I spent each of the last two evenings at a
. The first was sad - a beloved mother and grandmother. The second, the tragic loss of a young man - a son, grandson, brother, husband and father.
We prayed. And then, people told stories - loving stories, funny stories, healing stories. I was in a home filled with shattered hearts. The words of the story-tellers did not mend those broken hearts. But they surely helped. Their words were filled with intention, with care, with comfort. They felt like magic words. They did not have the power to bring the dead back to life. Except, in a way, they did.
"Words matter," is what I keep hearing from commentators covering the election campaign on the news programs I can't seem to bring myself to turn off.
It's a Jewish idea. That words have power has been a fundamental Jewish concept from the 3
sentence of the Torah: "Let there be light."
When the pundits say "words matter," they are not talking about words of consolation; they are reacting to hurtful, hateful words.
Words have the power to create, to connect, to heal, and to destroy. "Life and death are in the power of the tongue," says Proverbs.
I wonder what our kids take away from the words they hear in this campaign, and what guidance educators and parents can offer.
Jewish educators can be "cultural critics." Jon Levisohn, an educational philosopher at Brandeis University, suggests that educators help students navigate the world by helping them interpret it through a Jewish lens. Our task is not to separate ourselves or our students from the wider world. Rather, to participate fully, how can we apply Jewish wisdom to make sense of it and contribute to it?
Our colleagues at the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland developed a curriculum -
Election 2016: Through Jewish Eyes
which educators can download here
. Designed for middle schoolers, the curriculum offers three areas of focus - leadership, governance, and Jewish engagement in politics. While this campaign is coming to a close, its ripples will be felt for some time.
The strongest ripples may come not from the politics, but from the behaviors that have been on display. "Words matter" could be the title of a curriculum. The Jewish wisdom literature on speech is impressive and formidable. Jewish teaching on speech is among the most precious of inheritances our tradition offers us. It deserves a more prominent place in our educational agenda.
It includes laws and guidance on:
- True speech that causes harm or shame to another (lashon harah - bad speech);
- Gossip (rechilut) wherein we hear something hurtful and pass it along;
- Spreading harmful falsehoods (motzi shem rah - giving someone a bad name);
- Innuendo or sideways comments, "the dust of forbidden speech" (avak lashon harah);
- Words that hurt another in direct conversation (onaat devarim);
- Rebuke (tochechah) - "Love without criticism is not love," says the Talmud. When someone's behavior demands criticism, we are not permitted to "mind our own business;" nor are we permitted to publicly shame them.
The main target is language that
unintentionally causes harm. We're not mean, just careless.
This isn't limited to political candidates - it's in our own community, even among educators. The distance between Jewish teaching on speech and our behavior is vast.
Underlying the laws of speech is the idea that each human was created in the image of God (
). Talmudic sage Shimon Ben Azzai held that this is the core principle of Judaism. One need not believe in God to believe that we are all created in God's image.
Which is why, even when I thought I was beyond shock, this comment, from a candidate for President of the United States, shocked me:
"For the most part you can't respect people, because most people aren't worthy of respect."
This cries out for educational critique.
You know those old movies, when they develop a powerful weapon and a scientist warns - "if this ever gets into the wrong hands...?" The powerful weapon is words and the wrong hands can be ours. At last night's
, I heard the magic words and saw how, in the right hands, they can repair a broken world.