Language

The Public

Any matter that is said in the presence of three is not subject to the prohibition of malicious speech.
— Bava Batra 39b

"Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead," quipped Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard's Almanac. This seems to be a reasonable explanation of the Talmudic aphorism above, otherwise stated as two's company; three's a crowd. Rabba bar Huna, who issued this statement is not granting permission for three people in each other's company to say something malicious. What he is saying is that when something malicious is said in the presence of three, it is assumed to have already gone public. What, one wonders, would Rabba bar Huna have thought of Facebook?

This assumes that when people speak lashon ha-ra - malicious gossip about others, even if it is true - that the prohibition is not only about content but also about crowd. Two people whisper; three can easily turn into dozens. As one can imagine, there was some rabbinic discomfort with this idea. A medieval Talmud commentator, Rabbeinu Yona, suggests that this is only the case where what one says can be understood in more than one way, with one interpretation that is positive and one negative. Being good-spirited, we assume that the speaker only meant it positively, while others may have heard it differently. Rabbeinu Yona also suggests that this refers to a conversation about someone who has sinned and will not hear rebuke as a way to figure out how to exert communal pressure to help him improve. The explanation that makes the most sense to me is that this is less about the speaker and more about the listener. The listener should assume that what is being said in a group of three is public knowledge. In other words, be wary when you say something to more than one person. News like this will travel fast.

One of the most fascinating and disturbing challenges of social media is that those who use these platforms to diminish others rarely understand the impact of what they are communicating precisely because there is no public at the moment of writing. Alone with a laptop, the writer never comes face-to-face with the "victim" or even face-to-face with a bystander who might raise an eyebrow, shake a head or indicate that a boundary has been crossed. Cyber-bullying has caused no end of deep emotional pain. Alone without a public in which to receive the immediate feedback of body language, the writer can work his or her way into a frenzy of indignation with immense psychic costs to others. It is not only mean. It is cowardly.

Contrast this with a wonderful passage of the Talmud where two scholars debate the problem and parameters of slander (BT Erkhin 15b-16a):

Rabba said: Whatever is said in the presence of the person concerned is not considered lashon ha-ra.
 Abaye countered: All the more so; it is rude as well as lashon hara!
Rabba replied: I hold with Rabbi Yossi who asserted, "I never said anything about a person that would make me look back to see if that person were standing behind me.

How many of us can make Rabbi Yossi's assertion that we never said anything about a person that would cause us to look both ways to check if he or she was present. This is a high standard of ethical conduct, indeed. Personally, I am always in someone else's office when a colleague says, "Shut the door." Worse, I am aware of the times I have made the same request. When we request a shut-the-door conversation it is because we do not want the public to hear, but it is here when the public may actually save us from shaming or besmirching another. Think about this the next time you shut that door.

In Words that Help, Words that Heal, R. Joseph Telushkin writes:

Every year, tens of thousands of families are split asunder and close friendships are broken because contending parties refuse to fight fairly. In a dispute with someone, you have the right to state your case, express your opinion, explain why you think the other party is wrong, even make clear how passionately you feel about the subject at hand. But these are the only rights you have. You do not have the moral right to undercut your adversary's position by invalidating him or her personally...Words have consequences, and if you use them to hurt people, your victims will find ways to hurt you in return.

We stop this cycle not by refraining from gossip but by loving life more, as we read in Psalms 34:13-14: "Who is eager for life, who desires years of goodness? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit." If negative speech makes us negative, then positive speech helps us not only live our humanity, it also helps us love our own lives more. And that's the best kind of public.

Shabbat Shalom

Table Peace

And a person shall not mistreat his friend, and you shall fear the Lord your God, for I am the Lord your God.
— Leviticus 25:17

This week, I read a USA Today article about a young woman who, because of her political Facebook posts about the election, was uninvited by her mother to the family’s Thanksgiving table. Sarah-Jane Cunningham will apparently be spending today with her own private turkey and her two cats in Boston. I assumed that ugly politics divides the holiday guest list in rare and isolated cases, even after reading a similar piece in The New York Times. It was only when I eavesdropped on a conversation last week that I came to wonder if this is a wider problem than I realized. “We were going to go home for Thanksgiving, but I just can’t respect people who voted for ______. I don’t want to be there for the holidays, and a lot of my friends have made the same decision.” Yikes.
 
This week, I also came across the famous Talmudic discussion of “hon’at devarim,” oppressing another with words, that is based on a verse from Leviticus above. The verb “to mistreat” is open to much interpretation. A few verses earlier, the same term in Hebrew is used to discuss financial mistreatment of another, usually regarding monetary exploitation. When our verse is used a bit later, the sages of the Talmud figured that money was covered so that left this new prohibition to mean something else: oppression with words.

There are a lot of ways that we can oppress someone with language, and this range is well-represented in the Mishna and accompanying Talmud that discuss this transgression [BT
Bava Metzia 58b]. 

One may not say to a seller, ‘How much are you selling this for?’ if he has no wish to purchase the item. If one is a penitent, someone should not say to him, ‘Remember your earlier deeds.’ If someone is the child of converts, one may not say to him, ‘Remember the deeds of your ancestors.

Let’s look at the last two examples first. While a person may volunteer information about his or her past, it is prohibited to “out” such a person. We leave that choice up to the person who has undergone a significant religious transformation. Some people may speak with ease about their spiritual journeys. For others, it is a source of shame, insecurity and vulnerability. It is not our place to expose someone else’s past and potentially compromise his or her dignity without prior consultation and permission.
 
The first case would seem, on the face of it, unlike the others in intensity and scope. Asking a seller the price of an item seems harmless enough. That’s true in today’s consumer market, but it may not be true even today, for example, at an art fair when the artist has not only made the paintings but is also trying to sell them. Creating false hope is not fair and, in some ways, can be an act of oppression for the thin-skinned who sees the failure of a sale as a rejection of talent.

The Talmud adds cases and details. One such case is to tell a person with an illness or one who lost a child that the suffering was brought on by his or her negligent religious behavior. The proof-text is one of the most difficult verses in Job, when Job's friends judged his suffering as a result of his spiritual deficiencies: “Is not your fear of God your confidence, and your hope the integrity of your ways? Remember, I beseech you, whoever perished being innocent?” (4:6-7). Suffering only happens to the wicked, they believe. Job must have done many wrong things to deserve his suffering. I don’t know about you, but I would un-friend these guys on Facebook.
 
Put the newspaper articles and the Talmudic passages together into a halakhic (legal) question: can questioning someone’s political judgment be considered “hona’at devarim,” oppressing someone with words? In other words, should Sarah-Jane Cunningham have consulted the Talmud before speaking to her mother? Disrespect works both ways, but since Mrs. Cunningham had the upper hand through her ability to withhold her invitation because of conflicting political views, I believe Sarah is the victim of this biblical transgression. I say, pack up the cats, put the bird in the freezer, and go home. And when poor Sarah enters her childhood home - which should always be a place of safety and love - she can make an agreement to keep the table peaceful by not having any discussion of politics.
 
People with the same political agenda might also want to give each other a break. Haven’t we talked about all this enough? Don’t we all need a Thanksgiving that is politics-free? I do.
 
And if your table cannot be a politically neutral zone, consider these three questions before the conversation starts:

  • Can all sitting here express their views comfortably and respectfully?
  • Can everyone here listen with curiosity and not with judgment?
  • Can we agree that we live in a remarkable country and that our chief task on this day is to be grateful?

Don’t forget that in the holy Temple of old, God also had a “shulkhan,” a table. Our tables are supposed to mirror God’s table: a place of gathering, a place of abundance, a place of holiness.
 
Happy Thanksgiving and Shabbat Shalom

The Hidden and Revealed Name

This is My name forever.
— Exodus 3:15

One of the great religious wonders in Jewish tradition is how to pronounce God’s name; the sense of its ineffability adds to the oblique question of who and what God is. In Exodus 3, after Moses questioned who he was to take on his leadership role, he immediately transitioned to who God is, in verses that wrap the mystery in an enigma: “Moses said to God, ‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” Glad we cleared that up.

According to the Ten Commandments, we are not allowed to take God’s name in vain, which is not hard when we have no idea what God’s name actually is or how to pronounce it. To clarify, we use an English term that makes it all better: the Tetragrammaton. Judges of this weekend’s National Spelling Bee might try this one to slip up an ambitious young speller.
 
It turns out that in this past week’s Talmud cycle, the issue of why God’s name is not made public is discussed, using the verse above as a prooftext: “This is My name forever.” In Hebrew, the words forever and hidden are linguistically related, leading to this incident: “Rava planned to expound the way to say God’s hidden name in a public teaching. A certain elder said to him, “It is written so that it can be read l’alem - keep it hidden” [BT Kiddushin 71a].
 
Then the passage adds this confounding detail: “The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: ‘Not as I am written, am I pronounced.’” As it turns out, long ago, the sages would tell anyone who wanted to know, God’s 12-letter name. But then people used it disrespectfully so the priests used to say it only when blessing the people, but sang it absorbed in a melody. Thus, it would remain concealed. One sage, it’s recorded, inclined his ear to hear it. People will always be curious.
 
According to this debate, if people were to treat God’s name respectfully, then God’s name would be used more publicly. No one wants to get too casual with the Almighty. The Talmud continues to this effect: “

Rabbi Yehuda says in the name of Rav: ‘The 42-letter name of God may be transmitted only to one who is discreet, and humble and stands at least half his life and does not get angry and does not get drunk and does not insist he is right. And anyone who knows this name and is careful with it and guards its purity is believed above and treasured below and fear of him is cast upon the creatures and he inherits two worlds, this world and the World to Come,” [BT Kiddushin 71b].

So now we understand who gets to use God’s name: people who are Godly. What underlines most of the above description is the characteristic of humility. Those modest in spirit are trusted not to abuse God’s name.
 
This brings us to one of the heroes of our upcoming holiday, Shavuot: Boaz. We meet Boaz in the Book of Ruth in what appears to be a preoccupied moment. “Just then Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters, ‘The Lord be with you.’ They answered, ‘The Lord bless you!’” It’s a tender moment of elevated greeting that leads to a legal precedent. The Talmud concludes that when you greet someone, you should do so in the name of God [BT Brakhot 54a].
 
I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon among our people. Bearing Boaz in mind, I often greet people with “Shalom” - which is a name of God  - and part with people by saying “God bless” or “God bless you.” It feels like a little insertion of everyday holiness, and I enjoy when people say this to me. After all, we need all the blessings we can get. When I say this to non-Jews after a transaction, they regularly bless me back. But if you say this to Jews, they often raise an eyebrow and say simply, “Goodbye.”
 
This fascinating debate about the use of God’s name is, at heart, an attempt to keep a healthy balance between spiritual intimacy and proper reverence. What we find in Boaz is a man who saw in his employees, and Ruth in particular, a shadow of God - and as a result, he treated them with utmost care and respect.
 
Shabbat Shalom

Soft Words

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said, ‘A person should never utter an ugly word.’
— BT Pesakhim 3a

As the presidential elections advance, the use of  harsh and hostile language has intensified to an unbearable pitch, leading one viewer to tell a candidate that she would not allow her nine-year old to watch a presidential debate. Ouch. That hurts. Where have Rabbi Joshua ben Levi's wise words gone: "a person should never utter an ugly word"? We've had ugly words tossed about with such abandon that it has compromised the dignity of leadership itself.
 
I was struck by the contrast of this dilemma to something I saw in one of the most inspiring books I've read in years: Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Shneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi of Modern History. Rabbi Shneerson (1902-1994), affectionately known as the Rebbe, was the seventh and last head of Chabad-Lubavitch, a Chasidic branch with roots in Russia. He created a network of outreach institutions that literally span the globe.
 
Researching the Rebbe's life for five years, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, the book's author, realized that the Rebbe went to extreme lengths to avoid the use of negative words. Rabbi Telushkin examined 40 years of the Rebbe's public lectures and concluded that the Rebbe did not criticize people by name even when he questioned a behavior. He also never used the term "beit cholim" or hospital. House of the sick, as it is literally translated, is a discouraging expression. Instead he preferred "beit refuah," a house of healing. In a letter to Professor Mordechai Shani, director of the Sheba Medical Center in Israel, he once wrote, "Even though...this would seem to represent only a semantic change, the term beit refuah brings encouragement to the sick, it represents more accurately the goal of the institution...which is to bring about a complete healing. Therefore, why call it by a word that does not suit its intentions?"
 
The Rebbe understood and modeled something obvious and potent, namely words have connotations and denotations. The choices we make influence the way we regard what we are talking about. That being the case, why choose to say something negatively when you can communicate the same message in an elevated fashion?
 
As another illustration, the Rebbe also did not like the term used by the IDF [the Israeli Defense Forces] to refer to those wounded by their war service: "nechai Tzahal," literally, army handicapped. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Rebbe said, "If a person has been deprived of a limb or a faculty, this itself indicates that God has also given him special powers to overcome the limitations this entails, and to surpass the achievement of ordinary people." He preferred a different term that would reflect on their service rather its cost: "metzuyanim" - exceptional veterans.  In the 50s and 60s when terms like moron, retard and idiot (it hurts to write this) were still widely in use to describe the mentally disabled, the Rebbe used the word "special," decades before it became common parlance. 
 
The Rebbe also did not like to say evil and instead said, "hefech ha-tov," - the opposite of good. He did not even like the term "deadline" preferring instead the due date - using a term referencing birth rather than death. You could say this is a stretch, but perhaps the Rebbe had internalized the words of Genesis.  Words create and destroy worlds, real and emotional.
 
He often said, "Think good, and it will be good," years before the school of positive psychology was born. To a man who complained that his children were assimilating and regularly used the Yiddish expression, "It's hard to be a Jew," the Rebbe responded "Then that is the message your children hear and that is the impression of Judaism they have." The Rebbe challenged this father to use another Yiddish expression, "It's good to be a Jew."
 
All this positivity and feel-good language might be hard for the more cynical among us to stomach. Yet it's high time that we demand that politicians, celebrities and athletes stop throwing words around like bullies or hurling invectives at each other with little thought about how it shifts our general use of language. And while we're at it, maybe we can all release a little of our "inner Rebbe" and try a softer word, a more gentle tone, a more embracing and loving approach.
 
Today's challenge: Spend one entire day avoiding any negative speech. Shabbat is a great day to keep it holy.
 
Shabbat Shalom

Take Heed

Just as it is a mitzva for a person to say that which will be heeded, is it a mitzva for a person not to say what will not be heeded,
— BT Yevamot 65b

The word "heed" is an unusual word; it's formal and heavy and wouldn't be used in casual conversation. Maybe it needs to be re-introduced into common parlance because it means more than simply listening. A careful sort of attention or notice must be given to meet its demands, the kind of attention that in these days of distraction is harder to come by. We heed warnings or ignore them at our own peril. We think of Arthur Miller's Death of A Salesman: "Attention must be paid,"and wonder what kind of focused attention that is.

But what happens when we give feedback that no one pays heed to? This becomes an ongoing dilemma in parenting and partnering, in business and in education. Any time we are trying to grow someone else, there will be resistance, push-back, defensiveness and even heartbreak. One of my favorite verses on mentoring comes from Proverbs: "Correct a wise person, and he will love you. Correct a fool, and he will hate you" (9:8). We understand the sentiment well. If we give feedback to people who are responsive - who heed what we have to say, know that it comes from a place of love and concern and know that it's not so easy to say - then our words can take root. But if we correct fools, we might not know who the fool really is - that person for ignoring us or ourselves for the wasted breath.

 But it's not so simple, as any supervisor or spouse can attest. Sometimes we speak out and the response we get is initially defensive, pained or angry but over time, the words we say seep in, and we notice change. Sometimes a "wise" person nods a head in agreement, hears feedback, expresses concern and then continues doing whatever it is he or she was doing wrong in the first place. In other words, determining who is wise and who is not is more complicated than it looks. 

 Maimonides in the seventh chapter of his "Laws of Character Development" expounds upon this conundrum and begins by writing that, "It is natural that a person's personality and actions are influenced by friends and colleagues and adheres to the expected norms of behavior. Knowing this, he should surround himself by those who are pious and wise to learn from their behaviors. He should also, subsequently, keep a distance from the wicked who follow darkness, and not learn from their behaviors." Then Maimonides quotes another verse from Proverbs about who we should associate with as a prooftext: "One who walks with the wise will become wise, while one who associates with fools will become foolish" (13:20). All good advice. If you want to be a better person, be around good people and then you will grow even without the admonition. You will improve simply by virtue of good role-models and high expectations of personal goodness.

 In the event that this is not enough at times, Maimonides continues in law #7 and suggests that, following from Leviticus 19:17, we admonish those who are doing wrong. He advises us to help those in need of correction by telling such an individual that he is causing himself harm, rather than merely irritating others. He suggests an atmosphere of respect and privacy, the use of gentle language and communicating again the abiding sense that the correction is for his own welfare. Maimonides concludes with a plea to responsibility, which I will translate loosely: "Whoever has the possibility of correcting a sinner and fails to do so is responsible for that sin since he had the opportunity to do something about it."

These are all helpful recommendations, but they don't resolve the feedback dilemma for us. How do we know who is wise and who is a fool when it comes to issuing criticism? How do we hear it? Think of a piece of feedback or criticism that you have hear about yourself for years - especially if it has come from more than one person - that you have not "heeded" - paid any special attention to. Write it down.

What is it about this issue that is making you so "hard of heeding"?

 Shabbat Shalom