The power of words
Words are the place where my identity as a storyteller converges with my Jewish soul. I’m not a Judaic scholar but I know that there is intrinsic logic between all Jewish ideas and that is what I look for*.
Words form ideas and ideas shape reality. The misuse of words, particularly deliberate perversion of meaning in order to promote political agendas is a pet peeve of mine (Palestine, feminism and hero are just a few examples).
In the creation story, God uses words in order to form the world. This tells us that there is a special power to words. Interestingly, humans, created in God’s image, also have some modicum of the power of words which we see in the story when man is given the responsibility of naming the animals. God gave the animals life but they became real to man after they were given names.
In the Harry Potter stories the characters are so afraid of the evil one that they call him “he who must not be named,” only those who consciously choose to face the danger name Voldemort – and in doing so minimize the power the fear holds over them. We can often see similar behavior in people who refuse to say the word “cancer,” instead saying alternatives like “the sickness,” as if this avoidance will minimize the danger in the disease.
Words matter. In the Jewish texts the choice of words is very deliberate and everything about them – their placement within the text, if they repeat in the same or other places etc. – provide us maps, guiding us on how to handle our lives.
The concept of not speaking “lashon hara”, literally “tongue that is bad”
Many Jewish ideas have been integrated into Christian ideas, enabling the Western world to be founded on Judeo-Christian ideas about how the world works and what are the correct ways to behave in the world. It seems to me that in the places where there are gaps, where ideas where not transferred over or incorrectly transferred, there are problems.
Lashon hara is a profound Jewish concept that has no comparative translation in English. I have seen this idea translated as an instruction to not speak evil, not lie or avoid gossip. None of these encapsulate the concept or explain why lashon hara is such a serious transgression that it can even be considered a form of atheism, of going against God – worse than idolatry, adultery, and murder (all of which are things we are commanded not to do in the 10 Commandments).
In the 10 Commandments we are commanded not to bear false witness. From this we learn that lying is wrong, particularly lying with the purpose of subverting justice. If lashon hara only referred to lying, we really wouldn’t need another term to explain the idea. Likewise, if the concept referred to evil speech it would include the word “evil” which it does not. In Hebrew “ra” means bad, not evil.
The concept also does not imply that we must not say harsh or negative things. Sometimes the truth is unpleasant. Sometimes it is necessary to say negative things in order to teach or even to prevent disaster.
So, what does “lashon hara” mean?
I understand “lashon hara” to be the opposite end of the spectrum of the creation story. God used words to create and saw that “it was good.” We are warned that, with words intended for bad (negativity with no positive purpose or simple untruths), we are speaking into reality a creation that is bad, perhaps literally undoing God’s creation that is good.
Words shape reality. Using our tongue for bad can create a nightmare.
The idea of not speaking lashon hara is much bigger than being “nice,” not gossiping or even not lying. It is more profound than understanding the negative effects of problematic language that is prevalent in social media or politics. It’s certainly not a call to police the language of others.
The seriousness of lashon hara as a transgression against creation itself is a lesson of personal responsibility. It is a reminder that the spark of the Divine in every individual and that every word we choose holds the power of creation. This is an awesome responsibility. Think about it and you may never want to speak again.
Each word is a tool of magic that can create or destroy. It is up to us to use our power wisely, to create a positive reality rather than one that is disastrous, chaotic and negative.
*Places where there doesn’t seem to be logic in Jewish teachings are places that we either don’t know enough to understand or have been corrupted by other people’s ideas and, once you go back to the origin, the logic suddenly becomes clear.