Sunday, January 17, 2021

Torah portion: Beware of words

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In Judaism, words are holy and sacred. The world was created by Divine speech, teaches us the opening book of the Pentateuch; the Hebrew alphabet constitutes the spiritual DNA of the cosmos, according to the midrash.

In the opening paragraph of the Shema, we find no fewer than three allusions to the centrality of words and speech in our tradition: “The words which I command you this day … Speak them at home and on the road … and write them on your doorposts.”

The Ten Commandments, the most formative and foundational Jewish text, is actually called in Hebrew “The Ten Divine Utterances/Speeches.” And in the words of German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, the Torah itself is “the portable home of the Jewish people.” Its texts have kept us cohesive as a people for some two millennia in the absence of political and territorial sovereignty.

So words are big in Jewish spirituality. So much so that the concluding book of the Torah is actually called “Words” (Deuteronomy’s title in Hebrew is “Devarim”). 

But the Torah also is keenly aware of the fact that words are not only a force for good in the world. They can be abused, misused and harnessed to facilitate and legitimize the greatest monstrosities and atrocities known to man. 

Notice that the greatest rabbi in Jewish history, Moshe Rabeinu, was not a man of words at all. On the contrary, Moses pleads before God, and reiterates time and again, “Lo eesh devarim anochi” (“I am not a man of words”). Rather, insists Moses in all earnestness, I am a man who is “aral sefatayim” (“of uncircumcised lips”), meaning — I, Moses, am no great orator. 

How striking it is that the Jewish people had a man devoid of verbal virtuosity as its greatest and choicest of leaders. I believe that by electing Moses as Judaism’s greatest spiritual figure, the Torah is conveying to us something profound, essential — and highly counterintuitive — about the duality of words and speech as double-edged swords.

Famously, the sages caution us that vile speech is tantamount to shedding blood, to character assassination. This caution about the potential corrupting usage of words offers a grave warning relevant to our most recent history. 

In the 20th century, some of Europe’s greatest minds and intellectuals used words as a means to justify radical evil. For example, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was an avid supporter of Stalin’s Soviet Union, and endorsed Stalin’s leadership for more than a decade between the mid-1940s and the late 1950s. And remember that it was Stalin who sent to their deaths some 20 million Soviets alone by deporting them to the Soviet concentration camps — the Gulags.

Another master of words, Martin Heidegger of Germany, also became an ardent supporter of a diabolical totalitarian regime, National Socialism. As the rector of the University of Freiburg, Heidegger had no qualms about expelling all the Jewish students and faculty from the academic institution, and would conclude his professorial addresses by passionately exclaiming, “Heil Hitler.” 

In addition to Sartre and Heidegger, there were at least another half a dozen leading European writers and scholars who espoused Nazism, Stalinism and Maoism. And more recently, Michel Foucault, arguably France’s most original thinker in the postwar era, enthusiastically endorsed and hailed the Islamic Revolution in Iran of the late 1970s.

To many, this “betrayal of the intellectuals,” the world’s greatest minds and thinkers who were expected by mainstream Europeans to serve as an intellectual protective shield, to harness their written and verbal virtuosity and genius, in order to serve humanity as voices of humanism, conscience and compassion, was shocking and inexplicable. By the end of the 20th century, humanity learned a bitter and frightful lesson: Words and thoughts are a double-edged sword, and words can be misused and abused in the most atrocious and dehumanizing of ways. 

Which brings us, finally, to a central theme and leitmotif in this week’s Torah portion, Tazria, as well in the succeeding parasha of Metzora.

The rabbinic commentators expound upon the skin ailment known in the Torah as tzara’at, to imply that an individual who was afflicted by this gruesome condition was suffering on account of an abuse of the God-given power of words and speech. Those who violate language, implies the Torah, are culpable of a grave offense against God and man. 

Therefore, asserts the Torah, such individuals are sanctioned by being temporarily removed from the bounds of normative society in order to heal and cleanse themselves, in order to spend a significant amount of time in reflection and contemplation and in thorough self-scrutiny and methodic soul-searching, such that they can later return to the public domain as constructive and positive members of society. 

So let us not be unconditionally magnetized and mesmerized by the seductive splendor of formidable rhetoric. Let us not only marvel at the aesthetic and intellectual glow of sublime oratory. Let us also scrutinize the underlying message of words and speech. 

This is a timeless lesson from this Torah portion, one which humanity learned the hard way, all too often, and all too tragically, during the volatile upheavals of the 20th century. Let us not repeat this mistake, be it on the political or inter-personal level. Shabbat Shalom. 

Rabbi Tal Sessler, Ph.D., is senior rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel. He is the author of several books dealing with philosophy and contemporary Jewish identity.

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