him what he used to do. If he was the grandchild of gentiles, one should not say to him, “Remember what your ancestors did,” as it is written, 'Do not oppress the stranger...' [Exodus 22:20]."


The ensuing Talmudic discussion goes into detail. Asking the cost of an item without intention to buy it is not a problem in today’s capitalist environment where people are accustomed to inquiring about prices before purchase but was important to bear in mind when taking up the time of a craftsperson who made the wares or a peddler who must continue traveling. One may make the argument today that if one takes up a salesperson’s time knowing that he or she was going to purchase the item online anyway, it may traverse an acceptable boundary of the Jewish value of sensitivity to another’s feelings or another’s time.


Reminding people about their past is another matter. If a person speaks freely about his or her previous lifestyle, then perhaps it would not be oppressive to mention it. But you never know. As a result, we are not allowed to reference a person’s conversion in front of him, unless he wants to bring it up. It may simply be too painful: the isolation, the difficulty of the spiritual journey, the alienation from family members. The Talmud goes so far as to say that if a person had someone hanged in his family, a fishmonger should not ask him if he can hang the fish he selected as it may cause him pain. Talk about cataloging previous hurts, that’s real attention to detail. If that is not a preemptive trigger, what is?


The sage Rabbi Hisda tags on an inspiring message on this passage of Talmud that may be an intriguing explanation of why the verse that asks us to be sensitive about what oppresses others mentions the fear of God: “All the gates have been locked, except the gates through which pass the cries of the oppressed, for it is written ‘Behold the Lord stood by a wall of wrongs, and in His hand were the wrongs’ [Amos 7:7].” It is not only that God knows our real intentions when we hurt others but pretend that we meant nothing by it. It is that God stands by the wall where the oppressed cry and holds on to each of those bruises and holds us accountable to them. We may forget the hurt we create, but God does not.


We are accountable for our words. We cannot afford to take people back to a place of woundedness because God is standing there with an admonition. We are human. We are all wounded. Remind someone of his or her pain, and you will simply surface more pain in the world. Grace and our silence are the only compassionate response.


Shabbat Shalom