I am working on two books right now. In view of all the invective hurtling through the air right now, and staining the pages of Facebook, I felt compelled to share with you some material from an early draft of what is likely to be the third chapter of one of those books, a discipling manual for Jewish Millennials. (The title is a secret!) It’s coming out in a year or less. 

In my opinion the material I am quoting below addresses matters that all Americans, and people everywhere need to consider. See if you don’t agree.Here goes. 

 

He was the Chairman of the Board of a reputable agency engaged in commending Yeshua-faith to Jewish people. So maybe it wasn’t nice for me to hit him in the head with a two by four . . . metaphorically, that is. Here’s how it happened.

We were chatting over a cup of coffee, and I made a side comment that that stunned him because in his world, such things were never even imagined. What I said was, I believe that when it comes to speech ethics, the Jewish religious culture is superior to Christian religious culture. His eyes rolled in his head. He grew pale and tremulous. But why? It was because he respected me and here I was saying that Jewish religious culture was better at something than Christian religious culture. Never in his now senior citizen life had he ever even imagined such a thought. For him, as for so many, the prevailing assumption was that  in every way Christianity is an advance over Judaism. Not so fast.

Especially in the last 100 years or so, with the contributions of Rabbi Israel Meir HaKohen Kagan, also known as the Chofetz Chaim, who was the supreme master of Jewish speech ethics, this area has developed a richness which most Christians never dream of.

Among Messianic Jews of our day, the best work I know of on speech ethics is a small book, Taming the Tongue, by Mark Kinzer.[1] Although much more concise than the works by the Chofetz Chaim, Kinzer’s work is penetrating in its analysis of how “The tongue has power over life and death” (Pr 18:21). Another work of penetrating power is Words That Hurt, Words That Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.[2] While Kinzer’s book derives its power from penetrating Scripture analysis, it is devastating contemporary illustrations that make Telushkin’s book both transformational and unforgettable. I once taught through this book at my synagogue and we all sensed that we had been nailed.

Why Bother?

Few will deny that public and private discourse are in sharp decline. Whether it is sexualized, violent, and misogynistic rap lyrics, rapid-fire denunciations and characterization on social media and in TV, radio, and the print media, the normalization of trash talk in the political arena and beyond. This is trickle down economics of the verbal kind. And the nursery rhyme was wrong when it said, “Sticks and stones many break my bones but words can never harm me.” In some ways, words are incalculably more harmful than any sticks or stones.

That’s why Kinzer is right to begin his treatment where the Bible begins, with the creation account about which the psalmist writes,  “By the word of ADONAI the heavens were made, and their whole host by a breath from his mouth” (Psalm 33:6).  And then at Sinai, the Jewish people are at the base of the mountain,  terrified to encounter God, tell Moses, “You, speak with us; and we will listen. But don’t let God speak with us, or we will die.”[3]And of course, at the heart of Jewish religious culture comes the admonition, “Hear O Israel!”  Again, it is the spoken word, rather than imagery, which is at the center of Jewish religious consciousness. And this helps us understand why Judaism is so very attentive to how human beings, made in the image of God, talk to and about each other.

Kinzer also reminds us that the emphasis on the power of speech in the mouths of humans comes early in Torah, with the creation of Adam, who exercised dominion (governing power), over the created order by speech, naming the animals that God brought before him. Somehow assigning a name established lines of authority and power, and the human being is the only terrestrial creation with the power of speech.

So it is true that words are powerful. And perhaps you will agree that today words are used more often to hurt than to heal, more often to divide than to unite. Neither the purposes of God nor the kind of living he requires can progress if such things remain unchanged. We need to take our powers of communication in hand, both constraining them against misuse and harnessing them for creative and life-giving purposes.

Kinzer points us to Matthew 12:33-37 as a powerful and chilling word from Yeshua of  Nazareth about our accountability to God for the words that we speak.

33 “If you make a tree good, its fruit will be good; and if you make a tree bad, its fruit will be bad; for a tree is known by its fruit.  34 You snakes! How can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what overflows from the heart. 35 The good person brings forth good things from his store of good, and the evil person brings forth evil things from his store of evil. 36 Moreover, I tell you this: on the Day of Judgment people will have to give account for every careless word they have spoken; 37 for by your own words you will be acquitted, and by your own words you will be condemned.” 

If we believe that Yeshua does not lie and that his word is truth, then this passage, should be all we need to make speech ethics a top priority in our walk with God. So let’s delve in for a few minutes and take a cursory glance at the riches of Jewish discussion about speech ethics. And this brings us to the realm of lashon hora.

And in our next blog we will talk about it.

[1] Mark Kinzer, Taming the Tongue (Marshfield, MO: First Fruits of Zion) 2015.

[2] Joseph Telushkin, Words That Hurt, Words That Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well (New York: W. Morrow and Co.), 1996.