Open Book: And God Said…

Los Alamos

The Humanities class at our high school includes a unit about world religions, and it’s been fun to participate as one of the invited speakers who speak about their religious tradition.

Each year, the students are very polite and inquisitive about my lecture on Judaism, and I am totally exhausted by the end of the day. I have no idea how a teacher can do this, five days a week, month after month.

I try to start my lecture with two apologies: Judaism accommodates a spectrum of observance and philosophies so I can’t help but color the presentation by my own views, and it’s really, really, hard to cover a few millennia in less than 90 minutes.

Because I kept running out of time, one of the items I dropped several years ago was an exercise in Jewish ethics that resonated with teens and is an important topic in Judaism: the power of speech, and specifically, the sin of improper speech.

While reading the thank you notes students wrote to me, I remembered that missed exercise, and I decided that this would be a timely topic for an Open Book column, so here it goes.

“And God said: Let there be Light, and there was Light.” The story of Creation is the story of God creating our universe through words, and it isn’t only the physical world that is created through speech. A person’s reputation can be enhanced or diminished through words.

A famous Jewish fable speaks of a person who would tell malicious gossip about his neighbors, but eventually remorsefully approached a rabbi about what he could do to make amends. The rabbi told him to cut open a feather pillow, and scatter the feathers to the wind. When he had done this and returned, the rabbi told him to now gather all the feathers, “… because you can no more make amends for the damage your words have done than you can collect back together those feathers.”

It is a grave sin in Judaism to speak ill of someone, and the sin of Lashon Hara, or “Evil Tongue,” would lead to interesting classroom discussions about gossip that may be factually true, that may not be negative, that may not hurt the person, and even words that the victim might have said if asked, but is hurtful speech nevertheless.

“Should you use a derogatory nickname, even if the person is used to it?”, “Should you invite someone to a party if you know that he will not accept?”, “Should you ask someone a question if you know it will draw attention to her lack of knowledge?”

The definition of Lashon Hara does not reflect the truth or falsehood at hand at all, but it depends on the damage that it inflicts. I then would close with another Jewish custom also discussed at length in ancient times. How should we describe an ugly bride to her groom? The Jewish tradition is that every bride is beautiful on her wedding day.

These ancient discussions have relevance today. The internet is now our ripped pillow. Lies, half-truths and distortions can be scattered to the winds much faster than we can bring them back and disprove them. When they are used in the political arena, they affect millions of people and can change the course of history. I do not believe in “Watch what I do, not what I say.” What we say is often a deeper and more accurate reflection of our character than our actions. We all know this and have learned its lessons because it is harder to guard our tongue than it is to guard our hands.

So to those students who sat politely through my gyrations and poor handwriting, who wrote these wonderful notes to me, please accept my gratitude in return. Coming to your class reminded me just how relevant to our days those ancient stories and ancient insights can be. You reminded me that the Rabbis taught that the bride is beautiful because her love for her groom radiates past any physical attribute, and you reminded me that if words can create light, they can also create darkness. It is up to all of us, but most of all up to those students sitting in classrooms across our nation, to decide which of those two alternatives our future will hold.