Soon enough, we will stand in synagogue hungry and self-deprecating if we are doing our jobs correctly. It will be Yom Kippur, and we will raise a closed fist to what we hope is an open heart and say words of contrition, apologies to those we love and hurt. We will think about the long and non-linear path to repentance. For a moment, please personalize this Al Chet: “…for the sin which we have committed before You with an utterance of the lips.” What comes to mind?
For me, any number of my own misstatements surface in an embarrassing mountain of personal speech failures, and those are only the ones I remember. There are words — thousands of them a year — that we say that can never be taken back. It is no wonder that a family member likes to say that every person gets an allotment of words in one lifetime. When you use all those words up, you die. How’s that as an incentive to keep your mouth shut? Oy, the utterance of the lips.
Two particular leadership utterances come to mind this year: statements about causality and about slippery slopes.
In the past many years, an anti-gay preacher told congregants that Hurricane Sandy was because of the marriage equality act. More than one rabbi publically attributed Hurricane Katrina’s devastating casualties to the evacuation of Jewish settlers from Gaza. A Muslim New York-based imam blamed America for the 9/11 attacks. A rabbi publically stated that the Holocaust happened because of Jewish Sabbath transgressors.
Maimonides writes that we must scour our deeds when bad things happen. He does not, however, say that someone else should do that for us. That’s an inside job. It’s time religious leaders get out of the casualty business and back to the cause business: ethics, prayer, consolation, study. Accusatory statements are a huge distraction to a clergy’s main order of business. Controversial, incendiary statements suck up psychic energy and precious time. Religious leaders are either stuck apologizing to others or defending themselves. What is to be gained when so much is to be lost?
It is a biblical prohibition to attribute a cause for someone else’s suffering: hona’at devarim. Words maim and damage, sometimes permanently. When said by a representative of the faith, they can cause the listener to abandon religion altogether, a causal relationship no one needs. Causality statements also hurt the institutions leaders represent. Individuals make statements that are associated with organizations. People wonder: is that the view of this synagogue, this Jewish nonprofit, this university? The biggest institution at peril is Judaism itself. Many years ago in Israel, a bus of middle school children was in a fatal accident. In the midst of collective mourning, a rabbi publically explained the accident: the boys on the bus were not wearing tefillin. This did not get anyone to wear tefillin. It may have inspired some people to stop wearing tefillin.
A subtler form of causality is the slippery slope argument. Labeling something a slippery slope suggests a series of events that move quickly, is hard to control and that lead in the direction of disaster. This was recently articulated by an influential rabbi who suggested that advanced women’s Jewish learning needs to be re-evaluated. It has led to too much acceptance of egalitarianism and homosexuality within traditional Judaism. Get off the slippery slope.
Problem: one thing always leads to another. We just don’t know what that other is. It’s pure speculation. And the fact that one thing leads to another is not always a bad thing. Sometimes we call this progress. One person’s slippery slope is another person’s ladder of opportunity. One of the early innovators of artificial intelligence, John McCarthy, said, “When I see a slippery slope, my instinct is to build a terrace.” Take it slowly. Create mindful way stations so that potential pitfalls are negotiated with skill.
Underlying the slippery slope argument is that we can and should turn back time, but just how far? Should we close universities to women or make sure that a woman’s dollar is worth even less than a man’s? Should we repeal women’s suffrage? It’s the slippery slope in reverse, and it ain’t pretty. It is also unrealistic. I don’t love cellphones. I think the Internet is often dangerous, but it’s here to stay. Harsh pronouncements don’t help anyone negotiate complex current realities. We need leaders to help us negotiate a more sacred reality in the here and now.
Religious leaders should not be in the causality business. Faith is strong, but people are weak. Things get misconstrued, and travel fast. One wrong utterance of the lips can do too much damage to an already fragile spiritual eco-system. So hold back before you hold forth. Please.
Erica Brown’s column appears the first week of the month.