Speaking of Tongues, or, Lashon Hora is Not a Dance - Part One

August 28, 2018

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.


5 comments on “Speaking of Tongues, or, Lashon Hora is Not a Dance - Part One”

  1. I agree that the Jewish religious consciousness is more advanced than the Christian one here. Many years ago, in our early Christian experience, we learnt about words holding either death or life but unfortunately, it was from the narcissistic idea of creating a better life for ‘you.’ We left that behind us as we grew, theologically and spiritually but speech toward our fellow humans in general was not a great emphasis in most Christian circles. Years later, today, through your influence Rabbi, both my husband and myself are working on how we think about and handle the blessed gift of speech, from a less self-centred position, and of course also holding the blessed knowledge. Of course we are growing. It is so easy to shoot out words, even true words such as scripture, with wrong attitude that can damage or cause people to stumble. I believe understanding what it means that our fellow human beings are created in God’s image, as pointed out here, and that they themselves therefore should not be demeaned or dishonoured with our words, takes the whole issue away from ‘us.’ We must of course still speak truth but not with the entanglement of words or attitude that represent our self-importance and self-perception concerning our puny grasp of divine knowledge. Thank you Rabbi for addressing this rather diverse subject.

    1. Thank you so much Marilyn.

      This is a very much needed, convicting, and grossly neglected area of Christian and Messianic Jewish spirituality. Once one begins to explore how God takes these matters very seriously and once one begins to see how oblivious we are to our transgressions in this area, one is likely to be deeply affected. As I mentioned in this first installment on this subject, when I taught about this area as informed by Rabbi Telushkin's book. there was the kind of silence in the room that came from everyone realizing, "that's me too and it's terrible what I have learned to accept."

      Of course there is hope, but this can only come if there will be those who speak up in their communities for the need that this area of behavior be prayerfully, biblically, and meaningfully addressed. Certainly here in America, the communicational climate is toxic and polluted to an alarming degree.

      Thank you again for writing. I very much appreciate that you did and what you had to say.

  2. It is easy to agree with the generaL premise of speech degeneration in our times but difficult to assign a reason for it. One consequence of it is the divisions it causes and the trend to greater depths of abhorant speech that volleys of articulate and purposed speech combatants employ across the divides that deepen. We deed not bring up American politics as illustration of this.

    A subordinate premise in this is the relative value of contribution to speech ethics by Jews vs. Christians. That there is a difference or a greater value of one contribution over the other is a self defeating thing to offer in the subject of speech ethics, if I understand what that is and I am not so sure I do.

    Where a God is concerned it is necessary to stipulate that those who flock Christian, Jew, Muslim and .... are a collective of similar beliefs in a God or Gods that can be described statistically with specified certainty what that belief is in all facets of it so long as there is an honest statistician to perform the necessary analysis.

    Absent application of statistical tools there is only opinion nuanced by varying degrees of bias. As a Fully indoctrinated Catholic Christian of preVatican II age I would from that experience take immediate offense at suggestions of second status to Jews in any spiritual matter. I say that from a very cynical perch that the experience established for me by employing my God given independent and very analytical mind.

    I think the suggestion of value here is a mistake that defeats the issue and disturbs the construction of the greater task of building the bridge to which you have dedicated your life.

    Spiritual beliefs are notoriously held with great enough strength to precipitate wars and mass murder machines whose gears are greased with words that illustrate strong differences rather than comfort of commonality.

    I sincerely recommend you start your good intentions with a premise of equality not difference. Actually demonstrate that the God of Israel values speech ethics in the same way for all who will embrace him/her/it in honor and respect for the Almighty mystery we so poorly understand that we resort to words to describe so inadequate that we fight over them.

    If you seek to return civil discourse to politics or secular life I will join the army you muster. Good luck with the spiritual distinction i have suggested to be a risky one.

    1. Wow, Walter, what a magnificent letter. For those reading over our shoulders, Walter (who in my youth was ALWAYS Wally) grew up in the same Brooklyn neighborhood as me. We have known each other for about sixty five years!!). OMG, if everyone in our neighborhood went on to be as intelligent and articulate as you we could have changed and defined the world! Great letter.

      Like you, I went on to higher education, and my PhD is in Intercultural Studies. It was from under that hat that I was speaking of my comparison of Christian and Jewish cultures, NOT of their people. In my studies I was taught and affirm to this day that each culture has its strengths, and weaknesses, its foci and the things to which it may be judged to be somewhat blind. For example, years ago I traveled to India where I observed certain cultural characteristics functioning. I remember a man digging a hole, patiently, for hours in the hot Indian sun. It was clear that it would have never occurred to him to say, "I'm bored," because in his culture one does what one does because it is one's lot in life (a vestige of the caste system) and also one works as one does to avoid starving to death as so many others have. I also noted that Indian people are very devotional in their religiosity--a people who, regardless of the religion being practiced--do so with an intensity and purity of devotion that appears to be a cultural strength.

      In graduate and post-graduate studies, one of my professors remarked how, as a missionary in Africa in an agrarian clture (I forget where) he retold the story of OT Joseph, which story to westerners highlights the sovereignty of God, as in the famous quote from that story, "You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good," and, "It wasn't you who sent me here but God." After telling the story to these Africans, he asked them what they thought of the story. They said, "This was a man who looked after his family." My professor commented to us that their culture was very strong on familial bonds and familial caring to a degree that leaves most Westerners in the shade.

      So my LONG point is that I was speaking of relative emphases and strengths of different cultures, NOT of superior or inferior people! You touched on the same idea by referring to the cultural assumptions typical of being raised a Catholic pre-Vatican II. My now departed and beloved friend, Dr. Terry Esposito wrote her Psychology PhD Dissertation on the view of marriage and family among catholic clergy raised up pre-Vatican II as contrasted with those later, again, a shift if you will intra-culturally, within a culture.

      You refer to statistics and statisticians. This is something for which YOUR PhD work equips you. Let's just say I was out of the room when these matters were discussed! Your PhD is in the sciences, mine in the humanities, and statistically, I am a dunce!

      YES, (here it comes. . . pulling rank) as my recent book Converging Destinies: Jews, Christians, and the Mission of God demonstrates, I whole-heartedly agree with you that pre-Vatican II assumptions, still lingering I am afraid, assumed there was nothing that Judaism or Jews had of value to teach Roman Catholics. Post Vatican II that has shifted somewhat, and above all, we have John Paul II to thank for that, because in large measure he devoted his Papacy to kneading the presuppositions of Vatican II into the dough of Roman Catholic church life.

      You say, "I think the suggestion of value here is a mistake that defeats the issue and disturbs the construction of the greater task of building the bridge to which you have dedicated your life." I hope my long response helps you to see that I am not speaking of superior or inferior cultures, but rather of the inevitable fact of life that EACH culture has its points of resonance and focus and strength, and its areas where things are not as strong or focused. This is a fact of life, and is not a judgment on individuals or even groups of individuals. For example, there are atheists who are far more humane than others who pride themselves on their religious fidelity. While we have to be careful of sweeping generalizations, I don't think we can or should avoid heuristic observations (needed to use that big word to remind all that yes, I am as educated as you are!)

      You say further, "I sincerely recommend you start your good intentions with a premise of equality not difference." This is something I also learned in my studies. One of my PhD advisors, raised on the mission field by a very straight-laced no nonsense Protestant father, went on to be a missionary himself to Stone Age tribes people in Papua, New Guinea, a tribe that had only recently given up cannibalism. About them he told me this: "Many of the most important things I learned about God I learned from those people." This man is an Anthropologist with Conservative Baptist credentials, no fringy person. He, and all of my professors would agree that we must show deep respect for all cultures. They would also remind us that "equality" is NOT to be equated with "sameness."

      Not all cultures are the same. But none should be treated as inferior. On that I think we can agree.

      Now let's go play a game of stick ball. I'll bring the bat.

      1. You wrote: "Not all cultures are the same. But none should be treated as inferior. On that I think we can agree." Perhaps you and Walter might agree, but I'd like to analyze those statements a bit. Certainly we can agree that cultures are not all the same. That ought to be obvious. And perhaps we could agree that no person of whatever culture should be treated as inferior. But that cannot be extrapolated to say that all cultures are to be eigenvalued. Each culture might be evaluated for differing components, some of which have better or worse outcomes for their members. Even in the aggregate, some cultures must be recognized as more or less beneficial than others. Hence their value cannot be the same, just as their values may be more or less valuable from the biblical perspective by which we may recognize HaShem's evaluation of them. We know that HaShem's valuation of idolatry, for example, is negative in the extreme -- as a cultural trait that is inimical to Him. We may also analyze its effects anthropologically, in an attempt to understand why this may be so and what harm it brings to societies that practice it or hold its outlook. That standard may be applied to all humanity and not only to the Jewish family that is under covenantal commitment to Him. Therefore some cultures must be deemed superior while others are deemed inferior, and presumably some sort of ranking might be assigned to each in its aggregate expression, just as individual traits might be evaluated and ranked. Certainly one should not jump to empty presumptions about the superiority or inferiority of a given culture, nor evaluate it without careful analysis. But ultimately some cultures *must* be deemed superior or inferior; and the notion of redemption for humanity will comprise precisely the changes in culture that replace inferior attitudes, outlooks, beliefs, and practices with better ones.

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