We all gossip. We’ve all been hurt by nasty things said to us and about us. And most of us find it nearly impossible to stop complaining to friends about the people who annoy us, or to suppress hurtful criticism of loved ones with whom we are angry.
Judaism has always acknowledged the powerful impact of words. Admonitions against lashon harah, or damaging speech, are frequent in classical Jewish literature. The daily prayers include a request for God’s help in guarding our tongues.
The rabbis who authored the Talmud equated hurtful speech with shedding blood. They deemed the tongue to have the potential to be “the elixir of life” and the primary source of good and evil.
At this time of year the topic gets extra scrutiny – many of the High Holiday petitions of forgiveness related to speech. The Days of Awe are traditionally devoted to taking personal responsibility for the pain we have caused others, and to reconciling with them.
Religious leaders have lately been expressing their concern about the incendiary nature of public rhetoric coming from elected officials and some religious spokesmen round controversial political issues.
But it is concern about the power of language on interpersonal relationship that is attracting growing interest from Jews across the range of denominational affiliation.
Several new Jewish initiatives are under way to help make both Jews and non- Jews aware of the power of words.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of several popular books on Judaism, is lobbying for the U.S. Senate to adopt a resolution that would designate May 14 as “National Speak No Evil Day.”
The bill has been introduced by Sens. Connie Mark (R-Fla.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.). Fifty co-sponsors are needed for it to come to the Senate floor for a vote.
If passed, Telushkin intends to use the designated day to introduce the values of careful speech to children in public schools, adults in their places of work and eventually, encourage them to incorporate it into their family lives.
“We need a citizenry that regulates its speech” voluntarily, said Telushkin, whose volume “Words That Hurt, Words That Heal,” is scheduled for publication by William Morrow next spring.
“We’ve used our tongues too often to hurt. The time has come to exercise control,” he said.
Projects on the ethics of speech are also under way from two disparate points on the Jewish religious spectrum.
Two rabbinical students at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, located in the Philadelphia area, are bringing a course on the ethics of speech to the larger Jewish community, according to Rabbi Leila Gal Berner, director for the Center for Jewish Ethics at RRC.
Funded by a “continuity grant” from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, the two students are teaching a course open to community members on the ethics of speech in business, family and community relationships at a Conservative synagogue in Bucks County, Penn.
The ethics center plans to develop study guides and disseminate them, with a curriculum, to synagogue groups across North America so that adult students and synagogue boards can study the topic and improve their communication skills with the help of guidance from Jewish sources.
The subject is also being approached from an Orthodox point of view by the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, based in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The Chofetz Chaim, whose name was Israel Meir Kagan (1838-1933), was in influential Lithuanian rabbi whose treatises on permitted speech continue to be regarded as the seminal codification of the relevant laws.
Artscroll, a publisher of Orthodox-oriented books, is producing a book edited by the foundation titled “Chofetz Chaim: A Lesson a Day,” which breaks down the rabbi’s teachings on the laws of ethical speech into five minute segments for daily study.
The foundation was established in 1989 to mark the anniversary of the rabbi’s death by organizing classes to study his guidelines.
In the beginning, says Michael Rothschild, the executive director, his baby sitter filled order for cassettes tapes on his kitchen table.
The foundation now has chapter in 24 cities, some 250 people across the country who organize periodic events to learn about ethical speech and 10 people on the payroll, said Rothschild.
This year the foundation ran a program during the nine days leading up to Tisha B’Av, historically a day of tragedy for the Jewish people and now marked by mourning, in which 7,000 Orthodox Jews in bungalow colonies and overnight campus pledged to be consciously careful of their speech for two hours a day.
Another 8,000 people in 120 Orthodox synagogues across the country saw a video on the topic, said Rothschild.
“The Chofetz Chaim said the we’re in exile because of the sins of causeless hatred and lashon harah,” said Rothschild. “They only way to get of the exile is to fix this problem.”
The power of speech is an element in most religious traditions, but it gets particular attention in Jewish literature and liturgy.
“Jews take everything out with verbal aggression,” said Telushkin, because “Jewish culture came to so abhor the physical violence” of surrounding cultures.
Berner said Judaism pays so much attention to the ethics of speech because “we are very much a verbal religion.”
“The joke is hat we couldn’t be Buddhists because we couldn’t do that much silence,” she said.
“It may have something to do with the historically tight-knit nature of our communities. When you have communities which are so organic, speech becomes even more of a powerful issue because people are so connected with one another,” she said.
Although most Jewish communities are no longer concentrated in shtetls, the incendiary rhetoric used in public discourse today – and the resulting religious and political polarization – makes clear that speech continues to be an immensely powerful influence even in a fragmented world.
“In this anonymous world where people are on the Internet and our only real means of communication in many situations is speech, we have to be even more ethical about how we approach it,” said Berner.
“As damaging as gratuitous gossip was in a small community, now on the Internet the whole world knows,” she said. “Can you imagine the destructive power of that?”